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An Invincible Summer

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When Naruto Uzumaki is five years old he accidentally creates a powerful ninjutsu, which he immediately labels Oiroke no Jutsu.

Three days later, a drunk civilian attacks and mortally wounds the young boy after hearing that he was to begin his education as a ninja at the Academy. When the ANBU arrive at the scene, there's so much blood that the status of the young boy is undeniable. Despite three days spent with Ibiki Morino, the civilian claims he has no idea where the body is. The body is never found.

Six months later, a girl by the name of Natsu Nami applies to enter the Academy.

~

Sarutobi looks down at the small girl standing respectfully in front of him, her head bowed. Her hair is pale blond, almost the color of ash, and the glimpse of her eyes he's managed to get had revealed them to be a blue so dark they'd reminded him of the Uchiha. "Natsu, was it?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," she says. This is normally one of the joys of his positions, he loves the looks of happiness in children's faces when he admits them.

Ever since Naruto was killed, he's found it very difficult to find joy in anything.

He puffs at his pipe, looking down at the exam with the girl's name scrawled across the top. "You did very well. I haven't seen such impressive scores from a civilian applicant in years."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama."

"However, I do have some concerns," he says, and he tries to be gentle, but the girl flinches. "You claim to be an orphan, and yet there is no record of you ever being at the orphanage."

She swallows, "I was not raised at the orphanage. I was taken in by, well, the Flower District. I was given food, clothing, and training. I have no complaints about my time spent there."

Sarutobi feels his blood boil, because of course he's well aware of the robust economy of the seediest district in Konoha, but Natsu is a child -

"Training?" he repeats softly, and at his tone the girl looks up, dark eyes wide.

"Oh, don't worry Hokage-sama! You don't need to look scary. All - well, most of my training has been theoretical. I can - I mean, I've," she tugs on the end of her long ponytail, looking frustrated, and something comes loose in the Sandaime's chest at her scrunched up face. "I mean, I can cook, and dress, and - oh, like this!" With no other warning, the girl places her hands on the front of his desk and heaves herself up, flipping up her legs so that she's doing a handstand. Just as smoothly she raises herself up a couple extra inches, and Sarutobi is treated to the sight of the girl balancing her whole weight on a single index finger. He knows a few chunin who can't do that without using chakra, and he finds himself smiling as Natsu neatly flips herself backwards so she's standing in front of him again, beaming.

"I see," he says, eyes crinkling at the corners, "You have excellent balance, Natsu."

She blushes, says, "Total control of one's body is required for all things," and that's a prostitute's proverb, but it translates to the life of a ninja seamlessly.

"You do understand that as a kunoichi, you may be required to perform similar duties as a woman of the Flower District?" he asks, because given her background it's almost guaranteed that if she makes it to chunin they'll send her on infiltration missions.

"The pay is better, at least," Natsu says, and the Sandaime coughs to hide his laugh, even as he gives in and signs his name on the bottom of her form.

"You'll have to work very hard, Natsu. Most children start the Academy at five, which means you're three years behind," he says as he hands over her entrance ticket.

She clutches it to her chest, grin and eyes wide. She bows deeply before saying, "I will! I won't let you down, Hokage-sama!"

The eight year old girl runs from his office, and once the door closes he rests his elbows on his desk.

Naruto would be halfway through his first year at the Academy, if he were still alive.

With that thought heavy on his heart, he gets started on the day's paperwork.

~

Natsu sits in the middle of the playground, smoothing her fingers across Sandaime's signature.

She can't believe this is working. The old man knew Naruto better than anyone, and she was so sure that he'd call her out the minute he saw her. But he didn't! And he let her into the Academy! She was still going to fulfill her dream of being a ninja! She knew making Natsu older than Naruto had been a good idea - the old man hadn't even suspected her.

Those two weeks of almost dying were totally worth it. And so were those five months of hanging around Madame Koi's parlor even more than usual, learning more about anatomy and other things than she'd really wanted to know.

She hugs her admittance ticket, so happy she could burst. She almost wants to be angry at the fox inside of her for making everyone hate her. But that same fox revealed itself while she was dying and saved her life, gave her the opportunity to have this feeling right now, so she supposes it's not all bad.

"Hey!" Natsu looks up. A brown haired girl who'd thrown rocks at Naruto and called him a monster is smiling at her. "We're playing tag. Do you want to play too?"

Natsu stuffs the form in her pocket, "Sure!"

Naruto Uzumaki may have died that day, but Natsu Nami is alive and well.

~

Suzume stands in front of the Sandaime, opens her mouth, closes it. She crosses her arms, looks at the ceiling, then looks back down at the hokage. "Is this a joke? A test of some sort?"

He raises an eyebrow.

"That Nami girl. The civilian you granted late admittance."

"Has there been a problem?" he asks, "Is she not keeping up with her classmates? It has only been a few months."

She stares at him like he's an idiot. He hasn't been the focus of such a stare in many years. It's refreshing.

"She's outpacing them," Suzume frowns, "Her genjutsu is flawless, her ninjutsu nearly the same. Have you checked the girl's chakra levels? They're insane. For the first few weeks I thought she was hopeless, just no real control to speak of, but then I had her try to make some jutsus, just to see - she made two bunshins that were pathetic, but then she filled the classroom with one hundred perfect clones. Her biggest weakness is her taijutsu, which is admittedly abysmal, but it's not as if it matters because no one can hit her! She's incredibly strong and flexible, and she simply dodges her opponent with the most ridiculous gymnastic moves I've seen in years. Once they've tired themselves, then she attacks, and maybe she can only reliably land one hit, but one hit is all she needs!"

Sarutobi removes the pipe from his slack mouth before it falls out. "Ah," he settles on finally. "How are her kunoichi skills?"

Suzume snorts, "The girl was raised in a brothel. There's nothing I can teach her in that area."

He rubs his thumb across the wood of his pipe. "What do you believe should be done?"

"Private tutoring," the woman answers immediately, "In ninja history and the Shinobi Rules, as well as her taijutsu and chakra control. Then, if she has advanced sufficiently - which I'm fully confident she will - have her sit the Graduation Exam."

"After only a year?"

"Yes," Suzume says, "she's a genius."

Sarutobi sighs. The word genius is not used lightly. The last person it was applied to was Itachi Uchiha, who'd graduated the academy just after turning seven and was currently a jounin at the age of eleven.

"Very well," he says, a half-plan, half-hope forming in his mind, "Then she will be trained by a genius. Have her report to me tomorrow morning."

Suzume bows. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

~

Itachi was not in the habit of questioning the hokage's orders. "What?"

The Sandaime wasn't laughing at him, but it certainly felt like it. Before he can repeat his query in a more respectful manner, the door opens, and in walks a little girl a couple of years younger than him. She has on black leggings and a tight, dark purple tunic, and her ash blond hair is pulled up in a bun on top of her head. She closes the door behind her, facing the ground, and shuffles forward. She's twisting the material of tunic in her hands, and her shoulders are hunched up to nearly around her ears.

Sarutobi looks baffled, "Natsu? What's wrong?"

She looks up, and there are tears on the surface of eyes that wouldn't look out of place on his clansmen. "I'm sorry Hokage-sama! Please give me another chance, I'll work harder! I'll read all the boring books and do the stupid katas, and - and - and," she's nearly hyperventilating, pulled between desperation and devastation. Itachi's got a little brother at home; he can't just stand here and watch a kid cry.

He drops to his knees beside her and grabs her hands. She looks down at him and he says, "Nami-san, please calm down. There is no reason to cry." As soon as he's said that it occurs to him that maybe she's crying because she doesn't want to be trained by the scary Uchiha prodigy. He's about to back away when she nods sharply, sucking in a big breath and holding it until her face is bright red. "Let it out," he coaxes, and almost wants to smile at the ridiculous face she's making, but she does as he asks, breathing out in one heavy sigh.

"Now," Sarutobi says, eyebrows drawn together in concern, "what was that about?"

"Please don't kick me out of the Academy!" she blurts, pulling her hands away from Itachi to face the hokage. "I promise I'll try harder, I'll be better, I will. Just - give me another chance."

Itachi looks over at Sandaime, eyebrows raised. The older man at least looks a little embarrassed. "Ah, Natsu, there's been a misunderstanding. I'm not kicking you of the Academy. Just the opposite. You're doing so well that we want to give you private tutoring."

"I'm doing well?" Natsu repeats, dumbfounded. Itachi has the urge to find whoever was in charge of the care of this girl, and ... give them a stern talking to. Terrify them a bit, because he'd never harm a civilian, but they don't need to know that.

"Very well," Sarutobi says warmly, “Well enough that we think you can take the graduation exam at the end of the year, if you study and work hard with your tutor."

"I will!" She beams, "I'll work super hard, and be the best kunoichi ever!"

Sarutobi leans back in his chair, and he looks the happiest he's been since that Uzumaki kid was killed (and that had been another instance where Itachi had needed to repeat to himself that he didn't harm civilians, because that kid had been the same age as his brother, what was wrong with people). "I believe you, Natsu. This is your tutor, Itachi Uchiha."

Natsu turns to him, eyes wide. It seems his name has preceded him, so he bows shallowly and says, "Nami-san, I will do my best to instru-"

"Itachi-sensei!" He's got skinny arms around his neck, and he closes his arms around her on reflex, eyes wide, because besides Sasuke no one touches him. "Thank you so much!" She pulls back so she can give him a clumsy bow of her own. "But don't call me Nami-san, that makes me sound old! I'm only eight!"

"Then I must insist you don't call me sensei," he blinks, and he thinks he might be smiling, "I'm only eleven."

"But you're still teaching me! That makes you Sensei," the little girl argues.

He's definitely smiling, "I'm only teaching you sometimes, so it's not right to give me the full title of sensei."

She glares at him, eyes squinting and hands on her hips. "All right," she declares finally, "I will call you Itachi-senpai."

"In that case, I suppose I will call you Natsu-chan," he says, then winces because maybe that's too familiar for a girl he's just met -

"YAY!" She grabs for his hand, "Can we start right now, Itachi-senpai? Please please please?"

"I suppose," he answers, because it's not like he has anything to do until Sasuke gets out of the Academy, "Can you perform shunshin?" She nods so hard her bun becomes loose. "Meet me at training ground four. I'll be there momentarily."

"Okay!" She's gone in a swirl of leaves.

Itachi turns to Sarutobi. The older man grins, "I take it that you have no objections?"

Well aware he's been manipulated, but not sure why or how, he simply says, "No, Hokage-sama."

"Best get going then. You wouldn't want to keep Natsu waiting."

"Yes, Hokage-sama." He's certain he catches the beginnings of the Sandaime's laughter as he body flickers away.

~

Itachi comes in with his first progress report a month later. His shoulders are loose and the ever present bags underneath his eyes are barely there. Sarutobi feels absurdly pleased with himself.

"Her chakra control is horrifying," he starts off with, "She has so much of it that she can get away with performing most techniques, but that's not a sustainable habit. In fact, I believe much of her success with ninjutsu can be attributed to her chakra stores rather than any real skill on her part. However, I've had her working on water walking, and she's been improving at a slow but acceptable rate. As long as she does not harbor desires to be a medic-nin, I foresee no long term problems in this area. Her taijutsu is also improving - she clearly puts many hours into her training in between our sessions - but her instinct is always to evade and retreat instead of pushing forward. If she cannot retrain this instinct and become more versatile, she will leave herself open to many attacks."

"And her history lessons?" he asks. Itachi winces, and he bites on his pipe to keep from smiling.

"She's trying," he starts off with, and Sarutobi can't wait until Itachi is old enough to have his own genin team. It's the one aspect of ninja life he'd probably enjoy. "She has below average reading comprehension and writing ability for her age, likely due to her upbringing. However, she is a diligent student, and her competence rises every time I see her. She has a good auditory memory, and can recall most facts if I lecture her on a subject instead of having her read about it."

The Sandaime taps his pipe on his desk, "Overall assessment?"

"Her progress is acceptable," Itachi announces, "With proper training, she will make an extremely formidable ninjutsu specialist. I would like to teach her sealing."

Sarutobi blinks, "Sealing?"

"Nami means wave," Itachi frowns, "It’s a common name in the Land of Water, and her bone structure reminds me very much of the ninja of Uzugakure. I believe she may have ancestors there. The village was famed for their sealing techniques; if she turns out to be proficient in the art, it may one day be a - a comfort to her."

The hokage looks at the gentle boy who, for all that he does not seem to enjoy being a ninja, still carries the name Uchiha with pride, and wants Natsu to be able to feel something similar. "That sounds like an excellent idea. Do you need assistance in teaching her?"

He shakes his head, "No, Hokage-sama. I am competent in the basics."

"Very well. I'm satisfied with your progress as Natsu's tutor. You are dismissed."

Itachi bows before leaving in a poof of smoke. Sarutobi leans back in his chair, and thinks that maybe they haven't ruined Itachi.

Or maybe they have, and that's fine. Natsu can save him.

~

"SENPAI!"

Itachi is walking his brother home when he hears the familiar yell. He looks down at Sasuke and says, "Don't worry, she's a friend."

Sasuke blinks, but before he has time to question it Natsu is falling from above, her feet planting themselves firmly on Itachi's shoulders. He's just grateful she's learned to cushion her impact with chakra, "Hello, Natsu-chan." He doesn't bother to look up at the girl standing on him.

"Woah," the girl says, "I didn't know you came in mini size." She slips so she's sitting, and in the same motion falls and twists herself so she's hanging upside down against his chest with her legs thrown over his shoulders. This puts her to roughly the correct height so she can look his little brother in the eye.

Itachi can't help but think it would have been easier for her to simply get down and kneel.

"Outoto, this is Natsu Nami. I've been helping her train. Natsu-chan, this is my brother, Sasuke."

"Hello," Sasuke says, eyes wide, "It's nice to meet you. You're very pretty."

Natsu's mouth falls open, and Itachi has to grab onto her thighs to keep her suddenly slack body from falling to the ground head first. "Really?" she asks, voice quieter than Itachi has heard it in months.

Sasuke nods, solemn, "Really. Aniki doesn't usually hang out with pretty girls, just scary ones."

Itachi quickly edits his chant of 'do not harm civilians' to include 'or big mouthed little brothers.'

Natsu pulls Itachi's hands away so she can flip and land in a graceful crouch in front of his brother. "Thank you! That's really sweet of you to say!"

Sasuke is slowly in the process of turning a dark shade of red. "Natsu-chan," Itachi sighs, "did you need something?"

"Oh, yeah," she stands up and pulls out a scroll, "I want to do some more reading on sealing, but I need a senior ninja's permission to check them out of the library. I thought of asking Hokage-sama, but that seemed like overkill."

"A little," Itachi agrees, mouth twitching as he accepts the pen she hands him, "How is your sealing going?"

"You tell me," she says. For the past couple weeks Itachi has been using sealing scrolls and explosion tags made by her.

He hands the scroll back, and tries not to think about what Natsu could get up to with the information in Chakra Fission and Degradation unsupervised. Luckily, while her practical and theoretical knowledge has advanced enough that she can understand the book, her reading comprehension hasn't. Itachi knows he's going to be spending a significant portion of his free time being stalked by Natsu until he agrees to help her read it. "They've all worked perfectly," he praises, "although I was surprised when the smoke from the explosion tags was purple."

"It's my color," Natsu says seriously. "Anyway, I'm going to go to the library before it closes. Thanks Itachi-senpai! Nice meeting you Sasuke!" She pats his brother's head before she shunshins away.

Sasuke looks up at him, still blushing bright red. Itachi sighs and pokes his forehead, "She's too old for you. Give it a rest for a few more years, for my sake."

"Aniki!" he shouts, scowling and pushing his hand away as they continue to walk home. Less than minute later Sasuke twines their fingers together, though, so he assumes he's forgiven.

~

Natsu knows that being worried about the Graduation Exam is silly. Under Itachi-senpai her chakra control has improved to the point where she can even make as few as ten bunshin, and her taijutsu is even pretty good (Senpai gets this pinched look in his eyes when they spar and says that she needs to learn to face things head on, that she can't always retreat). Her reading is better, although she's well aware it's not good enough, but it's certainly more than enough to take the exam.

She knows all this. There's no way she won't pass. Sitting surrounded by kids that are three years older than her (six years older, really, but she's not sure it really counts anymore when she's been playing at being older for so long, even claiming her ninth birthday to have been a few months ago at the height of summer) she twitches in her seat and tugs on her hair and just wants this to be over.

Two hours later it is, and she hugs Suzume before attaching her hitai-ate and runs screaming from the building. She closes her eyes, feels for the familiar pull and - there! She body flickers away, and it's only when she appears in the hokage's office that's bursting with Anbu and sees Itachi kneeling to accept a porcelain mask that it occurs to her that she maybe should have double checked to see what she was body flickering into.

"Ah," she says, "I'll just-" and disappears.

Itachi's eyes are wide. The Sandaime is holding his head in his hands.

"Uh," the Anbu with a dog mask says, "Isn't it supposed to impossible to shunshin into your office? I mean, I've left it enough times that way - but never quite managed -"

"The chakra barrier is still up," a Hyuuga Anbu confirms, "No one should be able to body flicker in."

"Oh, the things that can be accomplished through ignorance of their impossibility," Sarutobi says, "I suppose we'll have to do some experimenting later."

Itachi twitches. If Sarutobi makes her do something as 'boring' as body flicker in and out of his office for hours on end, he knows exactly who she's going to complain to about it. Suddenly, being promoted to Anbu and sent on a life threatening mission outside the village doesn't seem so bad.

"Hokage-sama, who was that?" the Hyuuga demands.

"Ah, that would be Natsu Nami. It appears that she's passed her graduation exam, if the hitai-ate around her neck was any indication."

There's another long silence. Itachi is almost beginning to enjoy this. "A genin managed to bypass your chakra barrier?"

"Well, she's not a genin until her jounin instructor passes her," the Sandaime says thoughtfully, "So I guess technically she's still an academy student."

And another dumb silence. Itachi side-eyes Sarutobi. The old man is definitely enjoying this.

~

Natsu Name, age 9. Drawn by: jenzwashere

Natsu Nami, age 9. Drawn by jenzwashere

~

Inoichi doesn't want a genin team, he doesn't have the time. The Hokage ignores his protests like he doesn't hear them, and Inoichi finds himself with three files in his hands and not completely certain how he let himself get talked into this.

He sighs and glances through them on his way to meet the brats. He's got the Inuzuka clan heir, Hana, and she's also the Rookie of the Year, which is just great. He has to give the kids at least the appearance of a fair shot or Tsume will kill him, and it's not like an Inuzuka is any stranger to teamwork. Some kid who's fifteen, Kabuto Yakushi, and all his other team members have been promoted to chunin so he needs a new team. He'll definitely know the point of the genin test if he's already passed it. It looks like his only hope of not getting saddled with a bunch of genin is Natsu Nami, a nine year old prodigy and orphan who's graduated the Academy after only attending it for a year, and been personally tutored by Itachi Uchiha.

Inoichi hangs his head. To borrow a word from his dear friend, troublesome.

~

Kakashi's side still aches from getting a sword run through it on his last mission, which is why he's running through katas at a snail's pace in a deserted training ground. If asked, it's also why he'll claim he does nothing to stop the purple and blond ball of fear from slamming into him and knocking him to the ground.

"You have to help!" the girl sitting on his chest says urgently, and Kakashi blinks, dazed, and thinks that if anyone finds out some brat got the drop on him he can kiss his badass reputation goodbye. "Please, Shinobi-san, I need your help!"

"With what?" He pushes himself up, and the kid slides down from chest to his lap. She looks oddly familiar. "You shouldn't attack senior ninja, kid, I could have hurt you."

"You need to say you'll help first, then I'll tell you," she declares.

He stares, "Kid, that's not even close to how this works."

She scowls and hits the flat of her palm against his chest, "Shinobi-san! It's nothing bad, but you can't change your mind after, because I'm screwed."

Kakashi raises an eyebrow at her, and then mourns the fact that keeping his face mostly covered means he's ruined the effect. He flicks her hitai-ate, “You’re a ninja, what do you need my help for?”

“I’m not strong enough, and I need your help!” She scowls and crosses her arms over her chest, “You’re a Konoha ninja too, so you have to help me!”

Kakashi rubs the back of his head. The brat in his lap keeps glaring at him, and he sighs. “Okay, okay. What do you need help with?” If it’s too much of a pain, well, she has to learn that ninja lie some time.

“Him!” She points back from the direction she’d come from. He looks up and sees an enraged Inoichi Yamanaka covered in purple glitter running towards them. The end of the man’s hair is singed and smoking, and about half a foot shorter than when he’d seen the clan head last.

“NATSU!” he howls, “GET BACK HERE!”

“Holy shit,” Kakashi breathes. He swings the kid onto his back and dodges the barrage of kunai Inoichi throws at them. He’s also just realized where he’d recognized her from – it’s the same brat who’d body flickered into the hokage’s office a couple of days ago. “Is this your genin exam?”

“Yes,” she says, arms around his neck, “It was going really well until it wasn’t.”

Kakashi snorts. Inoichi finally stops in front of them, chest heaving. “Kakashi, always a pleasure. If you’d just hand over that brat, that’d be great.”

“Mah, I guess I shouldn’t get involved with a genin exam,” he agrees. However, he’s going to tell this story to literally anyone who will stay still for long enough.

Inoichi lunges for her. Natsu tightens her arms on his neck and whines in his ear, “Shinobi-san, you promised!”

It’s dumb. It’s ridiculous. But for a split second the child on his back sounds like another small, grinning blond, and the thought of his sensei’s son still makes his throat tight and fury lick inside his chest. Which is probably why he ducks Inoichi’s grip, and then twists his body to deliver a powerful kick to the man’s stomach. “I did not promise,” he says, shifting into a defensive stance and trying not to think of bright blue eyes and a room bathed in blood. The one day there hadn’t been any spare ANBU to watch over him -

“It was implied,” Natsu says, smug and delighted in his ear, “Let’s kick his butt!”

Inoichi has gotten to his feet and is eyeing him warily. “Kakashi?”

“I guess I promised,” he says apologetically, and fighting a jounin for some dumb genin definitely does not count as ‘taking it easy’ but will at least be more interesting than stupid-slow taijutsu stances.

The older man glares, but the effect is somewhat lessened by the shimmering purple glitter covering his person. Natsu had honestly earned a hand just because of that. “Very well,” he says stiffly, and then he moves.

Kakashi may be one of the best ninja in the village, but so is the Yamanaka clan head. He’s hindered by the kid clinging to his back, and his side is definitely doing more than twinging as they twist and hit and block each other. They’re both hindered by the fact that they’re not seriously trying to harm each other. Kakashi has started to work up a sweat, and is thinking that maybe he should take up Gai’s offer of training together, when Inoichi ducks under his arm and twists close enough that they’re nearly nose to nose. As their eyes meet, Kakashi knows he’s going to be exposed to one of the Yamanka clan’s special brand of mind jutsu, and the very last place he wants anyone is inside his head, he doesn’t even want to be inside his own head, fuck

“Careful!” Small, soft hands cover his eyes, and it breaks the beginning of the jutsu enough that Kakashi can blindly lash out and push Inoichi to the side, “He knocks people out by looking at them!”

She keeps her hands over his eyes, but calls out, “Right kick, ninety seven degree angle!” He listens, because what the hell, and feels his shin connect solidly with Inoichi’s forearm. “Left punch, three inches right!” and so on, and he hits every time, which shouldn’t be possible because Inoichi knows where he’s going, obviously, so she must be figuring where he’s going to end up before she even calls it, and that’s almost impressive enough on its own that maybe she does deserve her genius label. “Fall back!” she calls, but even as he steps away she’s lifting herself up. She uses his shoulders as a springboard to jump onto Inoichi. Kakashi opens his eye to see the girl slapping an explosion tag onto the older man’s forehead, landing with one foot on top of Inoichi’s head, and jumping away back onto Kakashi. She lands against his chest and dangles against him with her arms around his neck.

“Shit,” Kakashi says, torn, because if a genin manages to blow up a clan head they’re going to be in so much trouble.

Inoichi grabs for the tag. It goes off. Kakashi throws himself to the ground and covers Natsu’s body with his own.

When there’s no heat of an explosion or bloody body parts hitting him, Kakashi shifts to look behind him. Inoichi, perfectly intact, is covered from head to toe in bright purple dye. He’s got a peculiar look on his face which Kakashi interprets from personal experience as I’m still alive, but it might not be worth it.

Natsu wriggles out from under him, and promptly starts giggling. “Why you-!” Inoichi hisses, and takes a step toward them.

“Nuh uh!” Natsu says cheerfully, “If that had been a real explosive tag, you’d be dead. I win!”

Kakashi stands, Natsu still clinging to him like a limpet. She scrambles up so she’s sitting on his shoulders, and he should really tell her to get lost, but he’s still wrapping his mind around a nine year old almost killing Inoichi Yamanaka. He cannot wait to tell Shikaku about this. “You had help, you cheated,” Inoichi says, pointing at Kakashi.

“There’s no such thing as cheating as long as you win,” Natsu says, and the brat’s not wrong.

The clan head glowers, “Well you may have beaten me, but you still don’t pass.”

“What?” she demands, “That’s not fair!”

He crosses his arms, still dripping purple dye. “You may have worked with your teammates in the beginning, but once they were of no use, you abandoned them in order to ensure your own victory.”

Kakashi shifts, uncomfortable, and he knows at nine he hadn’t learned this lesson either, but still –

“I did not!” she glares, “You knocked them out, so I ran away and you followed me! I drew away the threat.”

Inoichi frowns, “You left them passed out on the ground. That’s as good as dead.”

“I did not!” If she wasn’t on Kakashi’s shoulders she’d stamp her foot, “You knocked them out, so I distracted you with the glitter bomb and then tied them up and hid them! Then I ran to get you away, and I found Kakashi-niichan! An ally! I got an ally and we worked together and we won! So I do to pass!”

“You-” Inoichi stops, blinks, and then runs in the direction he came from. Kakashi, compelled by morbid curiosity, follows. Natsu doesn’t protest, just grabs at his head so she doesn’t fall off. When they stop, Inoichi is staring at a tree at the edge of training ground seven. “Kai,” he says softly, the place along the lowest branches shimmers, then shatters. Laying on the lowest branches and tied to the trunk so they don’t fall off are a completely unconscious Inuzuka girl and a boy with grey hair and large glasses. “You pass,” the older man admits, looking a little dazed.

“I PASS!” She wraps her arms around the top of Kakashi’s head, “Thank you so much, Kakashi-niichan! I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Niichan?’ he repeats. He reaches up and around to pluck Natsu from his back and he holds her in front of him by the back of her tunic.

She nods, “We almost have the same hair, and you helped me even though you didn’t need to. And we worked really well together. So you’re Kakashi-niichan!”

The last time he let himself become attached to a kid, that kid was gutted by an angry, drunk civilian. He should absolutely tell this nosy, presumptuous brat to stick it where the sun don’t shine and leave him the hell alone.

“Whatever,” he rolls his eyes and lets her drop. She lands neatly on her feet and smiles up at him.

~

“Nice color.”

Inoichi looks down into his drink, then looks up at the bartender who has very nicely not been laughing at him, and doesn’t looks at the man sitting down next to him. “I’ll have another.”

The bartender nods, and Shikaku leans his elbow on the bar and drops his chin into his hand, “Come on now, it’s not that bad. It matches your complexion.”

“I hate you,” he says, “I hate you, and I hate the hokage, and fucking Kakashi Hatake, and that stupid brat.”

“Don’t be like that,” Chouza says cheerfully, sitting down on his other side, “Why, I fondly remember my days with my own little genin squad. It’s a time of growth and learning for everyone. It builds character!”

“Chouza,” Inoichi forces himself to say evenly, “Your teachings produced Ebisu and goddamned Gai.”

“Genma’s pretty normal though,” Chouza sighs, “I never could get through to that boy.”

Inoichi drops his head to the table.

"Oh, come on," the Akimichi clan head cajoles, "I've met the little genius girl before. She nearly out ate me at Ichiraku's Ramen stand. Clearly she's destined for great things!"

Shikaku pats Inoichi's shoulder, then grabs the end of his friend’s ponytail to inspect it more closely. “Are you going to redye it, or just leave it like this? Because if nothing else I’m sure your daughter will be thrilled. Purple is her favorite color.”

“Hate,” Inoichi moans, “I’m a fountain of hate.”

~

Hana is furious about her genin exam. She tells her mother what happened, from meeting the gentle and solemn Kabuto and the cheerful Natsu to waking up to find out she’d passed, but only because of the efforts of a little girl younger than herself. She’d been weak and useless, and she’d needed her teammate to carry her.

Her head is bowed as she waits for her scolding, for her punishment, because she is the Inuzuka heir and she should be better than this.

Her mother places a gentle hand on her head, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Inoichi had no interest in taking on a genin team, and he didn’t play fair because of it.”

“Mom?” she says, uncertain and confused.

Tsume runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair, “He used clan techniques to knock you out when he was supposed to be testing your teamwork. I was honestly expecting to have to petition the hokage to allow you to retake the test with an instructor who wouldn’t sabotage you. I’m satisfied with this outcome, and I’m pleased that you have a teammate who not only prioritizes completing the mission, but ensures her teammates are safe.”

Hana beams and tackles her mom in a hug, which the older woman returns gladly. “Can I invite Natsu and Kabuto over for dinner? Please?”

“Of course,” Tsume says warmly. The Nami girl had dyed Inoichi’s hair purple; she deserved a feast.

When the two enter her home less than a week later, she sees the hesitant and wary way they look around, and that just won't do.

"You must be Kabuto and Natsu," she says when they turn to her. She interrupts their polite bows by grabbing them both in a hug tight enough to strain their ribs and lifting them off the ground. Hana slaps her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. Tsume settles them back on their feet and ruffles their hair. They both look stunned. "I'm Tsume! I've heard good things about you two. I hope you like barbeque."

"Uh, yes," Kabuto says, blushing a bright red. Natsu is staring at her in a kind of fragile awe, and these two are so clearly alone that it makes her heart ache.

These lonely kids are her daughter's teammates, and Natsu at the very least has shown herself to know the basics of loyalty. Full adult ninja or not, she's not about to let these children be on their own in life, with no people to call their own. "Great!" She steers them into the dining room, her daughter and son trailing behind her, "Tell me about how training is going. Inoichi's such a hard ass, right?"

Natsu laughs, and a good team is a family, is pack, and Tsume will do everything she can to ensure that Hana's team is a good one.

~

Kakashi doesn't really feel like having this conversation with the hokage, who he's pretty sure will laugh at him, so that only leaves him with one other option.

He ends up tracking him down in the library, and Kakashi hasn't been here since he was developing the Chidori. He settles into the chair opposite Itachi. The Uchiha heir closes his book and places it carefully on the table before meeting his gaze. "Yes, Hatake-san? Are we being sent out?"

"No," Kakashi crosses his arms and glares. Itachi raises an eyebrow, and the effect is so much cooler than when Kakashi does it. He sighs, "Natsu Nami."

Itachi almost smiles. "Ah. Yes, she did mention you."

He taps his fingers on the table top, "She roped me into her genin exam."

"She was quite pleased with your assistance," the boy agrees.

Kakashi stares. "She used me as springboard. She stood on me. She dyed Inoichi Yamanaka's hair purple. She called me Niichan!"

"Yes," Itachi blinks.

"What the fuck?"

If Kakashi ever tries to tells this to anyone, they won't believe him, but at that Itachi throws his head back and laughs.

~

Kabuto's not sure what to make of his new genin team. Inoichi clearly would rather stab himself in the eye than train them, but also clearly considers it his duty to ensure they don't get either themselves or anyone else killed.

He's used to being resented for being older, and then for being too weak. He's not, but Orochimaru-sama needs him to pretend to be, and he'll do anything for Orochimaru-sama. But Hana is terrifying and friendly, and is more interested in pestering him to teach her anything and everything he knows about medical jutsus than she is in making fun of him.

Natsu's just a kid, but she's a prodigy, has the likes of Itachi Uchiha as her tutor and is apparently friendly with the freaking hokage as well. She should resent his presence, should consider him the weak link. On a team with the Yamanaka clan head, the Inuzuka heir, and her, she should hate him for dragging her down and holding her back.

She doesn't, or if she does she's hiding it really well. She considers everyone around her to be her personal resting perch, and spends more time balancing on the top of his head by her fingertips chattering on about sealing than anything else. She's eager to learn and to train, and instead of holding her jutus and skills close to her chest she shares them eagerly.

Hana and Natsu are nice and cheerful, and seem determined to drag him along with them instead of leaving him behind.

~

Natsu is on her way home from a day of training, body pleasantly sore but still itching to do something. This is normally a sign to go irritate Itachi-senpai, but he's out of the village on a mission. She's just considering a night spent experimenting with storage seals when she senses a familiar chakra signature. Natsu follows it into the market, which is in the midst of winding down from a busy day. It's been over a year, but she still can't get over the bright smiles and respectful nods she gets in the market these days. As Naruto, he'd gotten chased out with rotten vegetables pelted at him. Which, hey, free food, but still.

She sees her target standing alongside another jounin with a weird haircut next to old lady Kisa’s meat stall.

"Kakashi-niichan!" she screeches, jumping onto his back. His shoulders slump but he doesn't shake her off. She's winning.

"Hey Natsu," Kakashi says. The other jounin is staring at her open mouthed.

"Natsu," Kisa says, relieved, "Maybe you can help these gentlemen out. I'll be back.”

Natsu rests her elbows on his shoulder and plops her chin on top of his head, surveying the fish cuts still left after a full day in market. Kisa doesn't sell substandard meat though, so while it's not great it's not like there are any bad options. "What'cha making Kakashi-niichan? Who's your friend?"

"That's Gai," Kakashi waves a hand at the still gaping jounin, "I don't know. We're hungry, and Gai decided we should cook something, but we don't actually know how to cook, so."

She leans her head close to his ear and whispers so loud it hardly counts, "Is Gai your boyfriend?"

Gai chokes. Kakashi reaches up to flick her in the forehead, "No. Don't be a brat."

She pouts, "Are you really craving fish?" Kakashi looks to Gai. The other man shakes his head. "Then you should get chicken instead. All the best fish is already gone, you have to get here early or put in an order if you want something better."

"What do you make with chicken?" he asks, frowning, and man, he should really learn how to feed himself something other than field rations.

"If you get the ingredients I can make curry!" she tugs on Kakashi's hair, "It'll be fun! Please, it's boring cooking for just one person."

Kakashi's about to refuse, because he doesn't want to encourage her, but at the reminder that she goes home to an apartment as empty as his own he finds himself saying, "Yeah, okay. You better make it really spicy though."

Hours later Natsu is curled up asleep on his couch, and he's trying to work up the will to wake her up and tell her to beat it. Gai comes to stand beside him, drying his hands on a dishtowel. "Thanks for doing the dishes," Kakashi says.

"Thanks for buying all the food," he returns. He hesitates, but says, "Not that I do not find your newfound mentorship to be a most youthful endeavor, but -"

"I don't know," Kakashi interrupts his friend, "I met her while she was taking her genin exam and she, I don't know, adopted me or something. She just keeps showing up."

Gai nods thoughtfully, "Stubbornness is a useful skill to have when trying to cultivate a friendship with you." Kakashi elbows the other man, but doesn't protest besides that. "She's a good cook."

"She grew up in the Flower District. If she hadn't become a ninja, she would have stayed there."

Gai continues staring at the little girl curled up in on herself. Kakashi finally gives in and goes to his bedroom. He comes back with the blanket from his own bed, because he's never needed a spare before. He sits down at the end of the couch and pulls her feet into his lap, carefully sliding off her sandals.

Natsu startles awake. "Niichan?" she mutters, voice rough and slurred.

"Go to sleep," he says evenly, leaning over her to gently pull her hair free from its tangled bun. It's longer than the last time he saw it down, and he wonders if she's trying to copy Inoichi.

"I c'n go," she mutters even as she burrows further down in his couch cushions.

He rolls his eyes and tucks the blanket in around her, folding it under her feet and settling it carefully around her shoulders. "Whatever."

~

"Natsu, give it a rest," Inoichi says, lowering his hands. Both Hana and Kabuto are sacked out on the ground, dirty and sweaty and gasping for breath. Hana's ninken are in no better shape.

The girl shakes her head, stubbornly holding her taijutsu stance, "I can go for longer. Come on."

If Inoichi looks closely, he can see her legs trembling. He crosses his arms, "You've worked enough for one day. You all have," he looks down at the panting genin, "Cool down, go home, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"No!" Natsu stamps her foot, "I want to train more."

Inoichi looks down at the rest of his team, because he is not the one to deal with this. Hana pulls herself up to sitting and says, "Do you want to come over, Natsu? We can play in the kennels."

There's a spot of eagerness in the young girl's eyes, but she still shakes her head. Kabuto rolls over in the grass so he can at least tilt his head in Natsu's direction, "Do you want help working on medical jutsu? You certainly have room for improvement."

Inoichi glares, because he doesn't want her to spend more time training. But Natsu crosses her arms to mirror him and says, "I want to keep working on my taijutsu. It's my weakest."

It is, but honestly Natsu can take down Kabuto in a taijutsu battle, and she's even won over Hana a few times, so it's not like her taijutsu is bad. "You need to rest," he insists, "If you don't heal, you won't get stronger."

Natsu scoffs. She scoops up her ninja pack and attaches it to her thigh in swift, jerky movements. "Whatever, I'll go train by myself. See you tomorrow."

"Natsu," Inoichi says, and he means for it to come out as a warning but it's more like a plea.

She waves her hand, already walking away, "Have a good night Hana, Kabuto, Inoichi-sensei!"

Inoichi sighs. When he looks over both of his remaining genin are staring at him accusingly. "Yeah, yeah," he grumbles, following his wayward student.

"Good luck Inoichi-sensei!" Hana says cheerfully, standing up and pulling Kabuto with her, much to the boy's displeasure.

He shakes his head, following his student's familiar and immense chakra to a section of the training field with logs set out. Natsu is forcing her trembling limbs to execute perfect kicks and punches with enough force behind them that the log cracks with every hit.

He knows that she knows he's there. He moves behind her, and she doesn't react. Inoichi places his hands on her shoulders, and without pause she twists to high kick him. He catches her ankle in his hand and meets her dark, angry gaze. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she flips away from him, exhausted past of the point of reason and still every move is controlled grace. "Leave me alone."

"You're such a pain," he sighs. Hurt flashes across her eyes, but before she can yell at him he body flickers forward and punches her in the face. She just barely dodges, his knuckles skimming over the tight bun on top of her head. She runs back, and he follows. She changes direction and meets him head on and leaps, her thighs close in around his throat as she flings him to the ground. His head is still ringing when he rolls away from a stomp that would have collapsed his ribcage. He surges up and slams the top of his head into her stomach. Natsu stumbles back with an oomph of pain, but she ducks under his kick.

She grabs his ankle like he'd done to her, but she uses his momentum to push him off balance. He swings back around, and finally lands a solid hit to her chest. He hopes he hasn't broken her collarbone. Her face twists in pain, but it doesn't slow her down much, and times like these he laments whoever it was that taught her to ignore her own discomfort this well. He drives forward, and her block is too slow so she only manages to slap his arm while he delivers a sharp uppercut to her jaw that propels Natsu into the air and then has her falling onto her back with a painful sounding thud.

He doesn't relax, because he's seen Natsu get ups from some truly heart stopping shit, but she doesn't move. "Yield?" he calls out after a moment.

"...Yield," she says, voice rough, and he sighs in relief.

Inoichi walks over and throws himself down next to her, tucking his hands behind his head. "It's a pity we don't have Shikaku's kid here, he can cloud watch with the best of them."

She's got blood dripping from the corner of her mouth, and it's a good thing he doesn't have anything against hitting little girls, because if he ever hesitated she would destroy him. "I like Shikamaru, he's a nice kid."

"Lazy though," he points out. She shrugs, then winces, and damn, he definitely broke her collar bone. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong now?"

Her eyes close, and she looks more in pain now than she has all throughout training, "Itachi-senpai and Kakashi-niichan were supposed to be back from their mission three days ago."

"Ah," he says. Delays happen, but three days past check in is the point when most ninja start to worry. Officially, he doesn't know that either the Uchiha or Kakashi are in Anbu, and neither does Natsu, but she's smart and she knows those two better than almost anyone, so. "They're the best ninja in the village. Have faith in their abilities."

"I do," she says, and of course she does, those two boys mean the world to her (Kakashi is twenty years old, and Inoichi remembers being twenty, he doesn't give a shit about Hatake's rap sheet, he's still just as much of a brat as Natsu), "I just -"

"I know," he says, "But training yourself to injury won't help anyone."

Her face twists, and he prepares himself for her to start yelling - but she doesn't, just says, "Okay, Inoichi-sensei. I'll be better."

And he didn't mean it like that, damnit. "Come to the flower shop before training," he tries instead, because if she’s causing havoc around him he can at least keep an eye on her. "Ino misses you."

"Yeah, okay," she agrees, and now that's she's stopped fighting, in every sense of the word, her eyelids are starting to droop.

He shakes his head, "If I carry you home, will you beat me up?"

She lets out a long sigh, then rolls over and on top of Inoichi's chest, snuggling into him. He stands, cradling her in his arms as her breaths even out in sleep. He holds her carefully so he doesn't exaggerate any of her injuries, and begins the long walk to her apartment.

~

Shikaku is the smartest person in the village, and likely the most observant. He's not being arrogant, it's just fact, and from the looks of it his son will take up that mantel in addition to clan head. But being the smartest person in the village means that he knows a lot things that he really wishes he didn't. Such as: the hokage's masturbatory habits, his son having a huge crush on the Inuzuka in his class, and that Natsu Nami once went by the name of Naruto Uzumaki.

It's not like he'd paid a lot of attention to the kid, he just observed him like he did everything else. And if Natsu hadn't been put on Inoichi's team maybe he never would have noticed, but -

Naruto had just started pranking when he was attacked and presumably killed. Still, he had a style and that style of attack-retreat-observe-destruction was pretty much the exact same as Natsu's fighting style. They even moved the same, although Natsu's balance was far better than Naruto had ever achieved.

He doesn't know how the kid is managing to pass himself off as a girl three years older than he actually is, because it's not a genjutsu, but he honestly doesn't want to know since the less he knows the more plausible deniability he has.

Because he's not going to tell anyone. He should, at the very least, report it to the hokage. But Naruto had been neglected and borderline abused, hated and feared for something the hokage decreed he couldn't even know about. Natsu is bright and cheerful, a kind and talented kunoichi who's working to protect the village she loves (and how does she love it, he wonders, when it's this village that had been so cruel to Naruto all his life, but against all reason she does) and no one is out to kill Natsu.

That's really why he won't say anything, why he won't reveal that the Kyuubi's container and the fourth hokage's child is still alive: they already killed him once. Naruto and Shikamaru are the same age, they would have been in the same class, and the idea that anyone could want to harm his innocent, precious son makes his blood boil, that someone could gut him and be proud of it almost makes him lose faith in his village.

Konoha killed Naruto, and Shikaku isn't going to be the one to give them the chance to do it a second time.

~

Natsu is a genin, and therefore officially her education as a ninja is completely under Inoichi-sensei's purview. Unofficially, Inoichi-sensei has a clan to run, a business to manage, and regular jounin duties on top of that, so he would never neglect his duties as a jounin sensei, but he doesn't have a lot of free time for extra training. Which is fine for her other teammates, because Kabuto works at the hospital and Hana has a whole clan to learn from, but Natsu has a ton of free time. So to keep her from going absolutely insane, Itachi never really put an end to their tutoring sessions, and whenever he's in-village and has a few hours to spare, he'll grab her and train with her.

These times are her favorite times. Ever since she became a genin and Itachi became Anbu (which she totally, absolutely knows nothing about) she doesn't see him very much, and it makes her sad.

However, they're not really planned, and usually if she's in her apartment and he pops in she's reading or working on her scrolls, or doing one of her ridiculous balancing exercises, like the time he'd walked in on her balancing on a single finger on a chair that was perched by one of its legs on a ball.

He has, in fact, never actually walked in on her doing this before. He's crouched in her window, and she beams when she notices him, "Senpai!"

"Natsu-chan," he greets evenly, sliding into her room and cautiously sitting down on the ground across from her, "What are you doing?"

"My nails," she holds up her completed left hand for his inspection,  "Kurenai does her nails, and I wanted to do mine. It's not the same though."

Itachi twitches. He's heard Natsu sound sad exactly twice, once when he first met her, and then the second time when she'd told him that Kabuto was an orphan too, but not like her because she had Kakashi-niichan and him, but a real orphan, and wasn't that awful? And now Natsu sounds sad about nail polish of all things, and just like Itachi can't fight her own self esteem issues or some genin's tragedy, he also can't fight nail polish, and if Natsu could just have a problem that he could easily fix even once he'd be grateful.

"Oh?" He snags her hand, and the dark purple polish has been perfectly applied, "Why? It looks good to me."

Natsu's smile stretches across her whole face, and sometimes how easy it is to please her just makes him feel old and sad. "You really think so?"

He nods, face serious, "Absolutely."

She looks at her hand in an all new admiring light, but her voice has a trace of longing as she explains, "This is just - normal nail polish, it was a couple ryo at this stall at the market. Kurenai wears nin-polish. It dries extra hard to keep your nails from breaking, and it's made with a diamond base, so it can be used to scratch most surfaces."

"Perfect for someone who's both talented with seals, and is clever enough with them to make them with little to no planning," he says, already thinking of the damage Natsu could do if she could scratch a seal on her kunai on the fly. Making a kunai act as an explosive tag, for one. "That seems like a solid and practical use," he says, because Natsu has never shied away from her hair or her favorite color, but he knows enough kunoichi that are hesitant about enjoying their feminine side that he figures it's worth bringing up.

"It's expensive," she says, and Itachi winces, because he often forgets that money is something that an orphan genin obviously doesn't have a surplus of. "Like, really expensive, and I need more shuriken, and paper and ink for sealing, and-" she looks down at her cheap nail polish and her face darkens, "I probably shouldn't have even bought this, it was dumb."

She roughly screws the cap back on and tosses it aside. Itachi plucks it out of the air, and Natsu looks up, startled. "I think you look very nice with it on," he says gently, and he has no idea what he's doing, this is so far out of his depth, and why can't Natsu ever need him to fight someone for her, he doesn't like it but at least he's good at it. "Here," he ignores her wide eyes and settles her unpainted hand on his knee. He unscrews the bottle, and slowly begins applying the polish.

"Senpai," Natsu says softly some time later.

Itachi hums, but doesn't look up, already working on applying the second coat.

Her free hand grabs his hand that isn't holding the polish, and squeezes. He looks at their clasped hands, but still for some reason he can't make himself look up. "Thank you."

"... You're welcome," he says, and Natsu squeezes his hand one more time before letting go and allowing him to finish.

~

Hana did not expect to like her teammates. She was getting stuck with a boy three years older, and a girl three years younger, and that was obviously a terrific breeding ground for animosity, jealousy, and lazy whining on everyone's side. It absolutely shouldn't work.

Except that it kind of does. Kabuto is actually the best thing that could have happened to her, because whatever it is about him that keeps him from passing the chunin exams, it's not his skill as a medical ninja. He's knowledgeable and patient, and he's teaching her more than she ever would have been able to learn unless she'd taken on a medic-nin apprenticeship. She hates the idea of taking and not giving in return, though, so she grabs Natsu and the both of them train him in taijutsu until he can barely stand and is begging them to let him rest.

Natsu is oddly good at genjutsu. She's - everyone else calls her a genius and cites her genjutu skills, but Hana has been on the receiving end of most them. They're good, they're great, they are exactly like they're supposed to be. But that's the thing - Natsu may have the natural talent in genjutsu to do them effectively, and enough imagination that she's well on her way to becoming the world's most terrifying seal master, but the two never really intersect. So they all know the basics of genjutsu, but no one on the team is terrific at them, and no one on the team is terrific at taijutsu, and Natsu may have the talent and drive to one day be a formidable ninjutsu specialist, but for right now she isn't.

Hana worries about this. A lot. Because they're going to take the Chunin Exams together one day, and honestly at the rate they're progressing it's going to be one day soon. They're all highly competent in the three major areas of ninja arts, but Natsu's true talent is in sealing, and her and Kabuto's is in healing, and overall their team is one best used for retreat and recovery rather than a head on attack. The Chunin Exams, unlike the actual rest of the shinobi world, are all about head on attacks.

Hana sighs and lets her head fall with a thud on her kitchen table top.

"You break it, you buy it," her mother says mildly, and Hana turns her head just enough so she can see Tsume looking down at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah," she closes her eyes.

Tsume pats her on the top of the head, "You worry too much. You'll all be fine."

"I'm going to be the clan head one day," she points out, "Worrying about everyone is my job."

"Not yet it isn't," Tsume pulls Hana up by the back of her shirt and puts her on her feet, "Go find your teammates and drag them here for dinner."

"Okay," she says brightly, because Natsu's either at home or with that weird grey haired jounin, but Kabuto is definitely at the hospital, and if she's lucky he'll let her lend a hand for a bit.

~

Kakashi likes Itachi, mostly because he gets the lonely genius thing (Gai had suggested that they start a club; Kakashi had suggested that Gai shut the fuck up), but apart from missions they don't really interact much. The exception, of course, being Natsu, who a couple times a month will feel the urge to have her two favorite people in once place and drag them somewhere together.

So when Itachi shows up at the edge of the training ground where he and Gai are doing their best to beat each other up, Natsu-less, alarm bells start going off. "Is she okay?" he asks, holding up a hand to halt Gai. Itachi looks too calm for her to be seriously hurt, but honestly sometimes Kakashi can't really tell with that guy.

Itachi blinks. "Natsu is fine. I apologize, I had not meant to worry you."

"I wasn't worried," he declares. Gai laughs and Itachi raises an eyebrow. He scowls, "Whatever. What did you want?"

"Natsu's tenth birthday is in a week," Itachi says, "and Tsume is holding a small gathering to celebrate. It's a surprise. You are, of course, invited."

"Oh," he says, frowning.

Itachi's stare is deceptively mild, "While I understand that you have many important duties to attend to, Natsu will be very upset if you are not there."

"What? No, I'll be there," he glares, and tries not to think that of how the last time he was at something as mundane as a birthday party was with his sensei, because thinking of Minato leads to thinking of Naruto, which leads to him training until he bleeds or drinking until he passes out.

"Gai-san, you are also welcome to attend," Itachi continues, "Natsu has developed a fondness for you, considering your relationship to Kakashi-san."

"We're not dating," Gai and Kakashi say in unison.

Itachi's carefully blank expression means he doesn't believe them, and Kakashi is going to kill Natsu. Gai says eagerly, "This sounds like a most youthful endeavor. I will bring Anko! She will fan the flames of youth in a our young Konoha blossom!"

Both Itachi and Kakashi look at Gai, horrified. "Please don't," Itachi says weakly, like he knows it'll fall on deaf ears but he has to try anyway.

"Don't worry," Gai attempts to assure them, going into his Good Guy pose, "They will produce youthful flames of feminine excellence!"

"They're going to burn down Konoha," Kakashi says flatly.

Gai's hair and teeth sparkle in the sunlight, and he doesn't attempt to deny it.

~

"Why do you have to do my hair just so I can eat dinner at your place?" Natsu complains, but holds obligingly still while Hana pulls back her hair. "Last time we came to dinner after training and we were all covered in mud and blood and your mom didn't say anything. I don't think she cares about my hair."

"Just shut up and stay still," the older girl says, and Natsu rolls her eyes but does as she's told. Hana snaps the band off from around her wrist and ties off her hair. "There, done."

Natsu looks at herself in the mirror. Instead of her normal tight bun, Hana has taken out and straightened her hair, finally putting it up in one sleek high tail. Natsu turns her head from side to side, and it's weird to feel the full weight of it, but she's finally grown her hair out enough that she kind of looks like Inoichi-sensei, so she guesses it's okay.

"Well," Hana places a hand on Natsu's shoulder and smushes their faces together, "What do you think?"

No one had ever touched Naruto, had spent time with him, and certainly he hadn't had any friends that would have spend twenty minutes fussing about how he looked. "I love it," Natsu says, and has to blink really fast for a few seconds to keep from crying.

"Good!" Hana leans back and tugs on the end of Natsu's ponytail, "Let's go, we don't want to be late."

Natsu doesn't understand at first what all her favorite people are doing in Tsume's living room, and it takes Itachi leaning down and saying quietly, "Natsu, you're ten today. This is your birthday party," for her to get it. And when she does her eyes go wide and her mouth falls open, and she grabs Itachi's arm because she's afraid that she'll fall over without it.

"Oh," she says softly, and she's definitely crying now, and she doesn't want to, but she can't help it.

Gai swoops forward and grabs her into his arms, "Come, my beautiful Konoha blossom! I require your help immediately!" He takes her outside and just holds her for a moment, doesn't say anything.

Kakashi exits the house and walks up behind them. Natsu pushes herself back so she can look at him, still sniffling. He sighs and carefully wipes the tears off her face, "Mah, what's the crying for? It's a party."

"I've never had a party before," she hiccups.

He flicks her forehead, "Well, now you do. Better get inside so you don't miss it, right?"

She takes a deep breath, then nods furiously, "Right!" She hugs Gai before jumping out his arms. Instead of running back in on her own, she grabs Kakashi and Gai's hands in each of her own drags them behind her.

It is, without a doubt, the best day of her life. Inoichi-sensei is there, and so is Chouza and Shikaku. She plays tag with their kids and Kiba, and Ino takes to running her fingers through Natsu's ponytail and says she wants hair just like it one day.

Natsu meets Anko, who's sullen and nervous, and she loves her. "Your hair is amazing," Natsu breathes, because it never occurred to her that she could have purple hair before. The hair she has now looks like a cross between Inoichi-sensei's and Niichan's, and she loves it, but for purple hair it'd almost be worth it.

Anko blinks, and her hand self-consciously raises to touch it, "You think so?"

"Amazing!" Natsu insists, and she grabs the end of the older girl's trench coat, "You're so cool."

"Anko can make a perfect leaf pattern with dango sticks," Gai pipes up helpfully.

The teenage chunin turns to glare at the Gai, because this brat thinks she's cool, and not Orochimaru's reject, and she'd like to hold on to that for a little bit.

"Teach me!' Natsu demands, tugging on her coat, "Oh please, Anko-chan, pretty please? That's awesome, you must be really strong and have really good aim!"

"Sure," she says, startled, and Natsu squeals and hugs her hard around her waist.

Gai is beaming behind them at a job well done. Every other adult in the room is glaring at him (except Tsume, who's too busy laughing her ass off).

The cake is amazing. It's big and purple and chocolate. "I helped make it!" Hana says proudly, a warm spot at her back.

"If by helped, you mean I let you carry the ingredients," Kabuto rolls his eyes.

"You made this cake?" Natsu asks Kabuto, and the older boy blushes and nods, and braces himself to be made fun of. He clearly should know better by now, because Natsu flings herself at him and says, "That's amazing! It looks so good, you're so cool and talented, Kabuto!"

The presents are her favorite part, not because she gets stuff, but because people took the time get her things that they thought she would like, and her life is so different from what it was two years ago that Natsu almost feels the urge to find the man that tried to kill Naruto and thank him.

Anko-chan gives her a brand new packet of shuriken. Chouza, Shikaku, and Inoichi-sensei give her books on sealing, the really nice, expensive books that she's been drooling over and never could afford herself. From Kabuto and Hana she gets a bunch of sealing paper and ink, and from Tsume a set of gorgeous brushes in different styles and angles. Gai hands over a dozen new kunai wrapped up like a bouquet of particularly violent flowers, and Natsu has a hard time saying thank you through her giggles.

She opens the small package from Itachi, and inside are three bottles of nin-polish the exact shade as the normal nail polish she'd bought a couple of months ago. "Senpai," she says, eyes wide.

Itachi raises an eyebrow at her, and curves his mouth up in what someone who's very observant might categorize as a smile, "It's practical."

Natsu launches herself into his arms, and chants "Thank you" until he hugs her back and carefully sets her back on her feet, blushing.

Kakashi is last, and he hands her a flat, wide box in plain brown paper. He scratches the back of his head, "It's not the right size, but you'll grow into it."

She only half hears him as she tears the box open and then carefully lifts up the contents. It's a gorgeous silk tunic. It won't fit her for quite a few years yet, but it's sleeveless with a high collar. The neck dips down and the top half is held together with sturdy rectangular buttons, and it's long enough that it'll go down to her mid-thigh. It's a pale lavender edged in black, and hidden underneath the silk is the lightweight, blade resistant material that Anbu uniforms are made of.

The materials are top notch, and the quality is exquisite. It's also clearly custom made. "Niichan," she runs her hands over the tunic, "this must have cost a fortune."

Kakashi shrugs, "Eh, Icha Icha only costs so much. What else am I going to spend my money on?"

Natsu places the tunic back in its box with trembling fingers, then scrambles over to Kakashi and leaps so she can wrap her arms around his neck and hide her face in his shoulder.

Kakashi pats her on the back and tries to pretend he's unaffected, but it's clear even with the mask that he's grinning.

~

"All right, I'm confused," Chouza admits, taking a seat next to Inoichi at the bar.

"How do you always know I'm here?" he demands.

"I also admit to being confused," Shikaku says from his other side.

Inoichi jumps, then twists to glare at his friend. "You too! The both of you! This is a conspiracy!"

Chouza accepts his drink from the bartender and passes the other down to Shikaku, "Your daughter is performing extremely well in the Academy. The flower shop's business is going well. None of your clan's council have tried to murder each other recently."

"Your genin team is performing very well," Shikaku continues, "Natsu has been maintaining acceptably terrifying genius levels, if Sarutobi's drinking habits are anything to go by. I heard rumors that the head of the hospital is going to petition the hokage to give Kabuto a field promotion to a chunin medi-nin."

Inoichi drops his head onto the counter.

"Ah," Chouza says. "I see."

"I'm going to enter them in the Chunin Exams," Inoichi says, and it only comes out a little muffled, "They should get the chance to do that together."

"Do you not think they're ready?" Shikaku asks, "Because-"

Inoichi shakes his head, which is still pressed to the top of the counter. "No, they'll be fine. They're all scarily talented; I honestly don't understand why Kabuto isn't a chunin already."

"Aw," Chouza pats him on the back, "Are you getting sentimental? Are you going to miss your adorable band of destructive minions?"

"No!" Inoichi says, but he still doesn't lift his head up.

"Good," the other man says, "Because my genin team still shows up at my place to complain about each other and for a free meal, so I'm telling you right now that you're going to spend the rest of your life with Natsu, Hana, and Kabuto constantly getting underfoot."

Inoichi stills, than slowly turns his head so he can squint up at Chouza, "Really?"

Shikaku rolls his eyes, but his former teammate pats the morose man on the back, "Really."

"Oh," he shoves himself up so he's at least leaning on his elbows, "That's all right then, I guess."

"Unbelievable," Shikaku mutters before downing the rest of his drink in one go.

~

Natsu is buried under a Hana's ninken when she senses him passing by. She bursts out of the dog pile and screams, "Kakashi-niichan!"

"Uh, Natsu," Hana looks up from where she and Kabuto are practicing their medic jutsu on one of the Inuzuka dogs who'd been hurt in battle, "No one's-"

"Yo!" Kakashi drops down from the roof. Hana and Kabuto scream.

Inoichi doesn't look up from his scroll, "It appears that your chakra sensitivity is improving."

"Because it was so terrible to begin with," Kabuto groans, letting his head fall into his hands "You almost gave me a heart attack."

Hana holds up her glowing green hands, "Go ahead, I need more practice."

Kabuto glowers, but Hana only giggles in return. The boy's face softens, and he nods toward the dog, "Come on, we've still got work to do."

"Right," Hana nods, focusing once more on the ninken.

Natsu bounds over and jumps onto Kakashi, wrapping her arms around his neck and dangling there. "Where are you going? Your apartment and the training grounds are the other way."

He looks down at her, and his visible eye is curved up so she knows he's smiling, "I have to go to the Hokage Tower to pick up a mission."

Natsu lets go so she drops back onto her feet, "Oh."

"Mah, don't be like that." Kakashi's hand falls hard on top of her head.

"It's just-" she looks down at her feet, "You didn't get back that long ago. And your last mission was so long. And you came back -" limping, but she closes her mouth before that can slip out.

Kakashi doesn't say anything for a long moment, and when Natsu looks up he seems unusually serious, "Why don't you come with me, and then you can see me off?"

"Really?" she beams and turns to Inoichi, "Can I, Sensei?"

Inoichi shrugs, still not pausing in his reading. "While napping under a pile of puppies is important and arduous training, I suppose I can spare you." She runs over and tackles him to the ground. Inoichi flails, "Natsu! Get off!"

"Thanks, Inoichi-sensei!" Natsu runs back and jumps onto Kakashi's back, pushing herself up so she's seated on his shoulders. Everyone knows that Natsu can balance on a single finger atop a rolling wagon, but Kakashi still closes his hands around each of her ankles anyway. Natsu wraps her arms around the top of Kakashi's head. "Bye Hana, bye Kabuto!"

Kabuto is still in the process of waving when Kakashi shoves chakra towards his feet and jumps back onto the roof.

Natsu rests her chin on top of Kakashi's head as they jump from roof to roof, and the sun is just starting to set. It lights up the sky a brilliant orange, and the buildings cast long shadows on the grounds. She sighs happily and drops a kiss on top of Kakashi's head.

"Natsu?" he asks, startled.

"I just," she looks out over her village, and right now it literally looks to be a land of fire, "I love Konoha. So much. It's beautiful." Kakashi jerks underneath her. "Don't you think so, Niichan?"

"I guess," he says, and she rolls her eyes, "I'm just surprised you do."

"Why?" she glares down at him, "I'm a Leaf ninja too! I'll never let anything bad happen here!"

"Natsu, you're from Flower District," Kakashi says carefully, "You've seen the worst of Konoha. You know bad things already do happen here. You know what people are like."

Natsu thinks of the men that came into the Madam Koi's parlor, and the broken, bleeding girls they left behind. Thinks of the life he lived as Naruto, and the drunken old man breaking a bottle on his head, then using it to slice his stomach open.

"The world is a terrible place," she says, and she has to swallow before she speak again, "and it's full of terrible people. But I don't have to be one of them."

"Huh," Kakashi breathes out, and continues their journey as the sun slinks slowly behind the mountains. He's silent until they reach the Hokage Tower. Because one of the Natsu's favorite things is getting a smile out of the old man, she pulls free of Kakashi's hands and pushes and kicks herself up so she's doing a handstand on his left shoulder as he walks into the mission assignment office.

When Sarutobi sees them, his face immediately lights up and Natsu feels a thrill of accomplishment. "Hey Hokage-sama!"

"Natsu," he greets, "I didn't expect to see you today."

"Kakashi-niichan took me with him so I could say goodbye," she explains, and tries not to show how much him leaving on another mission so soon twists her up inside.

The man sitting next to the hokage chokes. Natsu frowns and pushes herself off of Kakashi and lands in a crouch on top of the table and in front of the chunin, her face only inches from his. "Ah, uh - hello?" he leans back, and he's got a scar across his nose and big brown eyes.

"You're cute," she tells him, and Kakashi makes a sound that's something between a groan and a laugh behind her, "I recognize you. You teach at the Academy, don't you?"

"Yes," he blinks, "Oh, you - you're Suzume's student aren't you? Na- uh," he flushes.

"Natsu Nami," she throws her hand up in the victory sign.

"I'm Umino Iruka," he says, "I've heard a lot of good things about you."

"All lies," she says cheerfully, "Kakashi-niichan and Inoichi-sensei call me a menace. Itachi-senpai doesn't but that's only because he's too nice."

"She is a menace," Kakashi insists.

Natsu rolls her eyes. Iruka frowns, "Hatake-san, that's not a very nice thing to say about someone young who thinks so highly of you."

Kakashi scoffs, but buries his face further into his Icha Icha instead of arguing.

Natsu blinks. Looks to Iruka. Looks back at Kakashi. "OH MY GOD!" she yells. "YOU HAVE A CRUSH ON IRUKA! I'M TELLING GAI YOU'RE CHEATING ON HIM!"

Quick as lightning, Kakashi pick her up by the back of her tunic and holds her up so they're eye level. "For the last time, you brat, GAI IS NOT MY BOYFRIEND!'

"You didn't deny you had a crush," she says, sly. Kakashi's eye narrows.

Iruka, bright red, says, "Ah, Nami-san, I don't think-"

"Niichan has a giant, secret crush on you," she informs him. "Don't you Niichan? You think he's cuuuuuuuute." She looks to the mortified Iruka and stage whispers, "You are cute, you should give Kakashi-niichan a chance, he's really nice when he's not being mean."

Kakashi drops her, and she lands nimbly on her feet. "Natsu," he says between gritted teeth, "in the interest of fairness, with you just being a genin and all, I'm going to give you a thirty second head start."

Natsu tilts her head to the side, considers this, and nods, "Bye Hokage-sama! Bye Iruka!" She jumps out the window. Kakashi stands there smiling and exuding murder.

"So Kakashi," the hokage begins causally, "do you have a giant secret crush on Iruka?"

Iruka blanches. Kakashi doesn't flinch, "You know Hokage-sama, I think it's time that Natsu learn the very important lesson that ninjas lie." He then hurls himself out of the window, twenty seconds too early.

Iruka turns baleful eyes on the Sandaime. The old man chuckles and admits, "Natsu's reputation as a menace is well earned."

Iruka flushes and puts aside Kakashi's A-rank mission scroll for when he returns. The idea that someone of Hatake-san's standing, and skill, and reputation could be interested in a lonely academy teacher is ridiculous, but -

Kakashi hadn't denied it.

~

Itachi senses her coming, but continues walking down the road. Kakashi has started twisting out of her way at the last second, and while watching Natsu backflip through the streets is entertaining, last time she took out an orange vendor. "Senpai!" she greets excitedly, jumping off of the roof and landing on his head with only her hand.

"Good morning Natsu-chan," he says, and it probably says something that none of the ninja or civilians even pause at seeing the ten year old balancing on top of him. "How was the Land of Earth?" Team Inoichi wasn't due back in the village for another week, which either means their escort mission went extremely well or extremely poorly.

"Great!" She bends down to look at him upside down, and Itachi can feel that she's not using chakra to stick onto him, and sometimes her balance just isn't logical. "The noble jerk-face got there in once piece, which once he started leering at me and Hana actually became a questionable thing."

"Leering-" Itachi stops so suddenly that Natsu pinwheels and falls off.

She flips mid air and lands in front of him, head tilted to the side in confusion, "Senpai?"

"Natsu-chan, you're ten and Hana is thirteen. It's extremely inappropriate for an adult man to stare at you sexually."

She rolls her eyes and grabs his hand, tugging him until he starts walking again, "You sound thirty when you talk like that, and you're thirteen too. Don't worry, Hana and I can take care of ourselves."

Itachi allows her to pull him forward, "You are both very talented ninja. That doesn't mean men should be looking at you. It is one thing when a man cannot control is eyes around adult women, but in spite of your status as emancipated adult ninja, you and Hana are still children in many ways."

Natsu grins, "Kabuto took to adding poisons to his senbon in front of the guy threateningly. You're both so overprotective; don't worry."

Natsu's teammate is sixteen, a quite competent medical ninja, and Natsu has been able to wipe the floor with him since day one on the team together. Itachi does not consider him adequate protection, but also acknowledges that if Natsu knew that he considered her in need of protecting, she'd cut him.

"Did the mission finish early?" he asks, deciding to drop the subject. If he ever meets this noble, his code of not harming civilians doesn't apply to men who leer at children. "You're a week ahead of schedule."

"Nope! We tested out my new transportation seals though. They work great!"

"Ah," he blinks. "Your what?"

"It's like storage seal and body flicker," she explains, face lighting up as she talks about her favorite subject. "I place one seal in a location - I did my bedroom - and then to return there all I have to do is seal myself into its matching storage scroll. Then with some more added chakra, I pop out the other side!"

Itachi knows it's actually far more complicated than that, but just as he does not tell her minutia of the past shinobi wars in their history lessons, she does not over complicate her explanations of sealing. Usually he's grateful for that, but when she appears to break every known law to sealing and chakra, he's not.

"That's," he blinks and he's not going to tell her it's impossible because it clearly isn't, "new," he settles on.

She nods, "Inoichi-sensei was really impressed!"

Assuming the last time Natsu created a sealing technique is anything to go by, if Itachi feels the need to swing by the bar down by the Academy later (he almost never does because he doesn't drink even if he's technically allowed to) he'll see Inoichi drowning himself in cheap liquor while his former teammates laugh at him.

If dealing with him is anything like dealing with Natsu, then maybe he can understand why he's not the most popular person.

"That's good," he says, and he really wishes Konoha had a sealing master that they could throw Natsu at, "Did anything else of interest happen on your mission?"

"Not really. But guess what! Inoichi-sensei is signing us up for the Chunin Exams! We're leaving for Suna at the end of next week."

Itachi looks down at her, surprised. "That's very exciting," he says, "I'm sure you'll do well. But Suna is a very different land to Konoha; you should make sure to be careful there. I would be upset if anything were to happen to you."

"You worry too much," Natsu repeats, but squeezes his hand anyway.

~

Inoichi had already halfway assumed that Natsu was going to blow something up or cause some sort of diplomatic incident in Suna, so he's not too surprised when he rounds the corner to find her ruffling the hair of a short red haired kid with wide green eyes and a strange tattoo on his forehead whom he happens to know is not only the kazekage's son but the container for the one tails.

"Natsu!" he barks, striding forward with Hana and Kabuto trailing behind him, "What are you doing?"

"Hey, Sensei," she straightens but leaves one hand on the container's head. "I think this little guy's lost. I'm just going to bring him back, and then I'll meet you at the hotel, okay?"

It is not okay, and Inoichi doesn't have a clue on how to even begin explaining why. "I am not lost," the container says, looking at them all warily, "I am on a walk."

"Well it's not really safe for you to be on a walk on your own," Natsu says, frowning, "There are a lot of foreign ninja here for the exams, and they're not all as friendly as we are."

The container is looking at her as if she's insane. So is Inoichi. "... I am not in danger," the container says finally.

"Uh huh," Natsu rolls her eyes, then crouches down with her back to him, "Climb on, I'll take you home." The container takes a step back, green eyes widening even more. "Don't worry," Natsu says, smiling gently, "I won't hurt you, I promise. Hey! It's almost sunset. I'll take you over the roofs, I bet the sun looks really cool from up there."

The kid takes a hesitant step closer. When Natsu only smiles encouragingly in response, he makes it the rest of the way over and slowly wraps his arms around her neck and his legs around her waist. "Natsu," Inoichi says, wanting to stop this but not sure how without starting an international incident himself.

"I know where the hotel is," Natsu stands up from her crouch, "Once I get this kid home," she reaches behind her to bob the container on the nose. If she hadn't been holding on to his legs he would have fallen off in shock, "I'll head right there. Bye guys!"

With one last wave she sends chakra to her feet and jumps onto the nearest roof.

"Ah, Inoichi-sensei?" Kabuto says after a moment, all three of them staring at the spot where Natsu used to be.

Inoichi grunts.

"Wasn't that the jinchuuriki of Shukaku?"

He grunts again.

"Ah," Kabuto says. Pauses. "Itachi is going to kill you."

Inoichi considers the fact that he just let the only person Itachi truly seems to care about besides his little brother go off with a demon container known for killing first and asking questions never.

"Yeah," he sighs.

~

Temari thinks she loves her youngest brother, but she knows that she's terrified of him. She doesn't want to be, but everyone is. He hurts people and kills them, he killed their uncle. Clearly no one is safe from him, and no one can stand him, and he's her little brother and she's supposed to love him, and she wants to, but she just can't.

She's sitting on the roof of their home with her chin on her knees, watching the sun set and wondering where Gaara is and if he's killed anyone today. She hopes not. So she's understandably startled when a girl her own age lands on her roof with her little brother on her back.

"Who are you?" she demands, and she notices the leaf symbol on her hitai-ate, and her dad will kill her if she lets the one tailed demon get taken to Konoha, "Put my brother down!"

"Woah!" the other girl holds up her hands, "Hey, I'm just giving him a ride. I found him out wandering alone. You should keep a closer eye on your brother," the leaf ninja scolds her. Temari watches the other girl slides Gaara to his feet in disbelief. The girl kneels in front of her brother and beams at him, "See, that was fun, right?"

Gaara nods, and Temari has never seen his eyes this wide before.

"Good! I'm glad you had fun." Temari thinks her own eyes are going to fall out of her head when the girl folds her arms around Gaara. Her mouth definitely drops open when the girl kisses his forehead right where his scar is. "Be safe, okay? Don't go wandering out on your own. I don't want you to get hurt."

The girl stands from her crouch, waves at Temari, and turns to leave. Gaara grabs the back of her tunic. Temari's hands clench in to fists, and if Gaara wants to kill this girl she can't stop him, but if they kill a leaf ninja it's going to cause a lot of trouble.

"Huh?" the girl pauses and looks down, "Oh. What's up? Did you need something else?"

Gaara swallows, and Temari hears him talk so rarely that she'd forgotten what his voice sounds like. "Don't leave. Please."

The girl's face softens, and she bends so she can look her brother in the eye. "I have to, my team is waiting for me."

Gaara stares at her for a long moment before nodding and letting go. She doesn't leave though, just bites her lip and meets her brother's gaze. "The written portion of the exam is tomorrow, but I should have a few free hours after. I can pick you up and we can get food, or something? Ooh, how about dango? Anko-chan wanted me to practice on my aim while I was away. I mean, as long as your parents won't mind, or whatever."

"Really?" Gaara takes a half step closer, "You'll come back tomorrow?"

"I promise!" She bops Gaara on the nose, and Temari has to be dreaming, there's no way this is real life. "Are you sure your parents won't mind me taking you out for the day?"

"My father does not care about me," he says easily, and the girl's face darkens, "I can go with you."

"Well, good," she says firmly, "I'm Natsu Nami. What's your name?"

"Gaara," he says, and he's smiling. Temari can't remember the last time she saw her brother smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she says, and leans down to give Gaara one more quick kiss on the forehead. "Bye!"

She jumps off the roof to the building over with the type of control and precision Temari is used to seeing in much older ninja. "Gaara?" she asks hesitantly, "Who is that girl?"

All of the softness he'd shown instantly vanishes. "None of your business," he snaps coldly, and she takes a step away from him. Gaara continues glaring at her for a moment before he vanishes inside their home.

Temari has to find this Natsu Nami and tell her what Gaara really is. Otherwise, she'll just end up getting herself killed.

~

Inoichi plans to sit Natsu down and explain to her exactly what Gaara is when she gets back, but the first thing she declares upon entering their room is, "I'm worried."

"Now you know how I feel," Inoichi says automatically before asking, "About what?"

"About Gaara, the little kid from earlier," she throws herself down on one of the beds next to Hana, "He has a seal on him."

Inoichi suddenly has a terrible image of having to relieve the attack of eight years ago flashing through his mind, "Please tell me you didn't tamper with it."

"Sensei, I'm not stupid," she says scornfully. Kabuto scoffs. "But I should. Or someone should. It's not working right, and the demon inside of him is just making it worse." Well, apparently he doesn't have to tell her anything because she already knows.

"What do you mean?" Inoichi frowns, because at ten years old Natsu isn't quite at the level of seal master, but she's still one of best at fuuinjutsu in the village.

She pulls up one of her legs to rest her chin on her knee, "It's - not complete. I almost want to say it's broken, but it was never whole in the first place. I don't know."

"Can you fix it?" Suna has always had more seal masters than Konoha, so if the seal is incomplete that means that's how they want it. International incident or not, the last thing anybody needs is an out of control jinchuuriki.

Natsu doesn't answer right away, tilting her head down so her forehead is resting on her knee and her face is hidden away. Gaara's incomplete seal is the same as her own. And the seal keeping the fox inside of her is hellishly complicated, and she legitimately doesn't understand it. But she also knows that seal inside and out, and even if she doesn't understand it she's pretty sure she can replicate it.

"Yes," she says finally, looking up at her team, "I can fix it. And even if I fail, I won't make it any worse."

"Alright," Inoichi nods, because Natsu has always been brutally honest about her own capabilities and he has no reason to doubt her now, "Then this mission just gained a secondary objective. Not only are you three to do your best to pass the Chunin Exams, but we are also going to fix the seal on the demon container."

"Gaara," Natsu says, glaring.

Inoichi blinks, "What?"

"His name is Gaara, and you should use it," Natsu crosses her arms, and she loves Inoichi-sensei, but she won't budge on this.

"Natsu, I know you like him, but he's a demon container with a faulty seal, and-"

"And he's been holding it back!" Natsu stands so she can stomp her foot, "The seal is - maybe half of what it should be, so he's got half a tailed demon trying to get him to hurt people and kill them, and he's just a kid, a kid shouldn't have to deal with that crap. But he is and Suna is still standing, so he's doing really well, and you should use his name."

Inoichi stares, and briefly mourns that Natsu wasn't around to befriend that Naruto kid. Things might have turned out differently if she had been. "Okay," he says, and Natsu smiles and goes back to sitting on the bed. "So if we're going to do this, we're going to need to find a way get ourselves alone with him, and it's not going to be easy-"

Natsu raises her hand.

Inoichi sighs, "Yes, Natsu?"

"I'm picking him up so we can eat dango together tomorrow after the written exam. I can always bring him here after to fix his seal."

The clan head slaps his hand over his face. Hana and Kabuto burst out laughing.

~

Temari is on the roof again, and is doing the best she can to ignore her little brother who's watching her too closely for comfort. She hadn't told Kankuro what she was going to do, because he either would have tried to stop her or insisted on being here with her. Temari has to do this, and maybe Gaara will kill her for it, but the only thing Kankuro could do if he was with her is get killed by her side.

"Hi!" Natsu lands on their roof with a big smile, and without pause scoops up Gaara in her arms and swings him around, "Gaara! My team passed the written exam! We're moving on to Phase Two! Isn't that great?"

"I am happy that you are happy," Gaara says, and Temari is momentarily struck dumb with the realization that she's never heard her brother say he's happy before.

Natsu hugs her brother, and Gaara puts his arms around her neck and buries his face in her shoulder, like he's soaking up as much human contact as he can. It makes Temari's throat tight, but she has to do this.

"Nami-san!" she calls out, and the girl looks up at her. "I have to tell you - you need to know. Gaara, Gaara is -"

He has to know what she's about to do, but instead of trying to stop her, Gaara clings even more tightly to Natsu. That, more than any threatening move he could have made, stops the words in her throat.

"He's the container of the one tailed demon Shukaku?" Natsu finishes, eyebrow raised. "Yes, of course. You must be very proud to have such a strong and noble brother."

"You know?" Gaara asks, saying the words Temari suddenly can't. He leans back in Natsu's arms to looks at her, and never has Temari seen her brother look so afraid, "And you don't hate me?"

Something dark flashes in the other girl's eyes, but she smiles for Gaara, "Of course not! You're very brave! You're making a noble sacrifice in order to protect everyone around you. There's nothing to hate about you. You're what's stopping the demon from hurting people, right?"

Gaara's grip on Natsu tightens. "Sometimes I do hurt people," he admits, and there's a depth of horror in those mint green eyes.

"That's not your fault," Natsu says, and Temari wonders how she can sound so confident in that assessment when she barely knows her brother. "In fact, we're going to fix that right now. We're going to make it so the only people you hurt are the ones you intend to, and not the ones Shukaku wants, okay?"

Gaara has no real reason to trust this child ninja from another village, but he does, and nods with hope written clearly all over his face.

Natsu leaves, still holding Gaara. Temari stands on the roof alone and wonders if everything she thought she knew about her brother is wrong.

~

Inoichi sits in front of an unopened bottle in the hallway outside of their hotel room, his genin asleep inside. On one hand, he's still technically on a mission, and his kids have the second part of the Chunin Exams to take tomorrow. On the other hand, watching ten year old Natsu apply a seal so advanced it made his head hurt on a snarling and black eyed Gaara was more than enough to give him nightmares. Natsu hadn't even flinched as Shukaku had done everything it could to stop her from sealing him away, and Inoichi hadn't been able to do anything. Every time he or the kids tried to get close the sand would snap and reach for them, and Natsu would say that she could handle it. He sometimes forgets just how staggeringly immense his student's chakra stores are, but watching her use that chakra to near effortlessly pin down a jinchuuriki had certainly reminded him. If she didn't pass this exam, he was submitting his report on this on why she deserved a field promotion to chunin.

The door opens and closes, and Inoichi looks up as Kabuto tiredly sits down across from him. They stare at each other for a moment before Kabuto reaches for the bottle, breaks it open, and starts chugging. He holds out the bottle to Inoichi, and the older man considers it and the sixteen year old for a long moment before accepting the bottle and taking his own healthy swig.

"What the fuck," he says flatly. He passes the bottle back to Kabuto.

The younger man nods seriously, "Fucking shit goddamn."

They stay up drinking until nearly dawn. Those are the only words they exchange.

~

"I'm really proud of you," Kabuto says, and he's said these same words in this same situation before but he was lying. He's not lying now, because against all reason and his best efforts he really does care about these two girls, loves them maybe, because they're the closest thing he has to family besides Orochimaru-sama. "You guys are going to be great chunin."

Neither Hana nor Natsu will look him in the eye. This is how it always starts, this is how they leave him, and Kabuto smiles and pretends that it doesn't hurt.

The crisp, official papers declaring Natsu a chunin crumple in her fist. "I'm so sorry," the little girl whispers. Hana sniffs loudly, and Kabuto is qualified to handle lots of things, but crying girls has never been one of them.

"It's okay! No big deal," he insists.

Natsu rubs her arm across her eyes, "I - you - It's not fair! You're just as strong as we are!"

"Natsu?" he says uncertainly.

Hana nods, finally looking him in the eye. "It's not right! You're an amazing medic ninja, Kabuto. Who cares if your taijutsu and ninjutsu are crap? Not every ninja is meant to go on A-ranks, or to be on the front lines!"

"This is bullshit!" Natsu shouts, and Kabuto's mouth falls open, "You're awesome, you're our teammate! You should be moving up with us, we're supposed to be together!"

All his other teammates were relieved to be rid of him when they passed their chunin exams,  a dead weight they were finally able to drop. He's kept a ball of tight, angry hatred in his chest for so long, but looking at Hana and Natsu's desperate faces he feels it shatter. "It's all right," he says warmly, and he'd forgotten he could feel like this, "I really don't mind. Maybe I'm just meant to be a genin."

Natsu shakes her head. Hana crosses her arms, scowling, and says, "You're not allowed to forget about us!"

"What?" Kabuto blinks.

"You don't talk to your past teammates," Hana continues hotly, "and that's fine, they clearly didn't deserve you anyway. But we're your real team, and you're not leaving us behind!"

"I think it'd be you leaving me behind in this case," he points out numbly.

"We would never!" Natsu swears, "I don't care if you're still a genin when I'm a jounin, you'll always be my teammate and my friend!"

Hana grabs Kabuto's hand in her own, "You're pack, you and Natsu and Inoichi-sensei, and no matter what happens I'm not letting go of any of you."

Natsu grabs Kabuto's other hand, nodding furiously. Kabuto's normally calm face breaks out in the biggest grin they've ever seen on him, "Okay. It's not like I really get much choice in the matter, right?"

"Right!" Hana and Natsu say together, pleased.

Inoichi, who's been watching this exchange the entire time, cannot wait to be there when they all find out Kabuto is being promoted to a chunin medic-nin.

He's probably going to have to hide for a couple days from his scary chunin kids when they find out he didn't tell them, but it'll be worth it.

~

It's nearly sunset when they return to the village, and their very first action as newly minted chunin should be to go the hokage and receive their official commission and their vests, but -

"Go," Inoichi says to her and Hana, "Tell who you have to tell. Meet at the flower shop in a week, and I'll give you your new assignments and your border patrol schedule."

"Thanks, Inoichi-sensei!" Hana chirps, before she swings herself onto the largest of her ninken and bounds off in the direction of the Inuzuka compound.

Natsu hugs Kabuto, then Inoichi, and winks at them both before body flickering away. She can't sense Kakashi anywhere in the village, but Itachi's here. She wouldn't normally bother him at home, but this is important, so he'll forgive her just this once -

She smells the blood first. The scent hits her immediately, thick and cloying at the back of her throat. She sees the bodies strewn around her next; dark Uchiha hair and dead Uchiha eyes meet her horrified gaze.

"No," she whispers, and she runs through the compound, and there are bodies everywhere, children and civilians, all of them Uchiha. But she knows Itachi's chakra, he's still alive, the most powerful clan in Konoha can't be all gone.

She stumbles into the main house, and Itachi stands there, whole and alive if splattered with blood. She can't tell how badly he's hurt, not with all this blood clogging her senses, "Senpai! What happened, are you hurt, oh god -" Itachi turns to face her, and when he moves she sees the bodies of his mother and father cooling on the floor.  She covers her mouth, "No, who - who could have done this, your father is so strong!"

"Natsu," he says, and his voice is dead and cold and she flinches away from it, "Get out of here."

"You're right, we need to go," she takes a step forward to pull him away from the horrific sight, "Come on, we have to tell the hokage-"

"Aniki?" Both Natsu and Itachi spin to see the terrified little boy in the doorway, "Is that-"

"Don't look!" Natsu rushes forward and pulls Itachi’s little brother into her arms. He's almost too big for her to lift, but she's strong, and she wraps an arm under his thighs and uses the other to keep his head bent down inter her shoulder. "Sasuke, don't look, okay? Please."

“Okay,” he whispers, fingers digging into her shoulders.

She drops a kiss on top of his head, and it’s horribly selfish, but if all the other Uchihas are dead, she’s grateful that these are the two who aren’t. “Senpai, we have to go, whoever did this might come back. It’s not safe.”

“I did it,” Itachi says. It comes out rough, and he has to clear his throat before he continues, “I killed the Uchiha Clan.”

“What?” Natsu shakes her head before saying, “Is this like survivor’s guilt, or something? Look, I know this is awful, but it’s not your fault. Senpai, we have to go-“

“I killed the Uchihas,” Itachi repeats, and Sasuke shakes in her arms, “And if you don’t run, I’ll kill you too.”

Natsu blinks. “Bullshit. We don’t have time for this! Itachi-senpai, the longer we wait to report this, the more likely the murderer is to get away!”

“I am the murderer,” he says, and Natus doesn’t know what kind of psychological break this is but he needs to have it somewhere else, “I killed all the other Uchihas, so that the world may know that I am the strongest of us all.”

Natsu stares, open mouthed, because what a giant flaming pile of lies. “Aniki?” Sasuke whimpers.

“Kai,” Natsu says softly, cracking her chakra like a whip, because the longer this goes on the less real it seems to be.

Nothing changes. Itachi finally meets her eyes, and she flinches away from the three tomoe'd Sharingan. “This is no genjutsu,” he says, and his hands raise to form into seals. “I will make you bleed so that you know this world is real.”

If Natsu were on her own, she would stay and fight him. She wouldn’t win, she’s sparred with him enough times to know how hopelessly outclassed she is, but she would stay and do her best to beat some sense into his head. But she’s got Sasuke, and if Itachi hurts his brother in the middle of his little mental breakdown he will never forgive himself.

“This isn’t your fault,” she repeats fiercely. He moves to striker her, but she body flickers away before he can hit her.

She appears in the Hokage’s office, because no matter how he reinforces his chakra barrier her own chakra find a way to worm its way through. The Sandaime is starring at one of the councilman – Dan-something – in horror.

“Someone’s attacked the Uchiha Compound,” she announces, and Sarutobi’s horror filled gaze lands on her. “They’re dead. Itachi is alive, but – I think he’s gone crazy, or something. He keeps on repeating that he killed them, and he tried to attack us.”

Sasuke has started crying silently, she feel the wetness on her skin. She wants to join him, wants to curl up somewhere safe with Sasuke and bawl until the ache in her chest goes away, but she’s a chunin now and she has to be strong.

Sarutobi keeps starring at her, silent, and she stamps her foot. “Hokage-sama! There’s an S-Rank assassin on the loose, one of your Anbu captains has snapped, and a clan with a powerful bloodline limit has nearly been wiped out. You need to do something!”

“I’ll send some Anbu to the Uchiha compound,” the councilman says, eyes gleaming, “They’ll handle it. If you’ll just give Sasuke to me-“

Natsu takes a step back. The hokage finally seems to come back to himself and hisses, “You leave Root out of this, you’ve done more than enough damage already.”

“Why Hokage-sama,” the councilman says evenly, “Root has been disbanded, at your order.”

Sarutobi looks ready to murder the man right there, so when he reaches for Sasuke again Natsu says, “Touch him and I’ll tear your arm off and beat you with the bloody end.”

The councilman pauses. “Vicious little bitch, aren’t you?”

Natsu snarls, and this old man better pray he never finds her in a dark corner.

“Danzo,” the hokage snaps, “that’s enough.” He turns to Natsu and says, “I’ll handle this. Please take Sasuke to the hospital.”

“He’s not hurt,” she says, “I wouldn’t let him get hurt!”

“Natsu,” Sarutobi sighs, and he looks older than he ever has before, “Please do as I ask.”

Sasuke finaly looks up from her shoulder, and his face is splotchy and his eye are red. She presses a kiss to his forehead, says “Okay,” and body flickers away.

~

They won’t let her see Sasuke, “family only,” and she wants to scream because she doesn’t know if they noticed but Sasuke lost all the family he had in a single night.

Itachi is nowhere to be found, and he’s officially been named the perpetrator of the Uchiha Massacre and a missing-nin. She doesn’t believe any of this for a second, because maybe Itachi killed them and maybe he didn’t, but he definitely didn’t do it for a reason as stupid as “proving himself.” Maybe that little act would have worked on someone else, but Natsu knows him, and Itachi’s a great liar, but he’s not perfect.

Hana and Kabuto are quick to believe the worst, and it feels like a betrayal until Inoichi-sensei lays a heavy hand on her head and says, “Itachi never really got close to anyone. You and Sasuke are the only ones who really know him, so it’s easy for everyone else to accept what they’re told.”

“Well, isn’t that convenient,” she glares.

Inoichi blinks, and for a moment he looks calculating before admitting, “Yes.”

“Sensei?” Hana says hesitantly. She’s pale, and she’s gripping Kabuto’s hand so tightly that her knuckles are white.

Inoichi sighs and crosses his arms, “The only one who knows for sure what happened that night is Itachi Uchiha, who claims to have killed his family as a test of skill. It’s very possible that that's in fact what happened. But,” Inoichi frowns, “It seems a little too convenient, and a little too neat. So maybe, maybe Natsu is right and something deeper is going on here.”

“What are we going to do about it?” Kabuto asks.

“Nothing,” he says, and glares at Natsu when she began to protest, “The hokage has declared that Itachi is a murderer and a traitor, and we will not go against the word of the hokage. That being said, there's nothing illegal about keeping an eye or an ear out for what may have actually happened that night. Understand?”

His team nods, faces unusually serious.

When Inoichi brings it up to Shikaku later, his old teammate’s face goes instantly blank, which is really all the confirmation he needs.

“Shit,” he sighs, “Natsu is never going to let this go.”

Shikaku rubs the back of his head, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and if I did have some extremely probable suspicions about what you’re talking about, I would recommend that you do your best to get her to drop it. For everyone’s sake.”

“Itachi was the first person who ever cared about her,” Inoichi says, “She won’t give up on him. She’ll die first.”

“If she’s not careful,” Shikaku agrees, face dark, and Inoichi rubs the bridge of his nose. He stands up, and as one he and Shikaku head to the bar.

~

Natsu senses his chakra when he enters the village again, so she’s waiting in his apartment when he staggers inside in the middle of the night. “Niichan,” she runs to his side as he stumbles and falls into bed. He still has his Anbu mask on, and his uniform is torn and bloody. “What happened?”

“Lots and lots of kunai,” he rolls his head to look at her, and she reaches over to delicately remove the porcelain dog mask. “What are you doing here? Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” she says, and the uniform’s a goner anyway so she doesn’t hesitate to use chakra to slice it open and peel it off, “But it can wait. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

He reaches a hand over to cup her face and turn it towards him, “Are you hurt?”

“No,” she thinks of what her life would be like if Kakashi hadn’t made it back from this mission, if she had lost both Senpai and Niichan at once, and her eyes burn. “But you are.”

“I’m fine,” he lets his hand drop, but doesn’t protest when Natsu’s hands come alight with green chakra. She’s no good at delicate work, but Hana and Kabuto have drilled the basics into her enough that she can do this.

“Liar,” she accuses softly, and her shoulders ease as she sees the wounds slowly close. She slices off his pants as well, and there’s a nasty stab wound on his right thigh that almost makes her go drag Kabuto out of bed. But she knows Kakashi wouldn’t stand for anyone else seeing him this way, except maybe Gai. So she uses chakra to clean the wound and heal it as much as she can, working her way down until she’s slowly easing off his sandles. The soles of his feet are one huge scab that’s slowly oozing blood. The thought of even standing on that makes her wince. Kakashi doesn’t react as she rips the scabs off so she can heal the tissue underneath, and her hand lingers over his left ankle, which is swollen and tender but not broken.

She goes back to his hands, and three of his fingers are broken. She goes to the bathroom to grab his first aid kit, because tiny finger bones definitely fall under delicate work. She straightens and splints them, which is all she can really do, but she thinks that she can probably get Kakashi to agree to spend a few minutes with Kabuto so that he can heal them properly. She absently heals a deep bruise along his collarbone, but hesitates when she gets to his mask.

“It’s all right,” Kakashi sighs, and his eyes are closed, Natsu assumes to finally stop using the Sharingan. “You can take it off.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, because she just stripped Kakashi to his underwear, but she knows that this is a lot more intimate.

He nods, and she uses chakra to cut the material down the side and slowly slides it off. The mask only hides the details, so his face is just as broad and strong as she’d figured. She giggles, and Kakashi opens his normal eye, “What?”

“Tan line,” she explains, tracing a light finger where his face turns pale. She sobers as her fingers trail against his lips; they’re bloody and almost bitten through. It’s a small thing, but she can’t leave it be, and her chakra briefly flares green. The cuts close, and she uses her thumb to rub the dried blood away from the newly healed skin.

“Waste of chakra,” Kakashi scolds, but his words come out slurred as he’s dragged down into a sleep he’s clearly fighting. “You should head home.”

Natsu blinks, considers, then shakes her head. “Hold on.” Kakashi quirks an eyebrow. Natsu dashes into his living room and then back carrying a large book on battle tactics. She pulls the blanket over him, and carefully tucks it in around his shoulders. “I’ll keep watch, okay? I’ll be right here reading, and if something happens I’ll wake you up. So you can sleep deeply, okay?”

She settles down with her back against the wall next to his bed and cracks open the book. Kakashi pats her head, says “Okay,” in that quiet tone of voice that makes Natsu thinks of her days as Naruto, and closes his eyes.

Natsu hums in satisfaction and reads by the moonlight.

~

In the end, it’s Sarutobi who tells Kakashi about the massacre. For three days Natsu tries to get Kakashi to stop training, to stop hurting himself, and for three days he totally ignores her. This means all her energy is being funneled into irritating the Sandaime into giving her what she wants, which is going horribly.

She glares at the hokage, and he doesn’t even have the decency to glare back. He just looks sad. Sarutobi shakes his head. “No, Natsu, you can’t see Sasuke today.”

“Why not?” she demands, “You can’t keep using the family only bullshit forever, it’s not going to work. You have to release him eventually.”

“Natsu,” he sighs, “I’d wanted to wait to have this conversation. You can’t see Sasuke now, and it would be best, for everyone, if you didn’t see him for – a while.”

“Why?” she asks, “I’m his brother’s best friend!” She’s never claimed that title before, but she knows it’s true.

“Exactly,” he says, “There are already people saying that you knew about the massacre, even that you helped him do it.”

“That’s ridiculous!” she stomps her foot, “I would never! And I still don’t buy that Itachi-senpai would either, by the way.”

 The Sandaime rubs his forehead, “That’s another thing. Your rather outspoken support of a mass murderer isn’t helping matters.”

“He’s not a mass murder!” Natsu yells, “Saying something doesn’t make it true, and I know that Itachi-senpai wouldn’t have done what he did without a good reason. Stop lying to me!”

This is why you can’t see Sasuke,” the hokage says, “The boy’s already lost everything. Why are you trying to make this harder for him?”

“Why are you trying to keep him away from the one person who can understand him?” Natsu returns.

Sarutobi leans his elbows on his desk. “Natsu, the civilians’ opinions are fickle things. It will be very bad if you two are seen together. For now, Sasuke has their sympathy and their support. But if they get it into his head that he was in any way involved, in any way like his brother –“

Natsu closes her eyes and remembers a bottle shattering on Naruto’s head, jagged glass soaked with alcohol ripping apart his skin and his insides, and an old man’s gleeful laugh while Naruto took what he thought were to be his last breaths.

“For how long?” she asks.

“Until he’s a genin would be best,” he says.

Natsu feels despair whip through her, because she’s sure that Sasuke is talented enough to graduate the Academy early, but no way will they let him, because then people will start to draw comparisons with Itachi.

“Okay,” she clears her throat and swallows, “Okay. I won’t approach or interact with Sasuke until he’s a genin on one condition.”

He leans back in his chair, “I’m listening.”

“You take Kakashi-niichan out of Anbu.”

“He’s the best Captain I have,” the hokage argues.

“I don’t care,” she says, “He’s a strong and loyal ninja of Konoha, so he’ll never ask for it himself. But you’re destroying him just like you were destroying Itachi-senpai. You need to stop.”

Sarutobi looks at her for a long time. She doesn’t flinch or look away, because this is important.

“All right,” he says finally, “You agree not to engage with Sasuke until he’s a genin, and I’ll offer Kakashi the option of returning to an elite jounin.”

She holds out her hand, “Deal.”

They shake on it, and Natsu hopes Sasuke will forgive her for this one day.

~

A week later Kakashi swings in through her window, “What did you do?”

She messes up the sealing scroll she’d been working on and curses, “What?”

“I’m a jounin again,” and there’s disbelief and a fearful happiness in that statement. “I figured he’d never let me leave. What did you do?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says firmly and eyes the scroll. She might be able to mess with that that mistaken line down the middle and turn this into a scroll capable of holding a sealed wind jutsu. She doesn’t actually know any wind jutsus that would be compatible with that type of seal, but she’s willing to learn.

“Natsu,” he says again, this time a warning, but he’s never been able to intimidate her since the day they met so she doesn’t know why he thinks that’s going to work now.

She puts down her brush and meets his narrowed gaze full on, “Yes?”

He glares at her for a minute longer before he sighs. He walks over to ruffle her hair, “Thanks. Maybe I’ll go ask Iruka out to dinner or something.”

She blinks, “Niichan?”

“It wasn’t fair to enter into a relationship with anyone while I was in Anbu. Now, however,” he shrugs.

Natsu beams, “That’s great! Iruka’s really cute. I don’t know how Gai will feel about you cheating on him, though.”

Kakashi rolls his eyes and gently flicks her forehead, “Brat.”

~

Hana and Kabuto’s assignments to the hospital are pretty obvious, but Inoichi’s stumped about what to do with Natsu. In another decade she’ll probably be running back to back infiltration missions, but until then he’s kind of at a loss what to recommend her for that isn’t a giant waste.

He approaches the hokage about it, and the older man admits, “I tried to convince Jiraiya to come back and take her on as an apprentice. His reply letter was a very polite ‘fuck off’.”

“She needs to continue studying seals,” Inoichi agrees, “In a few years, there won’t be anything for even Jiraiya to teach her at the rate she’s going.”

Sarutobi scratches his beard thoughtfully, “If I gave her an ongoing research mission?”

“People will cry favoritism,” he warns, “And she’ll go insane if all you have her do is study and work on seals.”

“I’ll supplement it with C-Ranks,” Sarutobi shrugs, “And people can cry favoritism all they want. Konoha hasn’t had a real seal master in almost ten years. We need her to achieve her full potential.”

Inoichi sighs, then nods, “Do you want to tell her, or should I?”

“I’m not her favorite person at the moment,” the hokage says wryly, “You go right ahead.”

~

“Sorry I’m late!” Natsu calls cheerfully as she ducks into the dango stand a month after receiving her assignment. “I had a little mishap with a seal.” She’s still faintly smoking.

“A little mishap,” Inoichi says, deadpan.

Kabuto grabs her hands and looks at her blistering and bleeding fingers in despair. “How?” he moans even as bright green chakra gathers in his hands and closes the wounds. “Every time we see you now you’re bleeding.”

Hana is systematically banging her head against the table top. Inoichi absently slips his hand underneath so she hit that instead, because Tsume will blame him if her daughter gets brain damage.

“Sealing is hard!” Natsu protests, “I’m mostly just making it up as I go. You can only learn so much from books.”

“Could you maybe learn how not to blow yourself up?” Hana asks, tilting her head to the side to glare at her friend. “Kabuto and I are good, but we’re not quite good enough to put you back together if you tear yourself into a hundred pieces.”

“Actually, explosion seals are relatively easy,” she admits, “It’s the advanced storage ones that you have to look out for.”

Kabuto slaps his hand over his face and Inoichi rolls his eyes. "Is that the one you're working on now?" Hana asks.

Natsu shakes her head, "Gaara's worried that his dad is reading his mail, so I'm trying to work out a seal that's attuned to a person's particular chakra. It's a huge pain."

Inoichi now feels the urge to bang his head against the table top, because 'a huge pain' to Natsu is 'literally impossible' to everyone else.

“Order up!” the waitress says cheerfully as she puts down a truly massive platter towering with dango in front of them, “Hi Natsu! Anko said that she saw your most recent flower pattern in the tree out back and that you’re improving.”

“Thanks!” she says, grabbing a skewer and biting into the meat. The waitress pats her head before walking away.

Inoichi watches his former genin dig in with resignation. “When are you guys going to start picking up the tab? Feeding you all isn’t cheap you know.”

Hana swallows her mouthful, “Sensei, I am but a lone healer’s apprentice –“

“I have been a chunin less than a month,” Kabuto pouts, wounded, “and already you seek to profit-“

“Do you have any idea how much sealing paper and ink costs?” Natsu demands.

“Okay, okay,” Inoichi grumbles, but it’s not very effective considering he’s smiling, “I take it back, jeez.”

All three of his kids eye him suspiciously for a moment before grinning and going back to eating. Inoichi still finds himself disgustingly fond of them all anyway.

Chapter Text

Kakashi has to get them to pass somehow. Not because of the Council and what they want (Kakashi is of the opinion that the Council can go fuck themselves), but because if Sasuke doesn’t become an official genin of Konoha today, Natsu will kill him.

He sidesteps another attack from the Uchiha, and if the kid would just pause for a second and listen to Kiba then he could be given the standard Inuzuka speech of cooperation and depending on each other, yatta yatta, and then maybe they could get their shit together.

“Niichan!”

Kakashi freezes, because she wouldn’t, she said she wouldn’t –

Natsu lands on top of his head by her hands. “Natsu,” he sighs, “this really isn’t the best time.”

“I know, but I have to tell you-” she cuts herself off as she gets sight of Sasuke. The kid has paused about two feet away from them with the oddest look on his face. By Natsu’s sudden silence, he assumes she genuinely didn’t realize that he was in the middle of their genin test.

“What’s wrong?” he demands, because Natsu has been keyed up about this for weeks, so anything big enough to make her forget is cause for worry.

She doesn’t answer. Instead she twists her body so she’s sitting, then slides and falls so she’s laying against his chest upside down with her legs hooked over his shoulders. “Hi!” she says, “You know, you’re never going to beat Kakashi-niichan attacking him head on. He’s too skilled for that.”

“NATSU, STOP MEDDLING!” Kiba shouts, and from the sound of it he’s hiding in the top of one of the trees at the eastern edge of the clearing. “BUT ALSO SHE’S RIGHT!”

“What did you have to tell me?” he repeats. He’s also a little concerned about the fact that Sasuke is still just standing there staring at them.

She shakes her head, “Ah, it can wait. I’ll just-” She flips off of him and lands on her feet in front of Sasuke. She pokes his forehead, and for a split second his whole face crumples before it smooths back out into a blank mask. “Good luck! I know Kiba’s a bit of a goofball, but he’s really smart. You should listen to him.”

With that last bit of advice she shunshins away. Kakashi looks back down at his book, waiting for Sasuke’s next attack.

It doesn’t come. Instead Sasuke body flickers away. When less than two minutes later both Sasuke and Kiba’s chakra signatures collide with Sakura’s, he smiles.

Maybe Natsu’s hints aren’t exactly fair, but it’s not cheating as long as they win.

~

Iruka’s on his own in the mission assignment office, so he only has a little bit of a heart attack when Natsu appears in front of him with nothing to herald her entrance than a slight breeze from the displaced air.

“Natsu,” he groans and rubs his hand over his face, “We should put bells on you.”

She pushes aside some scrolls and sits on the table next to him, “That seems counterproductive.”

“Not to my lifespan,” he mutters. “What are you doing here? You should have left the village already.”

“I’ll make up the lost time,” she shrugs, “Three weeks to seduce a guard and get patrol logs? That’s basically a paid vacation.”

Iruka snorts. Three weeks to travel to the incredibly unstable Kirigakure and get ahold of its shinobi numbers, their patrol patterns, and how frequently the guard is changed all without getting caught or killed by the notoriously paranoid and bloodthirsty ninja that Kiri produces, and then back. He knows for a fact that it’s an A-rank, and it would have gone to Kurenai if she hadn’t just been assigned her first genin team.

Natsu winks at him like she knows what he’s thinking, and she was trained by Inoichi Yamanaka so it’s not outside of the realm of impossibility. “Anyway, can you send out a notice to my customers that orders will be delayed three weeks? Or tell Kakashi to do it? I tried to give him a heads up but he was busy.”

“Ah,” Iruka looks at her more closely, because he knows what his boyfriend is doing right now. She seems fine, and that’s a comfort, because for a ninja Natsu is actually a pretty horrible liar. “I will, but you should really get going. Come back alive.”

“Sir yes sir,” she grins cheekily and disappears as suddenly as she came.

~

Sasuke remembers Natsu. Not very well, because he only met her in person that one time when she’d stood on Itachi’s head and smiled at him upsidedown and called him sweet. But he’d been aware that Itachi had a friend that he trained with and taught who wasn’t a silent and scary adult, and from that moment on whenever Itachi alluded to the girl Sasuke had an image of a bright smile and kind eyes.

He also remembers stumbling into the aftermath of the massacre, and he’d only gotten a brief glance of his parents’ bodies and his blood soaked brother before the older girl had hauled him into her arms and begged him not to look.

When Itachi had claimed to have killed their clan, she hadn’t believed him. She’d tried to get Itachi to come with them, had only left when his brother had tried to attack, and when Danzo (he knows Danzo, of course he does, the old man smiles at him and watches him and makes his skin crawl) had tried to touch him she’d protected him, she’d taken him to the hospital at the hokage’s request and kissed his forehead and said that everything would be okay.

He hadn’t seen her since.

Sasuke’s not an idiot. They occupy the same village, and Konoha’s big, but it’s not that big. It has to be on purpose. People had refused to talk about Natsu to him, he’d asked and asked – on one memorable occasion he’s kneeled in front of the hokage and begged – but the last link to his brother, to his family, was nowhere to be found, and it was purposeful.

He’d probably be angry about that if he didn’t know that it was all his fault.

He’d told the jounin who’d interviewed him everything, of course he had, he was seven and in shock and hadn’t known any better. But now he does, and finding Natsu and Itachi together around the slowly cooling bodies of his clansmen hardly put Natsu in a good light, and even though she clearly hadn’t known what was going on – even thought she’d saved him – he wonders how long she was interrogated for. If they hurt her trying to get a truth out of her that didn’t exist, all because Sasuke didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. He’s smart, if he’d been thinking a little more clearly he could have spun it so that they wouldn’t have suspected her, but he didn’t. He’d been seven and stupid and it had cost him his brother’s only friend.

But he’d seen Natsu today. She poked his forehead just like Itachi used to and smiled at him. She was taller and older and moved with the confidence that only truly dangerous people had, but – the smile she gave him was the exact same as the one she had when he was six.

He runs his fingers over his the leaf symbol carved into his hitai-ate, and thinks that maybe seeing Natsu again is just almost good as finally becoming a genin.

~


“Where’s Natsu?” is the first thing out of his boyfriend’s mouth as he strolls into their apartment. The second is “Are you cooking? What did I do to deserve that?”

Iruka rolls his eyes, “We had leftover Ichiraku. I’m heating it up.”

“Oh,” Kakashi’s arms slip around his waist from behind and he rest his chin on the Academy teacher’s shoulder, “that’s okay then.”

“We should really learn how to cook,” he sighs, turning off the stove and reaching for the bowls. “I was banking on settling down with someone who did, but instead I’ve got you.”

Kakashi pouts, but accepts his bowl gratefully. He slides down his mask so he can eat after casting a suspicious glace around the apartment. So far Iruka, Natsu, and Gai are the only ones who’ve seen him without his mask, and he wants to keep it that way. "Natsu?" he repeats.

Iruka boosts himself up to sit on the counter, "Probably halfway to the Hidden Mist by now."

Kakashi chokes, "Why?"

"A-rank infiltration mission," Iruka cups his hand around the weak warmth of the bowl, "She'll be gone for the next three weeks or so."

"Why the hell was she assigned an A-rank? She's a chunin! Did they at least send her with backup?" he asks.

Iruka snorts, "Of course not. Ever since she mastered Kage Bunshin they haven't bothered."

"That's not how the technique works, and the Council knows that," Kakashi growls. "It’s a giant waste of chakra that’s dangerous to use and not worth the trouble – I regret teaching her that. They're going to get her killed."

"Yeah," Iruka leans his head back against the cabinet, "That's probably the point."

Kakashi's chopsticks snaps in his hands.

~

Kiba throws himself down on the floor. Hana glances up from her text on advanced medical ninjutsu and raises an eyebrow, "Rough day?"

"They're awful. So bad," he moans. Akamaru barks in agreement.

Hana coughs to hide her laugh, "They're not that bad, surely."

Kiba moves his arm to glare at her.

"You're sure you're not exaggerating even a little bit?" she wheedles.

"Maybe a little," he admits grudgingly, "Sakura's really smart, but she acts dumb for some reason. And her endurance is really bad. She probably would have been failed on that alone if she didn't have such good aim with shuriken. And Sasuke's good at like, everything, I still don't get why he didn't graduate earlier. He's just so-" Kiba rubs his hand over his face.

"So what?" Hana prompts, even though she's hears this particular complaint before.

"Sad," the genin sighs, "He's miserable all the time, and he works hard and if you yell at him for long enough he'll work with you, but - crap, I don't know. He's got this really great poker face so you think he's just a big jerk, but I can smell his emotions, the big idiot, and he's just this sad lonely kid who won't listen to anyone."

Hana hums, because if she opens her mouth she'll probably start cursing the hokage and his dumb rules and his dumb ideas, and that is not the type of thing that leads to a long life.

Kiba pulls himself up so he can rest his chin on his knees, "Is Natsu going to be back soon?"

Technically Kiba doesn't know anything about Natsu and the Sandaime's deal, but he's known Natsu almost as long as Hana has and, in spite of what his Academy test scores might claim, her little brother is far from stupid.

"I hope so," she says quietly.

Kiba shifts so he can rest his head on her knees, "Don't worry. She'll be fine."

"Of course she will," Hana smiles and ruffles her brother's hair. "Come on, let's go play. This book isn't making much sense anyway."

~

"I jinxed myself," Natsu moans as she dodges another kunai, "Just like a vacation, I said. Easy, I said."

She flips in midair to avoid a sword flung through the air, and if she'd been any slower it would have taken her head off. By her estimation she's got three chunin and two jounin on her tail, and a poisoned puncture wound through her left shoulder. She's certain she's been in worst scrapes than this; she just can't think of them.

She's also cursing her lack of water based jutsus right about now, because the mist is actually helping provide some cover, and any wind jutsu she could use would disrupt it. Natsu dips low to avoid another barrage of kunai. She doesn't know the area well enough to body flicker away, because there's no familiar chakra signatures to hang onto. She's got a few useful little seals in her back pocket, but as of right now they don't know that she's a Konoha ninja, and she wants to keep it that way. There aren't enough seal masters in the ninja world that they won't track it back to her. If she plays it right, and doesn't die, they'll just assume she's another of their numerous missing-nin.

There are trees in front of her, finally, and she leaps up to the top of one. Kiri ninja are used to going under instead of over, so it should buy her maybe a minute to try to come up with a plan.

"It looks like you could use a hand," a soft alto voice says. Natsu has a kunai drawn and at the newcomer's throat before they've finished speaking. If not for the Adam's apple at his throat, she would think the ninja a very pretty girl. Then again, it's not like Natsu has any room to talk in that department. He's got long brunette hair, and dark gentle eyes that reminder her so much of Itachi's that for a moment she can't breathe. "I believe it would be advantageous of us to work together."

She doesn't lower her hand, "Who are you? What do you want?"

He taps his hitai-ate, "It seems my fellow ninja are not so happy to see me."

There's no cut through the mist symbols, but Natsu says, "You're a missing-nin."

"I am a loyal ninja to the village of Kirigakure," he says plainly.

"But not to its mizukage," Natsu says, but that's actually not a bad thing, because as far as she's concerned someone should have paid her to sneak through to his chambers and gut him instead of getting some measly patrol information. The guy is such a dick. "Or its Daiymo," and Natsu's not touching that one with a ten foot pole, because that guys is actually way worse than the mizukage. Natsu would gladly kill him for free.

There's the sound of roughly a dozen ninja headed in their direction. The boy raises an eyebrow, "I believe we stand a better chance fighting together than apart."

Natsu sighs and removes the kunai from his neck, "Well, the enemy of my enemy and all that."

"My thoughts exactly," the boy says, and they smile at each other for a moment before they both move.

Their fighting styles are unexpectedly complimentary. He's a devastatingly effective long range fighter with his senbon, and shit but he's fast. Natsu's more effective at close combat; she's just going to have to trust that the boy's aim is good enough that he won't hit her on accident. Natsu twists out of the way of a katana just in time for it to run through one of the chunin, and she catches a brief look of the jounin's horror before she jumps onto him with enough force to snap his neck with her thighs. Natsu looks up just in time to catch another katana with her gloves, and what was it with these guys and swords?

She pushes the guy back and flips to land on his shoulders. Her hand is bleeding, because gloves can only do so much, so she quickly draws a seal on his head in her own blood. She activates it with a spike of chakra before boosting herself off and landing in a crouch about ten feet away. The seal goes off, and the ninja explodes messily outward, taking the rest of his comrades with him.

"Huh," Natsu looks at the charred and smoking remains of the enemy ninja, "I hadn't intended for there to be a fire component to that. Weird."

The boy lands gently next to her, "You are a creative and vicious opponent."

"You're not so bad yourself," she nudges his shoulder, and his face becomes blank with shock for a moment before he cracks the smallest, saddest smile. Natsu really hates that smile, she's seen it on a lot of people and long ago she used to see it when she looked in the mirror.

"We should depart," the boy says, looking towards Kirigakure, "They will send reinforcements soon."

"Good point," she agrees. She holds out her hand, "To meeting again, hopefully not as enemies."

He takes it with barely a hesitation, and they shake. "I would hate to cross blades with you," he glances to the corpses.

She laughs and releases his hand, "Stay strong, and stay safe." It's a typical ninja phrase of farewell, but he still looks shocked to have received it. Natsu winks at him before she gathers chakra to her legs and runs.

Her wounds are few but deep, and she hasn't slept for nearly thirty hours. It's going to be a rough trip back to Konoha.

~

Kakashi and his team are in the mission assignment office in the midst of returning Tora to Madam Shijimi. Sasuke's covered in cat scratches and Sakura is physically restraining Kiba from leaping forward to throttle the poor thing. Kakashi thinks that's probably a waste of effort - Madam Shijimi is doing that just fine on her own.

Iruka is glaring at him disapprovingly from his place next to the hokage, but Kakashi shrugs. Honestly, any day he can keep his brats from arguing more than training he counts it a success.

This is, of course, when Natsu appears in the middle of the office in a swirl of leaves. That's an instant tip off that something is wrong, because the girl will usually exert the extra chakra to ensure her entrance is as undetectable as possible. As the chakra leaves dissolve to nothing, Natsu stumbles, then falls on one knee.

Her standard black uniform is cut and bloodstained, and the hair in her bun is dirty and lopsided. She lifts her head, and there's a vicious bruise stretching from her cheek to the top her head that disappears under her hair. "Hokage-sama," she greets.

This breaks the silence, and Kiba runs forward, "Natsu!" Kakashi catches him around the shoulders, and the Inuzuka snarls. "She's hurt, let me go!"

"Be quiet," he orders sternly, because the Daiymo's wife is right there, and they can't afford to show such ties. They are the emotionless, cold army of mercenaries that the Fire Lord keeps at his back, and they can't show themselves to be anything else.

"Nami-san," the Sandaime leans back in his chair and looks down at her impassively, "I trust you completed your mission?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," she forces herself to stand, and when she sways all of Kakashi's muscles tense at the effort of not moving to steady her. Natsu doesn't have any bags or holsters on her, so he's not surprised when her index finger lights green and she slices her shirt off. They need a performance, and Natsu knows it. She shrugs off the remains of top, standing straight under Madam Shijimi's speculative gaze. Her breasts are bound in bandages, and her pants are tight and low on her hips. There's a poorly healed stab wound on her shoulder, and a thin, deep slice curving up her side. First degree burns cover her entire back, but nowhere else, which doesn't even make sense.

Natsu reaches a hand underneath her bindings and pulls out a tightly folded square of paper. She walks over to the hokage, and Kakashi can see her legs shaking. He knows this is how it has to be but he's furious. She unfolds the paper, places it on the desk in front of him, and then bites her thumb. A single drop of blood falls on the paper, she releases a burst of chakra, and in the next instant a large notebook sits on the desk in its place. She bows; the wound at her waist opens and bleeds. "This contains all the requested information, Hokage-sama."

Sarutobi doesn't touch the notebook, only nods, "I expect a full report on my desk by the end of the day." Kakashi doesn’t roll his eyes, but he wants to. Just for that he’s sure Natsu won’t hand it in for a week.

"Of course, Hokage-sama," the band holding her hair together snaps, and her long pale hair unwinds and falls in a curtain over her shoulder. If the situation wasn't so dire, he'd be tempted to laugh, because she definitely did that on purpose. Bruised and bloody, undeniably feminine with bound breasts, long hair, and fingernails painted a deep purple – yet perfectly in control and obedient; she's the perfect image of every ridiculous thought Madam Shijimi has probably ever had about female ninja.

The hokage takes out his pipe and exhales. The smoke barely brushes Natsu's face, "You're dismissed."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama." She leaves in another swirl of leaves, still bowed.

"My, my," Madam Shijimi says, vapid smile wide but her eyes narrowed, "Who was that?"

"Oh, just a chunin," the Sandaime takes the notebook and carelessly hands it to Iruka. "I apologize for the interruption."

"Quite all right," she simpers. Kakashi knows she'll report this to her husband and that it will aid Konoha in the long run, but right at this moment he doesn't care. He wants nothing more than to follow Natsu and make sure she went to the hospital, but instead he forces his eyes to remain glued to the pages of his book.

~

Kabuto, through many years of friendship, is not surprised when Natsu body flickers half naked and bleeding on top of his coffee table. "What the fuck?" he demands on reflex more than anything else, hands already glowing green to close the wound on her side. "You could have gone to the hospital, you know. It's my day off."

Natsu scoffs, "What's the point in having two medic-ninjas as teammates if I have to go to the actual hospital?"

"My peace of mind?" He reaches the wound on her shoulder, and Natsu has always healed fast (mostly because he and Hana would heal a papercut on her if she stood still long enough) but it already looks weeks old. "Did you heal this on the way?"

"I tried," she grunts as he shifts down to her ribs, and her breathing eases after the fracture is healed, "I didn't have enough chakra control, or energy, to do anything but try to get back here. I'm pissed the old man didn't let me bring my own supplies - using the Portal Seal would have been really fucking useful."

"You're the only one with chakra stores massive enough to use that thing. It would have been as good as signing your name and village in the sky," he pulls up her left pant leg to heal the stress fracture, and he demands, "Did you run here nonstop from Kiri?"

She nods, ready to fall asleep now that the sharp flares of pain have disappeared, "I was behind schedule, and I couldn't be certain I wasn't being followed."

"That's nearly a week long journey, even assuming you go at top speeds!" He sits next to her on his coffee table and hauls her up to a sitting position so he can reach her back.

She moans and rests her forehead on his shoulder, "Or a three days long journey if you're determined."

"If you're insane, maybe," he stands and pulls her up with him. She whimpers. "No, come on, you're not sleeping on my coffee table. Go shower and I'll find something for you to wear."

"I don't want a shower, I want sleep," she whines, but heads to the bathroom anyway.

Kabuto rolls his eyes, "No blood on my sheets. I get enough of that at work."

Natsu blows a raspberry at him, but once she's leaning underneath a steady stream of hot water she has to admit it feels pretty great to wash off nearly four days’ worth of grime. When she steps out there's a long sleeve shirt waiting for her, and it’s way too big for her and falls almost to her knees. However it's soft and warm and smells like Kabuto's detergent and nothing like the musty air of Mist.

"Why do you have this?" she yawns when she stumbles out, “You're not that much bigger than me, this can't fit you right."

"I like big clothes on rainy days," he gently pulls her toward his bed. She throws herself down, snuggles into his pillow, and lets out a long, content sigh when he pulls the blanket over her. "Good to be home?"

"The best," she murmurs.

Kabuto runs a gentle hand down the side of her face, healing the large bruise as he goes. "I'll be in the living room. Try not to drool on my sheets."

She sticks her tongue out, but doesn't offer anything besides that before finally drifting off to sleep.

~

When Natsu opens her eyes it’s to the weak gray light of dawn. There’s a giant glass of water on the bedside table, and a note in Kabuto’s handwriting that reads: I have an early shift at the hospital. If you’re reading this particular note, you’ve been asleep for nearly twenty four hours. You’re completely healed (you’re welcome).

She giggles and crawls out of Kabuto’s bed, stretching and groaning as her spine cracks - her abused muscles feel like jelly. The water is gone in record time, but now that she’s started she can’t stop, and wanders into Kabuto’s kitchen to refill and drain the glass two more times.

There’s a change of clothing on the windowsill, and it’s her clothes, including her favorite silk tunic and hitai-ate, so that means Kakashi must have stopped in at some point while she was asleep. He’s the only one who both can get past all the booby traps she has in her apartment and knows that she’s back from her mission. She changes quickly and throws Kabuto’s borrowed shirt in his hamper before jumping out his window. She’s starving, and all her former teammate has in his place is rice and vegetables and those gross healthy green smoothies he’s always trying to push on her and Hana. Blech.

It’s too early for ramen or dango, which is tragic, but the market will be open, and the market will have pastries, and sausage bread, and hot cider and chocolate, and –

She blinks, and she has never in her life known Kiba to drag himself out of bed this early, but that’s definitely his chakra signature down by the river. This bears further investigating.

“Why are you awake?” she asks, dropping down in front of the three listing genin.

Kiba’s face instantly lights up and both he and Akamaru tackle her to the ground in a hug, “Natsu! You’re okay!”

“Of course I am!” She pats both their heads, “Nothing that some sleep couldn’t fix.”

“And an advanced medic-nin,” Kiba glares.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she admits, pushing herself up so she’s sitting cross legged on the ground. Kiba leans into her side and Akamaru rests his head on her knee. “Hi Sasuke! And you’re Sakura, right?” she asks the pink haired girl.

“Yes,” the girl says, eyes wide, “Are you sure you’re okay? You looked – really hurt, when we saw you before.”

“That was mostly exhaustion,” she says confidently, “I’m totally fine now! But seriously, what are you all doing?”

“Kakashi-sensei told us to meet him here,” Sakura says.

Natsu opens her mouth. Closes it. Coughs. “Uh, you do know that he’s going to be late, right? Really late?”

Kiba nods, looking glum, “But he’s not consistently late – sometimes it’s three hours, sometimes it’s one. So we have to be here and wait anyway.”

“Ah,” she says, “It’s Saturday, right?” Sakura nods. “Then there’s no way he’s going to show up before ten. Iruka’s day off is on Saturday.”

Kiba groans, “That’s four hours away!”

Natsu’s stomach grumbles, so she says, “Do you guys want to get breakfast with me? I was just going to swing by the market.”

“Better than sitting around here,” Kiba says, getting to his feet. Sakura scrambles along to follow.

Natsu holds out a hand to Sasuke, who won’t look at her or talk to her, and of course he has a right to be angry with her, but she doesn’t want him to be. “Sasuke? Are you coming?”

He looks at her hand, then looks up at her. They stare at each other for a moment before he smiles, small but honest, and places his hand in hers, “Yes.”

~

Natsu is so cool. The cold, efficient kunoichi they’d seen in the mission assignment office is clearly only a small part of who the older girl is, because she’s been smiling and talking almost non-stop. She’s older and a chunin and beautiful and friendly and she must be strong because they give her dangerous missions.

Basically she’s everything Sakura wants to be, and so she sticks close to the older girl. Instead of being annoyed by it, Natsu pats her head and asks her about what she wants to be and what her hobbies are, and if Suzume is still a hardass about flower arranging.

Sasuke is being even more quiet than usual, which Sakura hadn’t thought possible, but he’s also almost-smiled seven times in the past three hours, which is roughly seven times more than she’s ever seen him smile before today. She also thinks that maybe she should start being nicer to Kiba, because when he’s not yelling at her or goofing off he’s actually kind of funny and intelligent, and the latter is not something she ever thought to apply to the boy.

“You shouldn’t leave your hair down like that if you’re going to keep it long,” Natsu tells her when they’re back under the tree waiting for Kakashi-sensei, “It’s a hazard in a fight.”

“Oh,” she says, and runs her hand over her hair. She doesn’t think the teenager means it as a reprimand, but it feels like one, “Okay.”

“Hold still,” Natsu pulls her own hair free, and the platinum blond locks fall messily down, only held back by her hitai-ate. She shifts to sit behind Sakura and slides the younger girl’s forehead protector off before gathering the pink hair in her hands. Natsu expertly smooths and twists her hair into a bun on top of her head, ties it off, and slides Sakura’s hitai-ate back on, “See, perfect. Inoichi-sensei keeps his hair down, but the first time we fought I set it on fire. You think he’d have learned, and yet.”

Sakura blinks, “You set Ino’s dad’s hair on fire? He was your sensei?”

Kiba is snickering, and Sasuke looks at them in interest. Natsu hums, “Yeah. I was put on a team with Kiba’s sister and Kabuto, and I set his hair on fire during our genin exam.”

“And dyed it purple,” Kiba adds.

“And dyed it purple,” she says. Sasuke makes a sound like he’s choking, but after a moment Sakura realizes it’s a laugh. “Actually,” she says, “I’ve always thought that Kakashi would look particularly good with purple hair, if you’re interested.”

“Yes!” Kiba punches the air, “This is going to be awesome!” Sakura nods, because she is sick of being forced to wait for hours when she could be sleeping. And a little bit because Natsu suggested it, and she wants the older girl to think she’s cool too.

Natsu beams and nudges Sasuke with her foot, “What about you? Are you in?”

He smiles, and it’s a real smile, not even an almost one, “I’m in.”

~

When Kakashi comes home that night with purple hair, Iruka does his best to smother his laughter and fails spectacularly. “Natsu is up and about I see. What did you do to piss her off?”

“Nothing,” he pouts, and Iruka tugs him forward so he can pull down his mask and kiss him properly. “She got together with my brats and decided it would be an appropriate team building exercise.”

“Was it?” Iruka smooths his thumb over the tan line on Kakashi’s face, and he never used to be so touchy, not until Kakashi. It’s not like the older man is known for being affectionate either, so he’s not sure where they picked it up. Natsu, probably.

Kakashi leans his cheek into Iruka’s hand, “Yes.”

~

Sasuke is exhausted and sore after a day of being beaten up by his teammates. Usually he likes being this tired because it means he’ll be able to fall asleep without nightmares. But he’s tired, not sleepy, and there’s something thrumming under his skin that he wants to claw out.

“Sasuke!” Soft hands land on his shoulders, and she has to be using chakra to cushion her impact because it doesn’t hurt at all, “I’ve been looking for you!”

“Oh?” His heart is beating too loud in his ears, and he swallows. He hasn’t seen her in over a week, and he’s always afraid it’s going to be the last time. Natsu flips and lands in front of him standing. She’s wearing that same lavender silk tunic he’d seen her in before, and it clings to her in a way makes him blush even more.

She reaches forward and rubs a smudge of dirt off his face, “You have a fire affinity, right?”

He nods. He doesn’t like people touching him normally, because when they do it – they always seem to be touching him to have touched him, the Last Uchiha, not because there’s a real reason or want. Natsu doesn’t do that. Her physical affection is constant and casual; it reminds him of back when he had his clan.

“Great! Do you want to help me with some experiments? I did this thing on a recent mission, and it was kind of accident, but I think it could be a cool jutsu, maybe.”

Creating new jutsus is incredibly dangerous. Additionally, an application must be submitted and approved by the hokage. Such approval is rarely given to those below jounin rank, so he doubts Natsu has received it.

“Okay,” he says, and her whole face lights up. Sasuke doesn’t know how to go about apologizing for getting her in trouble five years ago, but she’s back in his life again and he wants her to stay.

He doesn’t know how to go about asking for that either.

~

“You’re late,” Hana says pointedly when Natsu finally collapses next to her at the bar. She’s wearing her least favorite tunic; it’s got burn holes and scorch marks around it, and paradoxically is also a bit damn.

The younger girl rolls her eyes, “I still beat Kabuto. I can’t be that late.”

“I’m right here,” an amused says from right behind her, and Natsu does her best not to twitch. He slides into the seat next to her, “I was also here first, I just went to the bathroom. Why are you smoking?”

“I did this thing with an explosion seal on the Kirigakure mission, and it was really cool, but it was also a total accident. I’m trying to recreate it bigger and more controlled,” she doesn’t protest when Hana grabs her hands and heals her burned finger tips. “Sasuke is helping, mostly because if I asked Kakashi he would yell at me.”

“He should yell at you,” Hana says, but they’ve had this same argument so many times that it almost seems routine. “Messing about with fire and explosion seals seems like a terrible combination.”

Natsu opens her mouth to argue that it’s an awesome combination when Inoichi slams his palm on the counter next to Kabuto. All three of them turn to face their irate sensei, “What are you doing here? This is my spot. Is nothing sacred to you brats? Are you determined to invade every facet of my life?”

Kabuto raises an eyebrow and kicks the stool out. Inoichi, after another minute of glaring, sits. “You got your first progress report about your daughter, didn’t you?” Hana asks sympathetically. It’d be more convincing if she wasn’t grinning.

Inoichi leans his head down on the bar. The bartender slides his usual down to the clan head without pause. “We basically raised them together for a reason! Ino is – high maintenance, but she doesn’t lack focus! And she’s certainly stronger than Asuma’s report would indicate. I trained her myself – I just don’t,” Inoichi makes a sound of inarticulate rage.

Kabuto pats the older man on the shoulder. Shikaku sits down next to him and says, “Hmm. Asuma beat my kid at Go.”

“And apparently my kid is terrible at taijutsu,” Chouza takes the seat next to the Jounin Commander.

Ino slowly turns his heads to face his former teammates, then shifts it to glare at his former genin. “It is a conspiracy.”

Natsu leans over the bar to smile brightly at him, “I wouldn’t worry about Ino. She’s really strong and smart, and so are Shikamaru and Chouji. I’m sure they have a reason for misleading their sensei.”

“Granted, that reason is probably because they think it’s funny, but,” Chouza shrugs.

The blond man lifts his head off of the bar only enough to thunk it back down again. Shikaku rolls his eyes. Hana giggles and calls out, “Another round! Put it on the Yamanaka tab!”

Inoichi whimpers.

~

She hasn’t left the library in something like three days, trying to figure out why the fire explosion jutsu just won’t work, damnit, when Kakashi falls into the seat beside her. “Niichan,” she blinks, because for a genius with near encyclopedic knowledge he really, really hates research.

“I need a favor,” he begins.

Natsu slams her book shut, “Anything.”

“Don’t be so quick to promise, that can get you into trouble,” he scolds.

“Niichan,” she says, “Anything.”

Kakashi smiles, “I have to leave the village for a mission, I should be back in two days. Train my brats?”

“You’re not supposed to be given solo missions!” She glares, “You’re a jounin sensei, they can’t do that!”

“As they’ve clearly established, the Council can do whatever they want,” he says dryly.

She taps her fingers quickly against the table top, “Rank?”

“Just a B-rank,” he flicks her forehead, “They’re not pushing it that far, yet. So will you watch my brats or not?”

“Of course,” she says, “When are you leaving?”

“Right now,” he looks at the clock, “They’ve probably been waiting about an hour or so at this point.”

“Niichan!” she groans, jumping to her feet. She stacks the books for someone else to put away, and smacks a kiss on his forehead before she runs out the door. “Stay strong, and stay safe!”

She body flickers into training ground nine. “Morning!”

All three members of Team Seven twitch.

“Good morning, Natsu,” Sakura greets, slipping her hastily grabbed kunai back in its sheath, “What are you doing here?”

Natsu grabs Kiba and gives him a noogie, “Kakashi-niichan has to leave the village for a couple days, so he asked me to train you instead.”

“Are you qualified to do that? You’re only a chunin,” Kiba asks, half-heartedly struggling from Natsu's hold.

She lets him go and taps a finger against her chin, “Probably not, but realistically it was either me or Gai, so.”

Kiba shivers. Sasuke raises an eyebrow, “Gai?”

“He’s great!” she says enthusiastically.

“He’s insane,” Kiba corrects, “but he’s also a really strong jounin. He trains Team Nine.”

Natsu pouts, but concedes, “He might be a little insane. What do you guys want to do for training?”

Sasuke says nothing, and he’s not quite looking at her. It makes her chest ache, because things have been getting better between them, they have, he trains with her and smiles at her sometimes, but he still doesn’t seem to trust her. Which is fair, because she betrayed him and abandoned him once already (she didn’t, not really, she could never leave her Senpai’s brother alone completely, but watching from the shadows and always taking the patrols around the Uchiha compound isn’t the same, and she knows that) and he has no proof that she won’t do it again.

“Target practice?” Kiba asks. He jerks his thumb at Sasuke and Sakura, “Those two are already pretty perfect at it, but I’m not. Sakura’s endurance still sucks too, if you want to work on that.”

“Hey!” Sakura glares, but he’s right, so that’s all the protest she can muster.

Natsu grins. Kiba takes a step back. “I know just the thing! We’ll go ask Anko for help!”

“No,” the Inuzuka says flatly, “Why, just – I meant normal target practice and training, not – whatever the hell you two will cook up.”

Natsu pouts, “It’ll be fun!”

It is, in fact, pretty fun, Sakura thinks, even though her legs and lungs are burning and she feels like she’s about to die. In the span of fifteen minutes Natsu and the purple haired jounin had rigged an entire training ground with booby traps containing mostly projectile weapons, forbidden the use of jutsu, and had them go at it.

It’s been almost five hours of this, and they have to be setting up more traps whenever she or someone else triggers another one, because this is insane. She’s peripherally aware of Sasuke and Kiba somewhere to her back. Sometimes they’ll come together for a bit, but for the most part they’ve been circling the training ground in a basic patrol pattern and setting off traps as they go.

Each trap, once it’s set, launches a couple dozen projectiles (they seem to have limited themselves to kunai and shuriken) and then it explodes glitter. The only way to stop if from exploding is to grab one of the projectiles and toss it back at the trap at this tiny red pressure seal within fifteen seconds, which deactivates it. The kunai and shuriken are blunted, because despite appearances Natsu isn’t actually trying to kill them, but the edges are still sharp. Sakura is covered in thin, deep cuts, but almost no glitter. Kiba’s strength is taijutsu, so he’s basically unharmed, but looks like he rolled around in sparkles because he’s still only able to hit the seal about half the time, usually on the sixth or seventh try. Sakura can usually hit the seal by her third attempt.

Sasuke is fairing the best of all of them, because he’s got stamina, reflexes, and aim. Sakura is less in awe of him than she is violently jealous. He’s still not completely unscathed though, a light dusting of glitter over his hair and an oozing cut across his cheek and upper arm.

Sakura trips over yet another genjutsu concealed nin-wire. “No,” she moans, and spins, ready to once more try to grab a kunai midair without slicing her hand off. But instead she sees roughly three dozen senbon flying at her, and those tips are not blunted. She screams, high and harsh in her throat, and throws her arms up to cover her face, because she’s not willing to end her career as a ninja just because she took a senbon to the head while training.

There’s a shift in the air, and she waits for the needles to sink into her flesh, but the pain never comes. She cautiously lowers her arms and opens her eyes. Sasuke and Kiba are standing in front of her, shoulder to shoulder so as to be solid barrier between her in the senbon. There’s a grimace on both their faces, and Sakura feels something go cold in her stomach. “No, you idiots!” A senbon to the spine is almost always either fatal or debilitating, and they’re standing facing her with their backs full of needles. Her eyes fill with tears even as she says, “Don’t move! Don’t – oh my god, what were you thinking, you’re both so stupid-”

“I’m okay,” Sasuke says, sounding surprised. He cautiously turns his head to face Kiba, and Sakura can see a thin senbon sticking out from his neck. With that jammed into his vertebrae he shouldn’t even be able to stand. “Are you okay?”

Kiba frowns, “Yeah – I uh,” he shakes like a dog, and most of the needles fall harmlessly out, “They’re not in deep.”

“Of course they’re not in deep,” Anko says, suddenly right next to them with Natsu sitting on her shoulders, “If you accidentally kill genin that don’t belong to you there’s a ton of paperwork involved.” Kiba twists and jumps around, and the last of the senbon fall out.

“Not that we’d want to kill any genin ever,” Natsu says. She reaches out and plucks the senbon out from the back of Sasuke’s neck. A speck of red appears, but that it. The last Uchiha can’t bring himself to shake like Kiba had, especially with Natsu’s eyes on him, but it’s not like this is exactly comfortable.

Kiba rolls his eyes, but leans over and pulls the needles from his teammate’s back, “How did you stop them from going in all the way?”

Natsu runs her fingers down the needle, and about a quarter an inch from the tip her hand stops, “Chakra barrier.”

“That,” Sasuke blinks, “is a giant waste of chakra.”

“No,” Natsu denies before glaring down at it, “Really? I never noticed.”

“You wouldn’t,” Anko flicks the bottom of Natsu’s foot, “Your chakra stores make the Sandaime weep in envy.”

Sakura lets out a single loud sob before she claps her hand over her mouth. Everyone goes silent and looks to her. “Sakura?” Natsu shifts herself up and leaps down from Anko’s shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“Are you hurt?” Kiba pushes in close and looks her over, “None of them got you, right?” Even Sasuke’s eyes are on her, dark and concerned.

She shakes her head, but she doesn’t remove her hand because if she does she’ll start crying again. Natsu’s hands fall lightly on her shoulders, and her eyes look just like Sasuke’s right now, “Hey, whatever it is, it’s okay. I promise. Just tell us what’s wrong.”

Sakura lowers her hands and blurts, “I’m sorry!” She crying, and she knows she’s not a pretty crier, her face gets swollen and splotchy and red and it clashes with her hair. “I’m so sorry, both of you!”

Sasuke is starting to look faintly panicked, but Kiba doesn’t hesitate to throw his arms around her. Sakura buries her face in his shoulder, and under that faint scent of dog he smells like woodsmoke and sweat. He’s solid and strong and hugging him is like hugging a mountain, which is good because she feels like she’s going to shatter apart. “Don’t be sorry, you’re our teammate, it’s our job to protect you,” he says, and Kiba can be dumb about a lot of things, but he’s annoyingly perceptive about feelings.

“You could have died!” she insists, and as soon as she pulls herself together she’s going to beat them both up for being so stupid.

There’s a hesitant hand on her shoulder, and she shifts enough to see Sasuke beside them. “He’s right. It, uh, don’t – you’re our teammate. And you were scared, so we – I, it was just instinct, or whatever. Just. Please stop crying.”

He’s definitely looking panicked now, and Sakura chokes out a laugh and wiggles so she can throw an arm around Sasuke and pull him forward. Kiba shifts to include him in the group hug, and he doesn’t resist them. Stuck in between them, it’s easy to hear that Sasuke’s a hair’s breadth from hyperventilating. Sakura and Kiba’s eyes meet over his shoulder, and then they’re both laughing so hard they’re clinging to Sasuke to stay upright, who looks both longsuffering and confused.

They eventually all calm down, and Natsu and Anko makes them help her disassemble and clean up the rest of the traps (all ninety three of them, literally how) and once they agree to meet at the bridge at nine tomorrow the boys disperse with a cheerful wave and solemn nod respectively.

Sakura doesn’t though, she keeps standing in front of Natsu with her hands clasped in front of her. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Natsu looks to the jounin, “I’ll meet you at the dango place in a bit, okay? My treat for all your help.”

Anko grins, “You’re going to regret that.” She shunshins away without further comment, however, and Sakura is left alone with the chunin.

She swallows and steels herself, “I – I know that you’re busy, and all. But. Can you help train me? I can’t – my teammates should protect me, but they shouldn’t need to carry me! I’m more of a danger to them than I am an asset right now, and that’s – that’s unacceptable.”

Natsu sucks her bottom lip between her teeth, and nods. “Yeah, I’ll – yeah. I am really busy though, so it won’t be consistent. But yes. Don’t sell yourself short, Sakura. You’re really smart, and yeah, your weak areas are really weak – but your strengths are really strong too.”

Sakura beams and bows deeply, “Thank you so much! I’ll work hard, and I won’t disappoint you!”

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” Natsu scratches her nose to hide her blush, “I had a tutor when I was first starting out too. I wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I am today without him.”

There’s a sadness in the older girl’s voice, but she’s still smiling, so Sakura smiles back.

~

When the kids show up for training the next day Natsu is sitting on the ground and twisted up like pretzel. “Hey,” she calls out, unwinding herself. She winces when it pulls on her back muscles, and says, “Man, I'm getting old. I should start doing old people stuff, like - bingo! Or yoga."

"You hate bingo. And yoga," Kiba points out.

"True," she sighs, "I should at least do more pole dancing. If I lose my flexibility, I'm screwed. Half my fighting style is just bending out of the way.”

Sasuke chokes. Sakura’s mouth falls open. Kiba, who’s both an Inuzuka and grew up with Hana, rolls his eyes. “Why would you pole dance?” Sakura asks, “That’s what strippers do!”

Natsu pauses. Kiba knows where this is going and buries his face in his hands. “Are you telling me Suzume didn’t teach you pole dancing at the Academy?”

“Of course not!” Sakura flushes, “Why would she?”

“Okay,” Natsu stands and claps her hands, “New plan for today. You three go to my apartment, Kiba knows where it is. The standard traps are in place, do your best to dismantle them without dying. There are two poles in the closet, attach them to the ports in the living room. I’ll be there soon.”

“Where are you going?” Kiba asks, resigned.

“To go invite the other teams. The girls need a practical demonstration, and you all need a history lesson. Now go,” she says mock sternly before winking and body flickering away.

Team Ten is easy to find, a clump of three chakra signatures that she knows almost as well as her own. They’re in the middle of training ground twelve, and she snorts loudly when she sees them. Asuma is attempting to guide Chouji through katas that Natsu knows for a fact he mastered when he was eight while Ino reads a magazine and Shikamaru cloud watches.

She body flickers to right behind Ino and whispers a soft, “Kai.” The genjutsu shatters, and Ino’s fashion magazine reveals itself to be a book on advanced interrogation tactics. “Nice.”

“Natsu!” Ino casually recasts the genjutsu, “What’s up?”

“Remedial kunoichi training and history at my place,” she says, “You already know it, but you’ll get to put on a show. The boys are welcome too, of course,” she looks down at Shikamaru and winks. The boy winks back.

“Awesome,” Chouji says, abandoning a furious Asuma to walk over to them. “Will you make curry after?”

“Sure,” she says, thinking about what’s actually in her kitchen right now. “Can you stop by the market and grab chicken? And saffron, I‘m pretty sure I’m out of saffron.”

“Of course!” Ino hauls Shikamaru up to his feet.

Asuma growls, “Now hold on, none of you-”

His three genin body flicker away before he can finish, silent and smooth, and his face blanks out in shock because the only shunshin they’d shown him before had been slow and clumsy.

Natsu laughs and leaves before the jounin can direct his anger at her.

The last team is harder to find because she doesn’t really know them, but she knows Hinata passed, and her chakra signature is enough like Hiashi’s that she only spends about ten minutes searching her out before she finds them.

“Hi!” she waves, and Kurenai turns a blank stare in her direction. The jounin used to be friendly enough when she was a kid, but that changed at some point in the past five years. She’s not rude or anything so obvious, but it’s clear the woman doesn’t like her. “Remedial kunoichi lessons at my place, if you want.”

She’s looking at Hinata, but speaking to all of them. The Aburame boy is cold and blank, but Hinata says, “H-hello, Nami-san.”

“Your orders are late. Father is displeased.”

Natsu blinks and looks down. “Hey Hanabi! What are you doing here, shouldn’t you be in class?” She looks to Hinata, then back down, “Are you visiting your sister? That’s so cute!”

“Ah,” Hinata pushes her fingers together, “Hanabi and I are on the s-same team, Nami-san. She g-graduated early.”

“Cool!” Natsu says, and at the earliest opportunity she’s going to track down the hokage and ask if he’s an idiot. Or maybe he’s just solving that little succession problem by letting Hanabi get into a situation where she can kill her sister and claim it was an accident. “Are you guys coming, or not?”

Hanabi takes a step closer, “You were supposed to deliver the custom explosion tags a week ago. You should be working on that now.”

She’s had them done for about two weeks, but making Hiashi wait exorbitant amounts of time for something that only takes her a couple hours to do is one of her greatest pleasures. “Eh, the old man can wait, he’s too stuffy anyway. It’s good for him.”

Hanabi’s face contorts with rage. Natsu only has a second’s notice before the little girl is darting forward. “How dare you speak of my father with such disrespect!”

“Temper, little girl,” Natsu chastises, flipping out of the way. Hanabi’s face twists. “You don’t want to do this.” Hanabi snarls and strikes, and Natsu frowns. She’s not a good match against a Hyuuga, but genius or not Hanabi’s a brat. “Fine, but I wouldn’t recommend activating your Byakagan.” Hiashi had learned that one the hard way – looking at her was apparently the equivalent to staring into the sun, and not only was he unable to read her chakra system but he’d had a headache for the rest of the day. It was awesome.

Kurenai doesn’t interfere, and Natsu doesn’t know what the older woman is trying to achieve here. A hit from a Hyuuga won’t put down, her chakra system is too immense for that, but it’s still far from pleasant. However, it takes Natsu all of ten seconds to realize that while her Byakagan and taijutsu may be genius level, her speed isn’t.

Natsu is, occasionally, an asshole. So she grins and twist and turns, and doesn’t allow Hanabi to land a single hit. Without her Byakagan to help her, Natsu has no problem landing on the little girl’s head or shoulder before jumping off. She could end this fight with a couple well placed strikes, but just beating the girl isn’t good enough. So even though she really doesn’t want to deal with a chakra strike to any of her pressure points, she keeps dancing just out of Hanabi’s reach until the girl outright howls with frustration, and at this point she’s just getting sloppy.

“You’re never going to win like that,” Natsu chastises, “Being able to see everything is pointless if you can’t hit anything. You need to focus more on your basics.”

“Fuck you,” the girl snarls.

Hinata gasps, Kurenai’s eyes widen, and Natsu instantly cracks up laughing. She coats her hands in chakra and grabs Hanabi’s arms. The girl tries to kick her, but her limbs are too short to reach. “You,” Natsu says, and she probably shouldn’t sound so fond, “are such a brat. I love it.”

Hanabi pauses, “What?”

“Clearly Hiashi hasn’t managed to beat your temper out of you yet,” Natsu continues cheerfully, “Good. Don’t let him. The Hyuuga could use more of,” she nods to encompass the entirety of Hanabi’s pint sized fury.

Her face scrunches up again, “Don’t talk about my father that way!”

“Whatever,” she grins, “Kunoichi lessons. Are you in? You’re probably a little young, but if you’re old enough to kill you’re old enough to,” she shimmies her upper body in a way that’s just this side of obscene. The Aburame turns bright red.

“I’m not a kid!” Hanabi glares, “I’m coming!”

“Cool,” she drops the Hyuuga’s arms, and when she crosses them instead of trying to attack Natsu counts it a win. “Try to follow my chakra, no Byakagan. You need the practice.”

“Wait,” Kurenai says, “I’m not sure that this is approp-” Natsu body flickers away, because the woman’s not her instructor, she doesn’t have to listen to her lecture. She only goes about twenty feet away, and waits until she can sense Team Eight’s chakra heading in her direction. She then shunshins another twenty feet closer to her apartment, making sure to leave a clear chakra trail for Hanabi to follow.

When she peeks into her apartment (all the traps successfully dismantled; Kiba’s more familiar with them but she still bets that it’s mostly Sakura’s doing) Chouji, Shikamaru, and Kiba are sacked out chatting on her living room floor while Ino and Sakura armwrestle on her coffee table. Sasuke is sitting alone on her couch pretending to look bored, so she body flickers next to him. He twitches, but doesn’t show his surprise besides that.

“Miss me?” she grins and pokes his forehead.

His face scrunches up, and for a second Natsu is terrified she’s made him cry, but it smooths out again and he asks, “What took you so long?”

Team Eight chooses that moment to body flicker in. The Aburame looks like he’s not certain he actually wants to be here, Hinata is, of course, the usual bundle of blushing nerves, but Natsu’s eyes are on Hanabi. The girl is upset, but seemingly not at anyone but herself. “That’s really hard without the Byakagan,” she admits.

Natsu smirks, “You’ll get better with a little practice. You are a genius after all.” The girl appears mollified with this reminder, but Ino shoots her a contemplative look. “All right, history lesson and then practical lesson. Gather round, gather round.”

The genin sit down over her living room and turn to face her.

“So I kind of get why this wasn’t taught at the Academy,” she begins, “since about half the students wash out of the Academy completely, and civilians can be delicate little flowers, especially civilian parents.” She shoots an apologetic grin at Sakura’s direction. She’s not only the only graduate this year who isn’t from a prestigious clan, but also isn’t from a shinobi family at all, “But it is a very important lesson, and one that too often gets shoved aside because some of our more cultured ninjas find it unsavory.” They all seem to be paying attention, even Ino and Kiba who have heard this lecture before. “Who was the first ninja?”

“The first in the village?” The Aburame boy asks.

She shakes her head, “No, sorry. A better question is what was the first ninja? How did the profession of sneaking and lying and killing in the dead of night come about?”

Blank faces, except for Ino and Kiba who won’t spoil it.

She sighs, and makes sure to meet their eyes when she says, “The first ninja was a whore.”

“Nami-san!” Hinata exclaims, face red.

“That’s not a metaphor,” she explains, “The first ninjas were prostitutes. Our craft, when traced back a few thousand years, leads us to a brothel. Why?”

There’s a long silence. Natsu crosses her arms.

“Prostitutes know everything,” Shikamaru pipes up, brow furrowed. “Maybe a specific brothel caters to certain clientele, but assuming they talk to each other – and why wouldn’t they – they’d have access to a lot of information. Merchants, street rats, drug addicts, lords, nobles, even samurai – they all visit whore houses.”

“And men talk in in bed,” Natsu nods, “Maybe to impress the girl, maybe to brag, maybe just because they want someone to listen – but they all talk. And with the right information, you can start a war, or turn the tides of one.”

Sakura raises her hand, “Are brothels still used to gather information?”

“Jiraiya of the Saanin is known to frequent brothels and women’s baths,” she says dryly, “Some of that is likely because he’s legitimately a pervert, but he’s also Konoha’s spymaster. That’s not a coincidence.” Technically that’s a jounin-ranked secret, but it’s also the worst kept secret ever, so.

“Men also sleep after sex,” Shikamaru continues, and now that he’s started thinking about it he’s going to unravel the whole thing, “It’d be incredibly easy to kill someone in that situation. You wouldn’t need to be a skilled assassin.”

“Or even during, when they’re the most distracted,” Natsu adds. The genin all flush at the image, and she resists the urge to tease them. Such innocence! “A word of advice: never try to cheat a whore, anywhere, but especially not in a ninja village. Whores sell their bodies, but if their client doesn’t pay up it’s only fair that they take their bodies in return. Most of the dead men found in alleyways are johns who tried to get out of paying a prostitute her due.”

“Poison is a woman’s weapon,” Sakura says suddenly, contemplative. The other eight genin give her strange looks, because poison is anyone’s weapon, and a great one. She explains, “To a civilian, that’s true. Because women have access to the food, and control the food, so if the food is poisoned then it’s a woman who did it.”

It’s veering a little off topic, but still within the theme so Natsu grins. “Most assassination missions are not sneaking past guards and slitting someone’s throat in the middle of the night. They’re putting on an apron and slipping some belladonna into the roast. Nice thinking, Sakura.” The younger girl blushes. “Whore houses don’t just offer sex. They provide massages, and acupuncture-”

“Senbon,” the Aburame breathes.

Natsu cheers, “That’s right! Acupuncture was developed in its most basic form by prostitutes. This later led to the use of senbon as a method of disrupting both the body and chakra coils.” She looks to the two Hyuuga, “The first chakra system that was mapped was done so through these means.”

Hinata’s blushing a red so bright Natsu’s kind of impressed she hasn’t passed out. Hanabi’s frowning, not deeply enough to be scowl but just enough that she must be thinking serious thoughts. Natsu hopes those thoughts aren't her murder.

She claps, “So prostitutes trade in the secrets of both the upper and lower class, have an intrinsic understanding of the human body, are implicitly trusted by their targets, and work mostly at night.” When she grins it’s just a touch feral, “The first ninjas were whores who figured out they could make more money by killing for hire than fucking for hire.”

There’s a beat of silence as the new genin absorb this.

“How do you know all this? It’s not in any of the Academy texts!” Sakura's eyebrows are pushed together, and she sounds frustrated. Natsu would put money on her researching this to death within the week.

“Natsu is from the Flower District,” Ino says, and her glare dares anyone to make a smart comment, “She was raised in a brothel.”

“And we don’t forget.” The genin’s eyes are wide, especially the girls’, and she meets each of them evenly, “Now! Practical time. Pole dancing is super useful, not just because it increases your strength and flexibility, but also because literally every kunoichi gets sent on an infiltration mission as a stripper at some point. Strip clubs are the exact type of places people who get assassinated hang out in, and it’s so much easier when your target willingly goes into a dark room alone with you.”

“I’m out,” Kiba says, because he’s been subjected to enough pole dancing lessons to last him the rest of his life. He’s crap at it, although he’s surprisingly good at ballet. “We’re doing curry for dinner, right? You’re out of saffron, I’ll just-” He body flickers out.

“We’ll help!” Chouji adds. He grabs the Aburame by the collar and Shikamaru tugs at Sasuke as they all vanish in a swirl of leaves. Natsu coughs to hide a laugh, because there was some definite ‘no man left behind’ mentality to that.

“Cowards,” she says. She grabs onto one of the poles Team Seven had set up, and it seems sturdy enough. She pulls herself up and swings around, coming to a stop midway up the pole, holding her place by her thighs. “Now, most kunoichi are crap at pole dancing. They get the physical motions down, but not the sensuality of it. The really bad ones use chakra, which is a huge no-no. The point is to get in and out without being caught, after all.” She nods at Ino, and the younger girl stands. “I’ve been teaching Ino how to do this for years, so she’s going to help teach you now.”

Ino clambers up the pole the same way Natsu had, and they grin at each other. “The first thing you have to remember,” the younger girl says, “is not to go fast. Slow and sensual don’t mean the same thing, but it’s hard to be fast and sensual. Always keep moving, but make sure you’re going slow enough that people can get a good look at you.”

Ino’s twisting through a basic routine as she speaks, and Natsu copies her. Sakura and the Hyuuga sisters are looking at them in fierce concentration, and Natsu flips around the pole to hide a smile.

~

Sarutobi looks from an irate Kurenai to his even more irate son. “I really don’t see how your inability to control your genin teams is my concern, unless you’re here to admit you’re not qualified.”

Kurenai pales, but Asuma snaps, “Dad! She can’t just waltz in and snatch our genin away whenever she feels like it.”

“By your report, it’s less that she snatched them away and more that they ran away,” he says mildly, “Now if you’re quite done wasting my time-”

Asuma takes a step forward, but Kurenai puts a hand on his shoulder. “Come on,” she pulls him towards the door, “Let’s go. Have a good day, Hokage-sama.”

He waits until the door has closed behind them before slumping in his seat and holding his head in his hands. No wonder Inoichi drinks so much.

~

Hanabi glances at her sister out of the corner of her eye as they’re walking home. She doesn’t want to do this, but her father is depending on her - her clan is depending on her, whether they know it or not. “You could follow Natsu’s chakra without the Byakagan.”

“Ah,” Hinata looks down, “Y-yes.”

She frowns, “Your general shinobi skills are fairly strong. Why?”

“I, uh,” she glances up, but almost immediately looks away again.

“Hinata!” she snaps, exasperated, “You are the daughter of Hiashi, a kunoichi of Konoha, and the heir to the great Hyuuga clan! Look at people when you speak to them!”

The older girl’s eyes dart up to meet her sister’s. “S-sorry,” she swallows, “I am, uh, n-not very good at the Gentle Fist s-style. So I became good at oth-other things.”

“Hmm,” Hanabi frowns, “All right. I’ll make a deal with you.”

“H-Hanabi?” Hinata blinks.

“I will train you in Gentle Fist,” she declares, “and you will improve. You’re a disgrace as is. In return, you must train me in the basics. Nami’s a flighty idiot, but she’s also right. I’m not nearly as good as I should be.”

“I’m h-happy to t-teach you,” Hinata smiles.

Hanabi snorts and looks away, but she walks a half step closer to her sister the rest of the way home.

The next morning she slips out of the Hyuuga compound barely after dawn even though her team won’t be meeting for hours yet. This is going to be a much harder conversation, but it is necessary, so when she interrupts Team Nine’s training she meets her cousin’s angry gaze and doesn’t flinch.

“Hanabi-san!” Gai greets, “To what do we owe the pleasure of your youthful fire?”

“I need to speak to my cousin,” she says flatly, “Alone.”

“Ah,” Gai says. Underneath his idiocy there are quicksilver flashes of intelligence, and Hanabi just doesn’t understand this man. “Of course! Come my cute students, we shall run around the perimeter of Konoha ten times to fan the flames of youthfulness!”

“Sensei, maybe we – I don’t think,” Lee says, conflicted, and when the older boy looks at her there’s not so much anger as there is a deep mistrust.

Gai grabs Lee and Tenten by the back of their shirts and drags them behind him at a sprint. “QUITE RIGHT! THIS IS NOT A TIME FOR THINKING, IT IS A TIME FOR RUNNING!”

Once they’re alone Neji bends neatly at the waist, just as low as their stations require and not an inch more, “Hanabi-hime.” It’s technically the correct title, but it’s always sounded sour in his mouth.

“Neji,” she says in return, and if her father knew what she was about to do he would smack her. “You are the best Gentle Fist fighter the Hyuuga has seen in generations. In a few years you will be able to defeat even my father.”

The older boy jerks in surprise, and he half slides into a defensive stance, “Excuse me?”

“They call me the genius of our generation,” she continues, and she knew this would be hard but she did not expect it to hurt. “That is a lie. You’re better than I am. You are the genius of the Hyuuga.”

Neji’s eyes are wide even as he snaps, “Hanabi-hime, I do not appreciate being mocked.”

“I’m not mocking you,” she says, “I am being honest with you. You know the truth, and it has simmered and bubbled inside of you for years, because I occupy a place that is yours by right of your talent and your strength.” She has to swallow to continue, “I understand, because I feel the same way about my sister. But I stand before you, fully acknowledging this truth. I also stand before you asking for your help. Train me in the Gentle Fist style, so that I may one day match you.”

Neji snarls, “Why should I?” There’s an uncertainty about him though, because many of their clan have attempted to show him kindness, but none have dared offer honesty.

“Because if you do, I will teach you the Main Branch styles,” if her father ever finds out about this he will kill her for treason and he will be justified. Neji’s mouth drops open, but she knows that his greed is not enough for him to betray his honor, so she continues, “And when you have children of your own, no Curse Mark will be placed upon them.”

“You can’t promise that,” he says immediately, hands clenched.

“I can, and I am,” she says, “I swear by my blood, my name, and my village that if you teach me, no children you sire will ever bear the Curse Mark. Nor shall their children, or their children’s children. Your line will continue unburdened.”

He stares at her, desperate and searching, and she lets him. If he does not agree, if he tells her father that she even offered, her punishment will be severe. But he bows lower than she’s ever seen him bow before and says, “My strength and my knowledge are yours, Hanabi-hime,” and for the first time her honorific doesn’t sound like its cuts him. “I will train you to the best of my abilities.”

He doesn’t offer her his loyalty yet, but Hanabi is satisfied. If she is to truly make a bid for clan head, it is not enough for her to be just a good Hyuuga or even just a better fighter than her sister. She must be an excellent shinobi and a near perfect Gentle Fist master. She doubts she will ever be more skilled than Neji, but she might be able to become stronger than him.

That will have to be enough.

~

Natsu would love to do nothing more than hang out with Team Seven and Team Ten (she especially loves hanging out with Team Ten, because those three have grown up working and training together, of course they know what they’re doing, and she isn’t sure why they’re trying to convince Asuma they’re incompetent, whiny children, but it’s hilarious). But she has missions and sealing progress reports to make, because if the hokage is going to give her A-rank pay to study sealing until her eyes bleed, then she better produce A-rank results.

Even through that, she still finds time to hang around them all, and she helps Sakura with her taijutsu because she remembers being a little girl who could twist herself into a pretzel but wouldn’t know a proper kata if it smacked her in the face, and Kiba is a sarcastic little ball of sunshine, and Sasuke.

She tries hardest with him most of all, desperate to make up for all their lost time. She trains with him after everyone goes their separate ways for the day (they still can’t get the fire seal to work righ), bullies him into cooking dinner with her a few times, and neither of them have brought up Itachi. Maybe that’s for the best.

That stalemate passes when they’re in Natsu’s apartment and they’re doing their best to bake cookies that will actually be edible. Natsu’s a fairly good cook, but she’s a horrible baker. Baking is all precise measurements, and she can’t really substitute ingredients without something going horrible wrong, and the entirety of her cooking style is throwing a bunch of different foods together in some concoction with butter and spice to taste.

“No, don’t!” Sasuke grabs her wrist.

She glares, “It says to add a cup of sugar!”

“Yes,” he says patiently, “but that’s salt.”

Natsu blinks, then looks down at the measuring cup in her hand, “Really?”

He sighs, “Really.”

She licks her finger, dips it in the crystals, then licks it again. Her nose scrunches up, “Ah.”

He shakes his head and gently takes the cup from her hands, “You act all cool, and then you mess up something as simple baking. I don’t get it.”

“Baking is hard!” she protests, before saying, “Wait, you think I’m cool?”

He flushes, and turns away from her to measure out the correct amount of sugar, “A little bit, sometimes.”

“Aw, thanks Sasuke!” She pokes his forehead before taking the sugar from him and dumping it into the bowl, “You’re pretty cool too.” When she looks back up his face is scarily blank, and her own smile falters. “Sasuke?”

“Itachi used to do that,” he says, and Natsu breathes in sharply.

“Do you want me to stop?” she asks softly.

Sasuke swallows, but meets her eyes. “Natsu, you – I, uh.” Natsu steels herself, because this is the anger she’s been expecting since day one, the accusations of abandonment and lies that she fully deserves. “I’m sorry.”

Natsu blinks, “What?”

“I’m sorry,” Sasuke repeats, “I am. About, about getting you in trouble after – after the Massacre. I understand why you didn’t want to see me afterwards, and I don’t know why you changed your mind, but – I’m grateful. I – you,” he growls, because he barely understands his conflicting feelings about his brother, and certainly not enough to articulate them. But having Natsu back is like regaining a small piece of Itachi, one of his best pieces, and it’s not enough but it’s more than he’s had, and he won’t lose it again. He won’t lose her again.

“Sasuke, no,” she breathes, and grabs his hands, “I never – you didn’t get me in trouble!”

“I did,” he says firmly, “I know what people said about you afterwards, that they thought you had something to do with it. I don’t know what they did to you in Interrogation, but it’s my fault. If I had been thinking more clearly, I could have made them understand.”

“My sensei is the head of Torture and Interrogation,” Natsu says urgently, “They didn’t do anything besides ask some questions, Inoichi wouldn’t let them hurt me. The hokage ordered me to stay away from you until you were a genin so that the villager’s wouldn’t be suspicious of you, that’s why I wasn’t there after. I tried Sasuke, I promise I did. For days I was in the hokage’s office, begging him to let me see you. I’m sorry I left you alone, I swear I didn’t want to.”

She thinks she’s going to start crying if Sasuke doesn’t move or say something soon. He’s just staring at her with wide dark eyes, but he hasn’t pushed her away yet, so that’s something. He finally clears his throat, “So you don’t hate me?”

“No!” She lets go of his hands only so she can clutch his shoulders, “Never, not for a single second! How could I? You’re my Senpai’s outoto, and you’re my friend!” She falters, “I mean, you are, aren’t you? We didn’t really know each other back then, but now – I mean, I understand if you don’t want that. That’s okay.” It’s so far from okay, and if he doesn’t want anything to do with her after this then that’s his right, but she will grab Kabuto and Hana and drink until she can’t walk.

He smiles, soft and sweet and like she hasn’t seen him smile since he was six years old, “I never hated you either. We are friends.”

Natsu pulls him into her arms and squeezes. He returns her hug with only a second’s hesitation. “Natsu,” he mumbles into her shoulder, “That night, you – you said that you didn’t believe Itachi had killed everyone. Do you still believe that?”

She sighs and admits, “Itachi without a doubt killed the Uchihas,” Sasuke tenses, and she continues, “But I call bullshit on everything else. Itachi was a loyal shinobi and a good person, and I’m pretty sure there’s something about that night that someone is trying to hide.” She pulls back and runs her hand through Sasuke’s hair, “Talk to Kakashi-niichan, okay? He and Senpai were in Anbu together. I’m just a crazy conspiracy theorist.”

“I still love him,” Sasuke blurts out, because he could never admit this to anyone else, not about the traitorous missing-nin who killed a couple hundred people in a single night. “He’s my brother, and I love him, even though he did – what he did.” This part of his feelings he does understand, even if sometimes he wishes he didn’t

Natsu doesn’t recoil, doesn’t scream or rage. She just smiles and says, “Yeah. Me too.”

~

Kabuto looks from Hana to Natsu, “I don’t want to.”

“That’s cute that you think we care,” Hana says from where she’s going through his closet.

“Get out of my house,” he tries.

Natsu snorts, then throws her hands up in despair, “Do you own anything but uniforms and scrubs?”

“No,” he says honestly, “Why would I?”

Hana bangs her head against the wall, “You make going out very difficult.”

“I don’t want to go out,” he protests. “I’m twenty one, I can’t go out partying with two teenagers, that’s just sad.”

“Your wardrobe is sad,” Natsu says, “Your fridge is very sad. Your life in general can even be categorized as sad. Hanging out with us is awesome.”

“Hanging out with you two dressed like that,” he gestures to their clothes, which a generous person might call a dress, “makes people think I’m a pervert.”

“Anko is going to be there,” Hana tries. Because Anko is in her late twenties and hot.

Kabuto isn’t convinced, “That’s not a positive! She’s scary! Why are all your friends scary?”

“Not all of my friends are scary,” Natsu says, but she’s kind of lying. Going by Kabuto’s glare and Hana’s smirk they can totally tell.

Kabuto opens his mouth to say so, but he’s interrupted by a quick tapping at the window. A desert hawk is hovering outside, and Natsu doesn’t hesitate to run over and open the window. “This isn’t good,” Hana mutters. He grunts. Gaara and Natsu write each other every two weeks like clockwork, and his last letter arrived a little over a week ago.

The hawk settles on Natsu’s shoulder as she breaks the letter open with a burst of chakra. Her face darkens as she scans the page. “Damn,” she crumples the letter in her fist and turns her head to meet the hawk’s beady gaze, “You can tell her I’m coming. Stop looking at me like that.” The hawk lets out a piercing cry before leaping off her shoulder and gliding out the window.

“Her?” Hana asks, not willing to address Natsu’s treatment of the hawk. She’s convinced they’re smarter than they look. They’re not like her ninken as far as Hana can tell, but any time she tries to bring it up Natsu won’t hear it.

She nods, “Temari. Looks like you’ll be going without me,” she punches Kabuto in the shoulder as she walks by, “Have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Where are you going?” he demands, and he knows the answer, of course, but can hope he’s wrong.

She flashes them a smile, “Suna,” then swings out of his window and onto the roof. They track her chakra until she’s about three buildings away, heading in the direction of the Hokage Tower.

“Any chance that Temari contacting her instead of Gaara is a coincidence, and we’re just paranoid?” Hana asks.

“We are paranoid,” Kabuto allows, “but I wouldn’t bet anything on it being just a coincidence.”

“Damn,” she sighs. She then tosses the tank top in her hands at his face, “Here put this on, and leave your hair down. It’ll have to do.”

“Natsu’s gone, I could take you,” he challenges.

She smiles at him, and it’s the scariest she’s been all evening, “You can try.”

Kabuto slinks into his bathroom to change.

~

On one hand, C-ranks are a pleasant change from training and D-ranks, and Gai-sensei only lets them take one every other month or so. On the other hand, Tenten is sure that getting pulled out of bed at just after three in the morning is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. Even Neji looks grumpy.

“Can we know our mission yet?” she yawns, and they’ve been out of the village for almost twenty minutes.

Gai hums, “Ah, yes, just one moment more, I believe.”

She trades an incredulous look with Neji, and even Lee looks confused, “Uh, Sensei?”

He holds up a finger. A second later a ninja drops down from above, and they’ve already gotten ready to attack when they see the Konoha hitai-ate. “Hi Gai,” a pretty blond in a purple tunic (not unlike her own) says from where she’s doing a handstand on her sensei’s head. “Hi Team Nine!”

She’s seen the girl around Gai before, usually with Kakashi, but they’ve never been introduced. “Hello,” she says.

To her surprise, Neji offers the girl a slight bow, “Hello Nami-san.” He turns to her and Lee and says, “Lee, Tenten, this is Natsu Nami. She’s a chunin and an accomplished seal master.”

“Oh you,” she flutters her eyelashes at Neji, which is the oddest thing she’s seen in at least a week.

Odder yet is that Neji just looks amused, “Hanabi-hime has taken to cursing your name during her training sessions with Hinata-hime.”

“That’s awesome!” She bounces on the balls of her feet, “Maybe I’ll even deliver their next order on time.”

“Wait a minute,” Tenten says, eyes wide, “You’re the same Natsu Nami who makes the explosion tags and storage seals that they sell in the weapon shop?”

She nods, “Uh, yeah, sometimes. It’s a good way to make some spare cash if I have the time.”

Tenten leaps forward and grabs the older girl’s hands, eyes sparkling. She knows that’s she’s probably resembling her sensei more than is healthy, but she can’t help it. “That’s you? You’re such an amazing seal master, Nami-san! Your rapid release security scrolls are so elegant! Which base design matrix do you use? I tried to reverse design it, but I couldn’t figure out it out.”

“Oh,” Natsu flushes and scratches the bridge of her nose to hide it, “I made it myself, lots of designs are – well, I got tired of my seals exploding when I worked off the standard ones.”

Tenten’s mouth drops open. Base design matrixes are simple, but precisely created down to a single angle’s millimeter. There’s some room for error in the rest of sealing, but the base matrixes always have to be exact. There are only twenty seven of them, and the last time a new one had been created it was by Jiraiya of the Sannin nearly thirty years ago. “Nami-san,” she says seriously, “that’s incredible.”

“It’s pretty cool,” she agrees, “and you’ll get to see it in action! So that’s cool too.”

“Ah,” Gai says, “so we’re heading to Sunagakure then?”

Natsu becomes serious, “Yes. I would have preferred to go alone, but the hokage insisted on back up. I requested your team to accompany me for two reasons – I trust you, and your team is one of the few who can keep up with me. We need to be there in six days.”

Suna is a week and a half away by any sane shinobi’s standards. Gai has never claimed to be such a thing. Somehow his sparkling teeth manage to look menacing, “Oh, my young Konoha blossom, that sounds like a most youthful endeavor.”

Tenten and Neji glance at each other, unnerved. Natsu folds her arms neatly behind her and smirks, “I thought you might say that.”

~

Sasuke walks a mile in the right direction, hesitates, turns around and gets halfway home before growling and turning around again. Natsu is nowhere in the village, Sakura is stuck helping her mom bake, and Kiba is training with his sister. Kakashi should still be around, however, and he does want to take Natsu’s advice and talk to Kakashi, but he also would also rather set himself on fire at the same time.

He does eventually make it to Kakashi’s front door, but he ends up staring at if for ten minutes. He’s just about convinced himself that he really shouldn’t bother Kakashi on his day off when the door opens to reveal his Academy teacher.

“Iruka-sensei?” He checks the number on the door, and he could have sworn this was Kakashi’s address, “Excuse me, I was just-”

“Standing outside my door like a cute little stalker?” Kakashi’s head pops up behind Iruka’s shoulder. “We got tired of waiting for you to knock.”

Iruka elbows Kakashi in the stomach, “What he means is that we were concerned. Would you like to come in Sasuke?”

“Yes, thank you,” he says automatically, stepping inside. Natsu definitely knows about this, but he’s willing to bet that Sakura and Kiba don’t. He’s telling them immediately. He can’t believe Iruka is with their lazy pervert of a jounin sensei.

Once he’s in their living room, looking at them, he doesn’t know what to say. That conversation with Natsu is the first time he’s spoken of his brother in years, and he doesn’t know to start a second one. “Ah,” Iruka says, “I’ll just excuse myself for a moment. You like tea, don’t you Sasuke?” He nods. “Well then, I’ll go make some. Why don’t you both sit down?”

He and Kakashi obey instantly, because Iruka is the master of suggestions that are most definitely orders. Sasuke doesn’t fidget, he’s not a fidgeter, but he almost wishes he was if only for something to do in the heavy silence.

“Did you kill someone you weren’t supposed to?” Kakashi asks finally when it’s clear Sasuke isn’t going to say anything, “Peek in the women’s bath? Blow up a training ground? If you’re here to ask my permission to court Natsu, officially I’m not her actual brother and she can make her own decisions, but I applaud your self-preservation instincts.”

“Sensei!” He glares, “Shut up. No – I,” he coughs and glances away, “Natsu said you knew my brother, that you were in Anbu together.”

“My history in Anbu is supposed to be a secret,” he complains before sobering. “I did know Itachi, yes. We ran more than a few missions together.”

Sasuke swallows, “You know what Natsu thinks about the Massacre, right?”

Everyone knows what Natsu thinks about the Massacre,” he says dryly. He leans his elbows on his knees and rests his chin on his clasped hands, “Why?”

He licks his lips and forces himself to look into Kakashi’s eye, “What do you think?”

His sensei sighs. “Itachi claimed to kill your clan as a test of strength, to prove his skill,” he says, like Sasuke doesn’t have those very words said by his brother in his nightmares, “but there’s just one problem with that.”

Sasuke jerks, and feels something incredibly dangerous bloom in his chest. He thinks it might be hope.

“No one was surprised when Itachi was able to kill all the Uchihas in a single night,” Kakashi says seriously, “Nobody expected he would, but none were surprised he could. He’d surpassed Fugaku in terms of strength and skill when he was ten. He was the strongest ninja in all of Konoha with only two possible exceptions – the Sandaime, and me.” He scrubs a hand over his face, and there’s a weariness about him that Sasuke’s never seen before. “Itachi never once attacked me outside of training. I don’t believe he ever fought against the hokage at all. If he’d truly wanted to test his strength, it wouldn’t have been against his own clan, but against us. That night he didn’t approach either the Sandaime or myself.”

Sasuke swallows, “So – there might – I mean. Maybe –”

“I never would have thought Itachi capable of betraying Konha,” Kakashi says plainly, “But Sasuke, I’m not a good judge of character. I have been wrong before, about human nature, about the terrible things people are capable of doing.” There’s well of agony in Kakashi’s voice, and Sasuke can’t imagine what it was that put it there.

“Natsu is,” he says, throat dry. “She is a good judge of character. She gets people. She understands them and they trust her and, and she believes in them,” the second half of his sentence is bewildered, because he doesn’t get how someone can both understand people and believe in them. People are terrible.

“She is,” Kakashi agrees, and that agony has softened, “and she has never believed Itachi to be a traitor.”

Sasuke squeezes his hands over his knees and bites his bottom lip. He hasn’t cried since he was a kid, and he’s not going to do it now, not over something like this, something as stupid as a just a chance, just a little bit of hope.

“Aw, crap,” Kakashi breathes. Sasuke stands, planning to run in an attempt to save what’s left of his dignity. His sensei reaches out to grab his elbow and jerks Sasuke against his chest. He’s stiff, clearly uncomfortable, but his arm is both gentle and firm where it’s wrapped around Sasuke’s shoulders.

They don’t say anything, and Sasuke has had three hugs in the past five years and they’ve all happened in the past few weeks. He’s not sure if that an improvement or not, but he thinks it is.

~

Gai has trained Natsu in taijutsu a time or two, of course, and she’s not great. He’s even hesitant to call her good, but that’s just because he’s in insane taijutsu perfectionist and she abandons anything close to an accepted style and just does back flips around her opponent, and no that’s not a style, that’s not even really taijutsu, stop breaking form damnit!

Hey, at least he’s self-aware.

She knows the correct moves, and she can even do them when she takes a second to think. Gai has seen her training Kakashi’s pink haired student, and Natsu teaches better than she learns. He despairs that he’s not better versed in the Sunagakure taijutsu forms; some of their wind based martial arts seemed like they’d suit Natsu’s flighty fighting style well.

That being said, her endurance is incredible. She can’t quite keep up with him on speed, although in few years that probably won’t be true, but the girl just keeps going, far past the point that even Gai can. She ran from Kiri to Konoha in three days.

His adorable little students aren’t quite up to that level, and thankfully Natsu doesn’t demand they try to be. If she was making this trip on her own, or even just with him, she would push them to be there in four days. The extra two are so they don’t kill the genin. So he’s not too surprised when about four hours outside of Suna she signals them to stop. They’re around the cave dunes that dabble Suna’s countryside, and Natsu jerks her head towards them, “Lee, go scout the caves. Find one that’s not going to collapse on our heads and that isn’t filled with vicious animals. Neji, survey the area for chakra traps, say a two mile radius. If there are any, do not engage, just remember their position to report. Tenten, go with Neji. If you guys do set anything off, I don’t want you trying to handle it alone.”

Lee immediately runs to the caves. Tenten crosses her arms, “It’s barely past midday. We can keep going.” She’s dirty and exhausted from five days of the most running she’s ever done in her life, but there’s a stubborn tilt to her head that makes Gai want to ruffle her hair.

Natsu raises an eyebrow, “For the record, that was an order, not a suggestion.” Tenten flinches, and the older girl’s voice gentles, “I’m not babying you. Your job on this mission is to have my back in case anything goes wrong. We’re stopping now so you have half a day to rest and relax, because I want you in top form tomorrow.”

Tenten nods sharply before she turns on her heel and runs. Neji rolls his eyes, but follows his teammate without further comment.

He’s alone with Natsu for the first time this entire mission. “If something does go wrong, there’s very little my genin can do against an enraged and out of control jinchuuriki.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about it,” Natsu says, “Officially, I’m meeting with Temari to provide a sealing consult, and you’re here to make a show of strength to our ally. This is strictly a diplomatic mission.”

“Natsu,” Gai sighs.

She flashes him a grin, “I know. I tried to tell the hokage that, but he wasn’t having it. I suppose you can always bring back the reports of my failure if you manage to run away fast enough.”

“Natsu!” He folds his arms over his chest, and she giggles. She uses a boost of chakra to push herself up, and lands on Gai’s head.

She pushes herself up on a single finger, “I need to work on my balance, I’m getting rusty. Want to see how long I can stay up here while you run through katas?”

He snorts at the blatant lie, but obligingly bends his body into an opening stance.

~

They arrive at the meeting place the next morning, a spot in the vast desert about ten miles from the official border of Suna. She catches Temari in a solid hug first, squeezing the girl tightly before pulling back and beaming, “Temari! You look great! This is new,” she runs her hands over the fan strapped to her back, “It’s nice. Must be a bitch to wait for the chakra build up, though.”

“Was that you offering to ink some chakra storage and rabid release seals on? I think it was!” She beams.

Natsu groans, “Those are such a pain! They take forever, and you’re going to need them customized to your chakra system if you don’t want every opponent hijacking the ports. That’ll take hours.”

“You’ve got a Hyuuga,” Temari waves at Neji, who inclines his head politely in response, “Have him do the mapping. We need an excuse to be meeting like this anyway.”

Natsu’s eyes narrow, “You planned this.”

“Me?” She puts a hand to her chest, “I would never.”

Kankuro snorts. Natsu tugs down his hood and puts him in a headlock so she can give him a noogie, “What was that? Did you say something?”

“Natsu!” He hits on her arms, but not hard enough to actually do anything but make her laugh, “Get off, come on! You’re going to mess up my face paint!”

“Sensei,” Tenten says faintly, “Aren’t those the kazekage’s children?”

Gai nods, “Yes, my cute student, they are.”

“Oh,” she breathes.

Natsu finally lets go of Kankuro and turns to face their jounin sensei, “Baki, how nice to see you.”

“Nami-san,” he returns evenly.

She pokes his chest, “Still don’t like me I see. That’s fine, as long as you keep your mouth shut. You will be keeping your mouth shut, won’t you?”

Baki snarls, but a short redhead steps out from behind him, “He will. Stop threatening my sensei.”

“Oh, Gaara,” Natsu reaches forward to cup his face. There are deep, painful looking bruises under his eyes, so dark they’re nearly black. “What happened?” She looks to Temari, “Your letter wasn’t very specific.”

“Dad had a ‘specialist’ come in and looks at the seal,” she says, furious, “He messed it up. Gaara’s been keeping it together, but he hasn’t been able to sleep all week.”

“I am tired,” Gaara admits, and his head feels heavy in her hands, like he can’t bear to hold it up himself, “and Shukaku is loud.”

“I’ll fix it,” Natsu promises, running a careful thumb under his eye, “I really would have preferred to do this in Konoha. Less material for Shukaku to try to kill us with.”

“You and me both,” Temari admits, “But it was hard enough pulling this off. Dad’s going to be furious when he figures it out.”

Natsu hums, but doesn’t comment further. Baki is an uneasy ally at best, and while he cares for the sand siblings, he is not loyal to them. She tugs at Gaara’s robe, and he pulls it off with a sigh. She reaches into her pack, unseals a storage scroll, and takes out her darkest ink and thinnest brush, because this is going to be delicate work at best and a horrendous patch job at worst. “Defensive positions,” Natsu commands, “Fifty feet, at minimum. Keep your eyes on us,” she clarifies when Team Nine faces the other way, like the biggest threat isn’t currently standing in front of her. Gai and Baki are standing opposite to each other, and Team Nine and the sand siblings fill in the spaces in a circle between them. She wants them to leave, because she’s not in any real danger, they are. She’s got the Nine Tails inside of her, and Shukaku may be blood thirsty but he’s not stupid.

“Ready?” she asks Gaara.

“No,” he answers, but doesn’t resist when she twists him around to inspect the seal inked on his back.

She traces it carefully, “This is some shitty work. Your dad must be getting desperate.”

“What good is a sword that doesn’t cut?” Gaara asks rhetorically. He hasn’t killed a single person since he was seven.

“Hm,” she looks at the rest, “I can’t add a quick fix, whoever did this really messed up the five point seal. Do you know who it was?”

“He can’t live like this!” Temari glares.

“Of course not! But this just got a lot less fun. Do you know who messed with the seal? People have styles, if I know who it is I might be able to reverse it that way.”

“He had white skin, and yellow eyes,” Kankuro offers when his sister shakes her head. “He was really strong too – his chakra reserves were bigger than our dad’s.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” she murmurs, and if she hadn’t been so intent on the seal she might have noticed how pale Gai had become at the description, “I guess we’re doing this the hard way. Damn.”

“The hard way?” Baki repeats cautiously.

“Yeah,” Natsu shoves her brush between her teeth so her next words come out muffled, “I’m going to have to remove the seal entirely, then rebuild it.”

Someone probably would have protested that if they hadn’t been shocked into silence.

“Ah,” Gaara shifts, craning his head to look behind him at his friend, “Not that I don’t trust you implicitly, Natsu, but maybe that’s not the best idea.”

She shrugs, because it’s a pretty fucking terrible idea, but it’s the only one she has. Once she read Temari’s letter she figured that this was how it was going to end up, because she can only do so many alterations and patchwork fixes on the thing before it starts degrading in on itself, and that’s literally the last thing she wants.

Her hands coat with chakra, and she slams her palms against Gaara’s back. When she pulls them away, the chakra seal – the real seal – swirls into existence. There’s the dull blue of the original seal, and then interlocking layers of her sapphire chakra with every seal practitioner that the kazekage has had trying to undue her work. She takes a deep breath, because she can’t do this on her own, not this part, and doing this without outing herself is actually going to be the hardest thing. Natsu reaches for Kurama’s chakra, just a thread, just enough to burn. The fox gives it up easily enough, and she’s not sure why her demon who used to be so full of hate regards her with tolerant amusement but she’s grateful for it. She winds that thread through Gaara’s mess of a seal, and prays that no one notices the flashes of orange in the sea of blue.

Natsu pushes and her chakra reacts, eats away at the seal stamped on Gaara’s soul. His eyes go black, and Shukaku uses her friend’s mouth to snarl, “Stupid cunt, you’re going to regret this.” She doesn’t waste her breath responding, just snaps her chakra around them, corralling and containing Shukaku. She runs forward, slamming into Gaara’s body and forcing him face down into the sand. She’s done enough work on Gaara that she could probably trace his chakra system with her eyes closed, and her hands flash out at two points on his spine. His body goes limp, and Shukaku snarls, “I’m going to kill you first, going to tear you to pieces, make this stupid child watch while I crush your pretty face-”

“You talk too much,” she says, and she has maybe ten seconds in between the seal’s release and Shukaku getting out, ten seconds to apply a seal she’s drawn a hundred times but never actually activated. The last of the ink fades from Gaara’s skin, and she digs her knees into his shoulder blades and shoves his face down. She grabs the brush from her teeth and lightning quick inks the seal into the back of Gaara’s neck, and it’s not the five point, the five point is not faulty so much as susceptible to interference, and this one can’t be. Her hands are steady while she adds the base design matrix, the containment lock, the chakra integration, the mental barriers, and if she were better this would be a simpler seal, would take less time, but she can’t afford to take shortcuts with her friend’s life.

Her time is up, and she slaps her hand against the back of Gaara’s neck, takes control of the rolling chakra around them and condenses it. She digs her chakra into the seal, and it shines bright enough that she has to close her eyes against it - she wouldn't be surprised if someone could sense her chakra all the way in Konoha. Shukaku’s scream bleeds into Gaara’s as the black leaves his eyes, because seals applied to the soul fucking hurt, like a thousand hair-thin needles shoved all the way through the body.

It’s working though; Shukaku’s chakra folds back into Gaara’s until it’s gone. Gaara’s panting underneath her, and Natsu cautiously gets off his back. “Ow,” he says finally, and pushes himself to his knees. His light green eyes find hers as he rolls his shoulders back, “This is … different.”

“Good different?” Natsu asks nervously, hauling him to his feet along with her.

He nods, “I cannot hear Shukaku. At all.” A slow smile spreads across his face, “I have never been alone inside my own head before. Thank you.”

Natsu squeals and does a backflip before she grabs Gaara in a hug, “Yay! I’m so happy you’re okay!”

Temari and Kankuro dart forward, “Hey, make room!”

Natsu steps aside and rubs at her neck; it itches like a day old sunburn but last she checked she hadn't gotten one. Temari cups her brother’s face, “Everything’s okay? You’re good now?”

“I am fine,” Gaara smiles.

Kankuro ruffles his hair, “Good. When we get home you’re going to take a huge nap.”

“That sounds nice,” the youngest sibling agrees wistfully.

Baki is staring at Natsu in horror. He looks to Gai who smiles wide, “She’s quite an accomplished seal master, isn’t she? Truly the fires of youth burn brightly within her.”

Team Nine looks at their sensei incredulously before their eyes skitter back to Natsu, who is currently standing on Temari’s shoulders to look over her fan.

“She – she’s a,” Baki closes his mouth, and darts his gaze between Natsu and Gaara. Gai blinks, and then slowly does the same.

“Ah,” he says, “No, you’re mistaken, Baki-san. She truly is just a very accomplished seal master.”

Baki scowls, “I am not.” Gai’s eyes narrow.

The itch at he back of her neck increases to a general awareness, and Natsu freezes. She closes her eyes to concentrate, because it's been years since she felt this chakra. Maybe she's wrong, she hopes she's wrong, as desperately as she's missed him this would be the absolute worst time for a reunion. “Shit."

Gai slips into a defensive stance. “What is it?”

“Senpai,” she answers. Gai pales. “He must have been nearby and felt our chakra. He’s maybe thirty miles out, and approaching fast. He’s not alone.”

“Senpai?” Temari questions.

“Itachi Uchiha,” she clarifies. She runs a considering eye over the gathered ninja, and they’re strong, but Itachi singlehandedly killed every Uchiha when he was thirteen. They don’t stand a chance.

Gai’s obviously come to the same conclusion, “Retreat?”

“And lead him on a chase across open ground or back to Suna’s civilian population?” She can maybe hold her own against Itachi for a couple of minutes, but only if she’s alone. “Gai, Team Nine, return to Konoha at full speed. Cloak your chakra, give him nothing to follow.”

“What about you?” Tenten blurts.

Natsu shakes her head, “I’ll hold him off. You up to some dancing?” She waggles her eyebrows at Gaara.

He’s exhausted, but takes a deep breath and straightens to his full height, “Of course, Natsu. Fighting alongside you is my pleasure.”

“Liar,” she says fondly.

“No,” Gai says, and this is the most serious she’s ever seen Kakashi’s best friend. “I will not leave you behind. I refuse.”

“Cool,” she answers, grin sharp, “But that’s an order.” She’s only a chunin, but she’s the leader on this mission. His stony stare doesn’t abate, and she sighs. “You have a genin team. Will you send them off on their own with no protection, possibly to be pursued by S-ranked missin-nin? Or will you have them stand with you so that they can die by your side? Maybe there’ll be some pieces big enough to bring home to their families.”

Gai flinches.

“Sensei,” Lee says quietly, “Please come with us. Nami-san is a ninja of Konoha. Trust in her strength.”

The jounin closes his eyes, but nods. “Stay strong, and stay safe,” he says before leaving in the direction of Konoha, Team Nine a step behind him.

Natsu turns to Baki and the sand siblings. “No,” Temari glares. “I won’t leave you and my brother behind to die.”

“I have a plan,” Natsu placates, “No one is going to die today.”

“Then I will stay and fight with you,” she rests her hand on her fan.

Natsu shakes her head, “Temari, no. It’s dangerous. We can’t afford your death, not now. We’re so close, you’re so close.”

“Close to what?” Baki snaps, looking in between the two teenage girls.

Natsu pauses, and they’ve got some time until Itachi arrives. He’s not moving at his top speed, for some reason. “What are you loyal to, Baki?”

“I am a loyal ninja of Sunagakure!” His hands clench, and he looks to his students, “You’re all hiding something from me, you’ve always been hiding something from me. What is it?”

Temari licks her lips, but says, “Are you loyal to the kazekage?”

“Of course! I just said that!”

“No,” Kankuro shakes his head, “You said you were loyal to Suna.”

“It’s the same thing!” Baki insists.

“It should be,” Temari says, “but it isn’t. Our father seeks power, and he will go to any means necessary in order to have it. Including endangering the people of Suna. He uses his position as a means to an end, and Suna will crumble under him if he is not stopped.”

“No!” Baki hisses, “You speak of treason! Against your own father! The kazekage would never!”

“Wouldn’t he?” Gaara raises an eyebrow. “Clearly you know differently. You have not told Father of the times I have met with Natsu to keep Shukaku at bay.”

Baki crosses his arms and looks away. Temari lays a gentle hand on his elbow, “Sensei, I believe you to be a good man and a loyal ninja of Sunagakure. Am I wrong?”

He meets his eldest student’s hard eyes. “We’ll discuss this later.”

“Much later,” Natsu agrees, “because you all should really get going now.”

She switches her gaze to the other girl, “Natsu! This is dangerous. And stupid.”

“Must be Wednesday,” she shrugs. “Trust me, okay? Just – trust me.”

Temari snarls, but tugs at her sensei’s elbow, “Let’s go.” She undoes her fan and performs a quick wind jutsu to propel her forward. Kankuro and Baki follow her, the latter only hesitating a second.

Natsu swallows and meet’s her friend’s eyes. This is going to be hard enough to admit just to him, and she despairs that she doesn't have the strength or skill to pull this off on her own. “Gaara, there’s something I have to tell you. And I probably should have told you before, and not left circumstances to force my hand like they are now. I understand if you’re upset, but I just ask that you wait to see if we survive this before-”

“You are a jinchuuriki,” he interrupts calmly.

Her mouth drops open. She coughs, “W-what?”

“You have a demon sealed inside of you, just as I do,” he continues, a spark of amusement in his eyes. “Natsu, you are one of the best seal masters the world has ever seen. But not even you could performed a five point sealing at the age of ten without having intimate and personal experience with its design and function.”

“Well, I was born a boy by the name of Naruto Uzumaki, and I’ve been using a ninjutsu to be a girl for the past eight years,” she crosses her arms over her chest, “I bet you didn’t know that.”

His eyes widen, “Ah. No – no. I did not.” He looks her over critically, “You don’t look like a boy.”

“I’m not,” she says before frowning, “Well, I’m not one right now. I’ll be one in a few minutes though, probably.”

“Doesn’t that get confusing?” he asks, bending down to pick up his robe and shake the sand out.

She squints before saying, “Not really. I’m still me whether I’m a boy or a girl or Natsu or Naruto.”

“Okay,” he nods. Pauses. “Is there a reason you are pretending to be a girl by the name of Natsu Nami?”

“I’m not pretending,” she insists, “I am a girl! Natsu Nami is real, I even have an identification number.”

He pull his robe on and then raises an eyebrow, waiting.

She sighs, then quirks her lips in a not quite a smile, “My village didn’t treat me as well as yours does. A man assaulted and gutted me when I was five. Being Natsu is … easier.”

The sand whips around them, precise and violent, and then just as quickly dies down. “Ah,” he says, taking a deep breath. “Are you sure you do not want to defect to Suna?”

“Gaara!” She bops his nose, “Don’t be silly. Konoha is my village and my home.” He huffs and she smiles at him, softer and smaller than normal but just as genuine. “Thanks for being cool with – everything. I’m really happy you’re not mad at me for not being honest with you.”

“You are my friend,” Gaara says warmly, “and you have always been honest about that.”

~

Itachi wants to pull out his hair in frustration when he and Kisame arrive and the one tails container and Natsu are still there. He was going slow on purpose! She could have run – hell, with her Portal Seal she could have been all the way to Konoha.

“Senpai,” she greets him, like nothing has changed at all, like the last time they saw each other he hadn’t attacked her while dripping in his family’s blood. “It’s good to see you! I’ve been trying to follow the rumors, but they’re all ‘Itachi Uchiha slaughtered an army’ and ‘Itachi Uchiha is running around after demon containers!’ Nothing to tell me if you’re getting enough sleep or eating properly,” she complains.

Kisame looks in between him and Natsu. “What the fuck?”

“We are here to capture the one tails and the nine tails,” he says coldly. “You may surrender, or fight.”

She falters, “Uh, nine tails?”

“I know who you are, Naruto Uzumaki,” he says, and hadn’t that been a shock when Akatski’s tracking of the demons chakra had led them to Natsu. He doesn’t want to capture her and he doesn’t want to hurt her; he has been forced to kill enough loved ones.

“Oh,” she taps her chin, “Then I guess there’s no point in wasting the chakra, huh?”

She shifts, and her hair stays the same except it turns a bright sunshine yellow. Her eyes become the brightest blue that makes him think of the sun on the ocean, and whisker marks curve around an unfamiliar face. Naruto’s jaw is broader, and his body wider, but he still manages to wear Natsu’s clothes well, shoulders taking up the extra space in the chest.

Itachi’s eyes widen, and Kisame takes a step back. Naruto’s chakra, always so immense, has nearly doubled.

See, here’s the thing: Oiroke no Jutsu requires a constant supply of chakra to maintain itself. As a complete physical change, it’s the equivalent to an A-rank jutsu. Naruto had, since the age of five with his still developing chakra coils, been performing this jutsu. His chakra coils had adapted accordingly. Seven years of near constant use, and near constant drain, coupled with the slight mixing of Kurama’s chakra had given him the available chakra roughly twice that of a kage.

Oiroke is the chakra equivalent of the Chidori. Imagine having the chakra to perform that technique again and again almost nonstop for years. Then imagine that constant waterfall of chakra normally directed to this task suddenly – isn’t.

The Oiroke takes about thirty to fifty percent of Naruto’s chakra to maintain. So when he drops it, he has the chakra capacity of nearly four kages.

Kisame turns to Itachi and repeats, “What the fuck?”

“I wasn’t expecting that,” he admits.

“I will handle the blue one,” the one tails container says, “You deal with the Uchiha.”

“Okay!” Naruto bounces on his heels, and then as one the jinchuuriki move. Kisame is put almost immediately on the defensive by the red head, the swordsman at a disadvantage while they’re surrounded by all this sand.

Naruto stops about six feet from him. He has grown, and obviously he is different than the little girl Itachi remembers, but the smile is exactly the same. “I miss you,” the boy says, “You don’t look like you’re sleeping enough.”

“Will you surrender?” Itachi asks, and he doesn’t want to fight his friend, but he also doesn’t think he’ll be able to stand by and watch as Akatsuki does – whatever they plan to do with him.

“Sorry,” he shrugs, “I can’t go with you. You could come home with me to Konoha though. Sasuke misses you too.”

The mention of his little brother is just as good as a kunai to the chest. He glares and says, “Why would I ever go with you? I will only return to Konoha to burn it to the ground, and you have been lying to me since the day we met.”

As if he gives a flying fuck about his friend’s name or gender. But he’ll do anything to make Naruto stop smiling at him, to stop him from talking like he still cares. Itachi’s a murderer and for all the other boy knows a traitor, and he deserves nothing but death for what he’s done to his clan, to his brother, to the boy standing across from him now.

Naruto’s smile falters, “Ah, I – I guess that was fair. I deserved that.”

Itachi can’t take this anymore. “If you won’t come willingly, I will make you.” He runs forward, kunai aimed at his throat. Naruto twists out of the way so quickly that Itachi has to jerk to a stop. Naruto has gotten fast in the past half-decade, and with a chakra powered flip he lands on Itachi’s head by his hands. The nostalgia hits him so powerfully that for a moment he’s dizzy with it.

“I don’t suppose you’ll just let us go our separate ways? I don’t want to fight you.” Itachi would give almost anything not to hurt Naruto, but he has a cover to maintain. He slides the kunai up, and Naruto pushes off and out of the way, landing on his feet. “Kakashi-niichan is Sasuke’s jounin sensei. They finally let him graduate this year.”

Oh, thank god. Kakashi can handle his brother and train him, and maybe one day when this is all over Sasuke will be able to kill him. He doesn’t care what Naruto says – Sasuke has to hate him, he killed their parents and abandoned him, left him the last of a once powerful clan. Itachi drives forward, and there’s only so long he can go without using any jutsu before Kisame gets suspicious. “I do not care about my weak failure of a brother,” he spits, “Nor do I care for you.”

Naruto tries to dodge, but Itachi’s kunai sinks into his chest below his collar bone. His eyes widen, because Naruto should have been able to dodge that, he was supposed to dodge that. Naruto wraps his hand around Itachi’s over the kunai’s hilt, Itachi's eyes jerk down. Naruto still wears the dark purple nin-polish that he got him for Natsu’s tenth birthday. It’s the same nin-polish Itachi wears, even though he does his very best not to think of why he bothers with such a small thing. Their hands are different, Itachi’s pale and long while Naruto’s are tan and still more the hands of a child than an adult, but their nails are the same color. “Liar,” Naruto says softly. He pushes forward, pressing the kunai deeper into his chest, and Itachi’s eyes widen. Blood drips from Naruto’s mouth, “I forgive you.”

Itachi produces a sound caught between a cry and a snarl, because his best friend is going to die on his kunai, and maybe that’s what he deserves, but it’s not what Naruto deserves.

“Ready!” The one tails container calls out, and Itachi glances over to see the boy panting and dancing out of the way of Kisame’s sword.

Naruto pulls away, and if he'd weren't a jinchuuriki he’d bleed out in a few minutes with a wound like that. “See you later, Senpai. Stay strong, and stay safe.”

Naruto’s vast chakra swells and then narrows like a whip. Naruto and the redhead jump away, and then the sand around them swirls and hardens into a familiar pattern. Before he can call out a warning to Kisame, Naruto’s chakra is activating the seal, nearly all of it being fed into the lines, and it’s almost like the Portal Seal, but not quite. He feels the pressure building, and the seal is holding him where he is, he can’t move his feet. The last thing he sees is Naruto swaying and falling to his knees, chest and mouth bloody.

When he opens his eyes next the sun has set, and it looks like he and Kisame have been deposited on the beaches of – he tilts his head, breathes deeply – of Kiri. He checks that Kisame is alive, but passed out, and then he throws his arm over his face and laughs.

~

When Gai feels Natsu’s chakra double, he nearly trips. When he feels it surge forward, flicker, then fade to nothing he doesn’t twitch, but ice pools in his stomach. He waits, not with bated breath because that’s not an efficient use of oxygen, but when the minutes tick by to an hour and still nothing – and Natsu has enough chakra that even this far away he’d be able to sense it – he closes his eyes, just for a moment, and he mourns.

“Sensei?” Lee questions softly. Gai looks to Neji and Tenten bounding forward ahead of them, then back at Lee. He shakes his head, just once, and the boy’s face fills with a sad understanding. “Oh.”

~

“You’re an idiot.”

Naruto whimpers, then tentatively opens his eyes, “Why are you yelling?”

“I’m not yelling,” Temari crosses her arms, “You deserve to be yelled at though. A kunai through the chest? Really? And what the hell seal was that?”

“Portal Seal variant,” he says, feeling over his chest. It’s whole, the skin there smooth and tender but unbroken. Sometimes being a jinchuuriki is awesome. He pushes himself up, and black spots dot his vision, but Temari puts an arm around his back and allows him to slump into her. “I kind of – altered it on the fly. It uh – I need to add some circulatory chakra redistribution next time, but I didn’t really have the time to get fancy – especially cause I had Gaara draw it, and I love him, I do, but a seal master he is not.”

“Right,” Temari says. Pauses, “So you’re a boy, huh?”

“Uh,” he looks down at his chest, “Currently, yes. Sorry I didn’t – I mean, it’s not like I don’t trust you. I do!”

“Shut up,” she sighs, “I forgive you, I guess.” She runs her hand through Naruto’s hair, loose and nearly to his hips, the exact same as Natsu’s except for the brilliant shade of yellow. “Are you hungry? You should be hungry, you’ve been out for five days.”

His eyes widen and he twists to grab Temari’s shoulders, “FIVE DAYS?”

She nods.

“I need a hawk right now,” he moans, “Niichan is going to kill me!”

~

Gai sends his students off, and Lee looks at him for a long moment, half-sadness and half-disapproval. He’ll tell the other two, he will, just – not today. He has to report to the hokage still, and – god, Kakashi, he has to tell Kakashi.

He ruffles Lee’s hair and gives him a smile that’s half grimace, and heads to the Hokage Tower. He’s had to give this news before, and as much as it’s weighing him down, it’s not the most important news he has to give.

The kazekage is working with Orochimaru, their supposed ally with their most conspicuous missing-nin. Gai would give anything not to fight another war, but he doesn’t think that anyone cares for his opinion on the matter.

Sarutobi isn’t in, and he feels guilty at the relief that sweeps through his chest. He leaves his field report, written by firelight long after his genin had already fallen asleep, and follows the familiar pull of his best friend’s chakra. When he comes upon Kakashi training his genin he almost hesitates, but maybe it’s better this way. By telling them all at once he can spare Kakashi the pain of having to tell his students himself.

“Kakashi,” he greets.

The man looks up from his book, and blinks. His genin have stopped trying to attack one another and are staring at him as well. “You’re back early,” he says.

Gai licks his lips. Kakashi snaps his books shut. “There was a … complication. We had to retreat.”

“Your genin?” he asks, and Gai shakes head. Kakashi goes very still.

“Where’s Natsu?” Sasuke demands, “Hinata said she went on a mission with your team.” Kiba and Sakura settle at the Uchiha’s shoulders, adding their fierce stares to their teammate’s.

“There was a complication,” he repeats, because like hell he’s going to tell the kid that his older brother killed her. Nothing less than a direct order from the hokage himself could make him spit out that truth.

Kakashi’s holding his book so tightly that he’s begun to tear the cover. “What happened to Natsu?”

“She,” he pauses because he doesn’t know how to explain this without letting out classified information or destroying the young Uchiha permanently. A hawk’s shrill cry cuts through his thought process, and all four ninja look up. A desert hawk circles above before landing on Gai’s shoulder. It sticks out his leg, and Gai takes the small attached scroll, mystified. “It’s blank.”

“Add your blood and chakra,” Sasuke says, and there’s a heady relief in those dark eyes.

Gai stares at the scroll in disbelief, because there’s no way, he felt Natsu’s chakra sputter and fade to nothing, felt her die. With a sharp bite to his thumb and a surge of chakra the scroll unfurls. Written in Natsu’s confident brushstrokes are the symbols for ‘mission complete’ and ‘return to base in progresses. “She’s alive,” he says dumbly, “and on her way to Konoha.”

Sakura cheers and throws her arms around Kiba. Kakashi smooths out the tattered remains of his book cover. “Gai?”

“Yes, my most youthful rival?” he says almost absentmindedly, greedily running his eyes over the smooth lines in Natsu’s handwriting.

Run.”

Gai drops the letter and flees, Kakashi hot on his heels.

~

It’s probably a good thing that she hadn’t had enough chakra to take a Portal Seal back, because Natsu is maybe two hours from Konoha’s gate when she finds a boy of about fourteen bleeding face down in the dirt.

She drops down from the trees, head tilted to the side. He’s got dark hair, pale skin under all the other blood, and a midriff baring shirt. There’s a hole through his abdomen that should have killed him, and yet. She tentatively pokes him with her foot. He doesn’t respond, so she crouches down, and he’s not wearing any village emblems, just like Natsu hadn't on her mission to Kiri. He’s breathing, just barely, but it’s rattling wet in his chest which she knows isn’t good. “Damnit,” she sighs, and her hands flare with green chakra. She slides it over the boy's sides and up around his head, basic battle triage jutsu to repair just enough so she can move him. Anything involving internal organs is way past her abilities. She flips him over, and her eyes widen, because there’s no mistaking that coloring and bone structure.

Natsu doesn’t know how the fuck there’s another Uchiha that no one felt the need to tell her about, but whether he’s a Konoha ninja or not there’s no way in hell she’s letting an Uchiha bleed out alone in the forest. She lifts the boy up in a bridal hold, and he’s taller than she is, so it’s super awkward, but considering the gently bleeding hole through his torso she can’t risk throwing him over her shoulder.

His eyes snap open, and even though he’s more dead than alive he manages to twist out of her hold and sweep her feet out from under her. “Hey! I’m trying to help you!” He’s on her with a kunai to her neck, mostly out of her reluctance to hurt him more. He’s lying on top of her, and the burst of adrenaline must already be fading it because it’s clear he’s on her because he can’t support his own body weight.

“Who? What?” His words are slurred, and Natsu gently pulls the kunai away from them both.

“I am Natsu Nami,” she says clearly, “I am a chunin of Konoha, Uchiha-san. I’m not your enemy.”

“Uchiha?” His eyes sharpen and catch hers, “I’m not Uchiha.”

She stares, “Right. Look, you’re really hurt, so I’m going to take you to the hospital-”

“No hospitals!” He grabs clumsily at her face, “Don’t! Just leave – leave me here! I’ll die, die with – with,” his eyes fog over and he slumps, his chin hitting her shoulder hard enough to make her wince.

On one hand, there’s no way in hell she’s leaving him to die. On the other hand, considering the nondescript uniform, there may be a very real mission-related reason not to bring him to the hospital.

She sighs, and creates two kage bunshin, “Go get Hana and Kabuto and take them to my place. And for the love of god be subtle about it.”

“Sure thing,” the one on the left says, “But, uh, do you want some help with that?” She gestures to the unconscious teenager.

“No,” Natsu carefully pulls both herself and the boy up, and this time when she’s got him back in her arms he doesn’t jerk away, “Now go.”

She follows her clones at a slower pace, careful of the wounded shinobi who’s blood is slowly seeping into her own clothes.

~

“I hate you,” Hana says vehemently, sweat dripping down her brow.

Kabuto nods, and he’s always been the better medic-nin so he’s doing the extremely delicate process of regenerating sections of the kid’s small intestine while she’s clearing out his lungs.

“Hey,” Natsu pouts, “At least it’s not me this time!” She’s at the head of her own bed with one hand rhythmically moving through the boy’s hair.

“That’s only because you were in Suna!” She doesn’t risk looking away to glare at Natsu, “Kiba told me that Gai thought you were dead. Care to tell us why?”

“Not really,” she says, then shifts in her seat. “I saw Itachi-senpai. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping enough.”

They both pause, and Hana can’t look away right now, this is fucking precise work, but she wants to scream. “Did Itachi try to kill you?”

“Am I still alive or not?” she retorts, “If Senpai wanted me dead I would be.”

“Well Gai was convinced you were, so,” she finally finishes and wipes the sweat from her face.

Natsu scoffs, “Itachi put on a very good show of trying to kill me, but it was just a show.”

The boy’s stomach finally closes over, the skin pink and new. Kabuto, no longer focused on the precise sort of medical jutsu more appropriate for someone of Tsunade’s level, whips his head up and glares, “You sound very certain for someone who nearly died for the sake of said show.”

“He didn’t use any jutsu. He didn’t even use the Sharingan. If Senpai wanted me dead I would be,” she repeats firmly.

“Well,” Kabuto raises his arms over his head cracks his spine, “Clearly Itachi can make mistakes. How else could you have dragged us away from our dinner to save some Uchiha kid?”

All their eyes skitter back to the sleeping boy.

~

After thanking Kabuto and Hana profusely and promising to buy them so much alcohol, Natsu finds herself alone with the pale boy. She'd noticed the thick clump of chakra at the top of his throat before, but with him bleeding out in her arms it hadn't exactly been a priority. Now she swallows and then very carefully tips his head back and pushes his mouth open. The seal on his tongue is simple, but grotesque. Her chakra still hasn’t fully recovered, it’s a little more than half of what it should be, but she can’t let this lie, so she reaches out and lights up the seal matrix under the ink. That swirl connects the voice box to the heart, this dash makes the heart explode, these conjoining lines aren’t necessary, really, and they’re actually in the way of the mark that pulls the chakra from the person’s own coils, so they must be hiding something –

“Huh,” she says softly, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

She closes his mouth and sets his head back down. She should let him rest, she should really let him rest, he’d nearly died, and she knows from personal experience that’s not pleasant.

“Sorry,” she says. She lays a hand against his chest and spikes his chakra with her own. His eyes fly open and he shoots up, coughing. “Easy, easy! You’re okay!”

She holds him up by his shoulders until he stops hacking, and she’d forgotten how unpleasant newly healed lungs felt. When his breaths ease she guides him back so he’s lying down. “What?” He looks around, quickly and efficiently before his eyes land on her. “You were supposed to let me die!”

“What’s your name?” Natsu asks, and she keeps a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Give me a kunai and I’ll do it myself!” he insists.

She rolls her eyes, “Look, I just dragged my friends from dinner to heal you, and it look literal hours, so they’ll be pissed if you die.”

“Healed?” He presses his hand against his stomach, and his eyes widen, “Talented friends.”

“I’ll tell them you said so,” she agrees, “Now: name.”

“Where am I?”

Natsu would shake him if he didn’t look so honestly confused. “You’re in my apartment. You said not to take you to a hospital, so I didn’t.”

“I also said to let me die,” he points out.

She shrugs, “You win some you lose some.” He looks at her like she’s insane, but she gets that looks a lot. “Name. Then I’ll let you get some sleep.”

His hand is still pressed to where the hole in his abdomen used to be, and he looks oddly fragile, “Is this is a test?”

“Yes,” she snarls, “One question long. Name?”

He’s staring at her, and with those eyes she doesn’t know how he thinks he’s anything but Uchiha. “Sai. They call me Sai.”

“Thank you,” she says, and her chakra flares green. Sai’s eyes roll back in his head and he goes limp.

Technically that jutsu is supposed to be used to knock out trauma patients so they can be transported safely, but hey – whatever works.

~

“You’re not as sneaky as you think you are.”

Natsu startles, then freezes as two feet land softly on her shoulders. She looks up, and Sasuke stares down at her, one eyebrow raised. “Well,” she says, “this is a change of pace.” She looks around, and she’s been keeping to the lower level roofs, the shadows should have cloaked her. “How did you know I was here?”

Sasuke jumps off of her, but without the backflip Natsu would have added, personally. “I was over the eleventh training ground, and I sensed your chakra. It’s not like it’s subtle.”

“What are you doing at a training ground? It’s nearly two in the morning!”

“What are you doing trying to sneak about Konoha?” he asks, “It’s nearly two in the morning.” His smirk slides into a smile, just for a moment, “It’s good to have you back in the village.” Sasuke doesn’t say he missed her, but it’s implied.

She giggles and pokes his forehead, and he doesn’t even look crushed this time. “The middle of the night is the perfect time for sneaking!”

“Natsu,” he says patiently.

She twists her lips, “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” But it has to do with him, it all has to do with him, and she’s going to have to tell him that she saw Itachi.

“I’m a shinobi, and I can make my own decisions,” he says, “Let me help.”

Well, if he’s going to be logical about it. “Councilman Danzo is an amoral, criminal asshole.”

He blinks, “You didn’t have to answer my obvious statement with an equally obvious one.”

“What I mean is, I’m breaking into his office to paw through his files,” she crosses her arms, “Are you still in?”

Sasuke sighs and rubs his hand over his face, “You’re insane. We could be court martialed and killed.”

“Only if we get caught,” she says reasonably, “You don’t have to come. You probably shouldn’t come.”

“Well, if we get caught we’re not very good ninja anyway.” He jumps over to the next roof.

Natsu grins so wide it feels like it’s going to break her face before hurrying after him.

She’s well aware that Danzo’s airy office on the eighth floor of the Hokage Tower is perfectly useless, and the one in his home probably isn’t much better. The one in the basement of the Hokage Tower, however, is promising.

“How do you even know this is here?” Sasuke murmurs.

Explaining that it had been hidden in the complex system of key words and phrases disguised under a cross-linked mental seal (a Yamanaka had to have helped develop it) as a trigger to a murder jutsu sounded exhausting even in her head. “Later,” she promises instead.

There aren’t any guards, which makes them both uncomfortably suspicious until they come upon the door.

“Ah,” Sasuke says.

“Fancies himself a seal master, doesn’t he?” Natsu runs a careful hand over the intricate design of explosion tags. “I could maybe reverse engineer these,” she says, because they’re effective if not very elegant.

“You could,” Sasuke agrees, “You could also just short them out with your chakra. They’ll reactivate in a couple minutes, but considering it would probably take you a couple months to reverse engineer them successfully…”

“Do you know how much chakra that would take?” she demands, because Sasuke is supposed to be the smart one.

He shrugs, “Less than you have.”

She blinks, takes stock of her current chakra levels, and while they’re certainly still recovering, she could probably do it and not be too badly off. “Whatever,” she scowls and knocks her shoulders into Sasuke’s. She breathes out slowly, then gathers and condenses her chakra, and whips it against the seals like she’s performing kai. The seals light up, spark, then fade.

She sways; that was still more chakra than she’s used at her current levels, and for a second she’s afraid her Oiroke is going to fail and that’s not a conversation she wants to have in the middle of Root headquarters.

Sasuke wraps an arm around her waist and tugs her forward, “Come on,” he turns the doorknob, and the door creaks open, “Arrogant asshole didn’t even lock it.”

The office is neat to the point of being sterile. Sasuke lets go of her and starts opening the drawers of Danzo’s desk, “What are we looking for?”

“Anything to do with Root missions in the past five years,” she says absently, because she’s actually looking for something specific, but she’d have to explain Sai in general before even getting into looking for his birth records. Besides, it’s not like that won’t be useful anyway. “It’s an illegal branch of Anbu that’s he’s been operating.”

“Right,” he mutters, and he starts sifting through files in the first cabinet. They’re labeled alphabetically, not chronologically, which means Sasuke is properly distracted while she reaches for the ‘U’ drawer.

It’s probably too much to hope for that there’s a helpful little file tagged ‘Uchiha, Sai’ but a girl can try. She never gets that far, however, because her fingers stutter over a thick folder labeled ‘Uchiha, Extermination.’

She glances over at Sasuke, who already has a few files tucked under his arms, then swallows. She pulls the folder out and flips it open randomly. Itachi-senpai’s small, neat writing fills the page, and she snaps it shut.

“Natsu?” She turns, and Sasuke is definitely looking at her now, “What’s wrong?”

She opens her mouth, and then she’s not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse when she senses four powerful chakra signatures coming toward them, “We need to go. They know we’re here.”

“How?” Sasuke slams the drawer shut and stuffs his files down the back of his pants. Natsu pulls up her shirt, and unwraps just enough of her breast bindings to tie the folder to her stomach. Sasuke growls, and points to the ground. Natsu follows his finger, and there’s a security seal there that they must have activated by stepping on it. “Not so arrogant after all.”

“Come on,” she says, breathless. She grabs a pen off of Danzo’s desk, and this is going to be the sloppiest work of her life, but she doesn’t care. She inks half the seal on her own hand, then grabs Sasuke’s to do the other half on his. “This is going to use about the last of my chakra,” unless she wants to drop the Oiroke, which she doesn’t, this is so far from the time for that, “Don’t panic about the guy in my bed, and promise me you won’t read the file under my shirt without me, okay?”

“Guy in your bed?” he repeats.

“Promise me!” Natsu stamps her foot, and this is a small Portal Seal, if they were a few miles closer and she didn’t have to worry about them following their chakra she might be able to body flicker instead, but it will still take the last of the chakra she has.

Sasuke frowns, “Okay, okay! I promise I won’t look at the files without you.”

She grabs Sasuke’s hand so the seals match up, “Hold on.” She squeezes once, then activates the Portal Seal.

When the Root Anbu arrive in the office seconds later, the only mark of their presence is the pen missing from Danzo’s desk.

Chapter Text

Natsu Nami, age 16. Drawn by jenzwashere

Natsu Nami, age 16. Drawn by jenzwashere.

 

“Wait,” Hanabi frowns and holds out a hand. Neji stills immediately. She pushes more chakra to her byakugun, and maybe she’s just tired, that happens when you train at the crack of dawn and all throughout the day and then have to sneak off to the forests to train at night too. “Try that again.”

Her cousin perfectly executes the stance, and he has the best chakra control she’s ever seen outside of a medic-nin, so the way the chakra almost flows correctly but then spatters and rushes against his palms, like a wave breaking against a dam doesn’t make any sense. Neji sighs and glances up at the moon, glowing high enough in the sky that they should both be heading back. “Don’t worry about it, Hanabi-hime.”

She glares and crosses her arms, “What do you mean don’t worry about it! If I can perform the Dancing Dragon katas, then you should be able to! You’re better than me!” The more she reminds him the less it makes her chest ache, and the more his eyes soften. Like punching a training board, so that the bones break just a little and grow back stronger.

“Some things take time.” She just keeps glaring, because they’ve trained enough together that she knows he can read her impatience. He smiles, “Hime, you’ve only just started teaching me the main branch styles. Perfection does not happen without practice.”

“It does for you!” she snarls, and at the way his face stiffens she forces herself to take a deep breath. “That wasn’t an – accusation, or jealousy, or whatever. You are doing it perfectly, Neji. It just doesn’t work at the last second for some reason.” She stomps her foot and commands, “Do it again.”

Still frowning, he does. Hanabi tries to watch it all at once, not just concentrating on the flow of chakra but on all his movements, on all the chakra, and maybe he is messing up and she’s just not noticing, but Dancing Dragon shouldn’t be this hard, even her sister can do it. This time as the chakra shatters against his palms she notices the flair around his forehead, and she can’t see for a moment, can’t breathe, because there’s no way – her father would never, not to his nephew, his brother’s son, not to a whole half of their family, their blood and their kin –

“HANABI-HIME!” Neji is crouched in front of her, hands tight on her shoulders, and at some point she must have fallen to her knees but she can’t remember when. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

She shakes her head, and Neji’s face is tight with worry he’s trying not to show. Strong, loyal Neji, her cousin who is her brother in blood and who trains with her in the middle of the night and who is teaching her to cool the heat of her anger, to temper it into something even more dangerous. Neji whom she loves with all the fierceness she does her sister. She reaches up and presses hesitant fingers against his forehead, to where she knows the Curse Mark is. He flinches but doesn’t move away or yell at her, and she can feel her eyes stinging. She hasn’t cried since she entered the Academy, but if anything deserves her tears, this does. “Oh, Neji,” she rubs her thumb over the bandages, “it’s – it’s worse than we thought. I’m so sorry.”

“Hanabi?” he blinks, “What are you talking about?”

She swallows, and this is going to be another conversation she doesn’t want to have, but the needs of her family will always outweigh her desires, so she just says, “I need to talk to Natsu Nami.”

~

Kakashi is with Iruka for a lot of reasons. He’s cute; some might even say unbearably handsome, if they could see him laid out on dark sheets and illuminated by moonlight, his hair spread out like a halo around him and the delicate planes of his face highlighted by the thin scar across his nose. Not that anyone else will ever see him like that, if Kakashi has anything to say about it, but the teacher’s appearance is of course a factor in his interest. Then there’s his intelligence – the man is smart, not just textbook intelligence, but a cunning and acumen that would have made Iruka very at home in the Nara clan. He’s strong too, not anything close to Kakashi but that’s not fair because very few people are, but if he ever applied for a promotion to jounin it would be granted (Iruka seemingly hasn’t noticed how the Sandaime is grooming him to be the next assistant to the hokage, what with always working in the mission assignment office, and Kakashi isn’t going to be the one to tell him, because then that will devolve into a conversation about Kakashi being the next hokage, and just no).

There’s the little things too. Iruka doesn’t get on his case about the porn, and he doesn’t push about the times Kakashi wakes up in a cold sweat from a nightmare, not even the handful of times Kakashi has reached for a kunai still half asleep. He doesn’t know exactly why Kakashi wakes up crying sometimes, his mouth tangled around Obito-Rin-Minato-Naruto but he lets Kakashi cling to him anyway. They make each other laugh about dumb things that other people probably don’t find funny, and they both like their food just this side of too spicy. Iruka likes Natsu, the little sister that he never asked for; Kakashi knows for a fact that when Natsu started tutoring Sakura she went and pestered Iruka for tips.

Besides all that, there’s that Iruka is at his core a very calm and levelheaded person. He may be prone to yelling at students and slipping into dramatics in the classroom for a laugh or to put his kids at ease, but he’s one of the most even keeled people Kakashi has ever met. He, on the other hand, is only calm and levelheaded out of necessity and practice – he wouldn’t say he has an inclination to panic, but Gai has accused him more than once of making mountains out of molehills.

So his first action when he hears the news (and of course he hears, he may have been out of Anbu for years and he never touched Root but he’s still Kakashi Hatake) isn’t to track down that blonde brat, but is to run over to the Academy and snag Iruka into a convenient broom closet on his way to class.

“This really isn’t the time,” Iruka scolds, glaring at the coffee that’s now more on the ground than in his mug, “We’re having our first shuriken throwing lesson today, and the girls had to learn about honeypot missions yesterday, which always makes them extra violent-”

“Someone broke into Danzo’s underground office,” Kakashi interrupts, “They shorted out the seals, and then were gone by the time operatives got there.”

Iruka’s face pales and the mug drops from loose fingers, shattering on the floor.

“Ah,” Kakashi says, and this time his voice is just an octave higher, “I was afraid you’d react like that. I mean, the seals weren’t deactivated, so theoretically – maybe it was – someone else?”

“Go find her right now,” Iruka says seriously, “before someone else does.”

“Right,” he tugs down his mask and presses Iruka against the wall, kissing him firmly and thoroughly, because he might be going off to die defending Natsu against a dozen Root agents. “Okay,” he gives the dazed Academy one more peck before body flickering away.

~

Natsu wakes slowly. Her eyelids feel so heavy that she considers just going back to sleep, but there’s a sense of urgency at the back of her mind telling her that’s a bad idea, so she forces her eyes open. The first thing she sees is spiky black hair, and she reaches out a clumsy hand to the boy’s forehead, “Sasuke?”

The boy turns to face her, and she becomes aware enough of her surroundings that she figures out she’s laid out on her couch, it’s morning, and Sasuke is sitting with his back against the couch. “Hey,” he says softly, and it looks like he hasn’t slept at all, “How are you feeling?”

“Exhausted,” she says honestly, and it’s a struggle to pull herself upright. Her chakra is so low, and she's almost tempted to drop the Oiroke just to make this feeling go away. Her eyes catch on the folder in Sasuke’s lap, and she goes still, “Oh.”

His thumb has nearly rubbed the words away on the word ‘Extermination’, and he swallows, “I didn’t read it, I waited.”

Natsu tugs on the end of his hair, “Come here.” Sasuke pushes himself up to sit beside her on the couch, and Natsu leans against him, partially out of comfort and partially because if this was any less important she would fall back asleep. The folder is thick, and she sets it on Sasuke’s thigh before flipping it open to the first page so they can both see it. “Together?”

He looks up from the file. He manages to quirk his mouth into an almost smile for her, and Natsu beams. “Together,” he confirms, and they dive into the secrets of the Uchiha Massacre.

~

Kakashi is only a little bit surprised when he’s tackled to the ground mid-jump by Inoichi.

“You could have just asked me to stop,” he says plaintively from underneath the clan head.

Inoichi scoffs as he rolls off of Kakashi, “Like that would have worked. I assume you’ve heard?”

“Heard what?” he dusts off his flak jacket. The older man glares. Kakashi sighs, “Maybe it wasn’t her.”

Inoichi raises both his eyebrows.

“We have other suicidally stupid, reckless, chakra powerhouse ninjas in the village, you know,” he argues, “Like – me! Or Gai. I bet it was Gai.”

The Yamanaka rubs a hand over his face, “Danzo isn’t going to have her killed.”

“Oh,” Kakashi blinks. “That’s – not good, honestly. What’s he going to do to her instead?”

“Danzo is going to recruit her,” he says.

“That’s worse,” Kakashi says faintly, frowning. He coughs, looks to the side, then back at Inoichi. “Has he lost his mind?” he settles on finally, because the recruitment process could break Natsu, but if it breaks her too far they’d have an insane, bloodthirsty seal master with a near endless chakra supply. Natsu may not be anything close to as strong as Itachi, but she’s clever and talented enough that she could make the Uchiha Massacre look like child’s play.

Inoichi shrugs, “Probably. Now obviously we can’t let him get his hands on her, for a multitude of reasons, so we need a plan.”

“I have a plan,” a deep voice says from behind them. Kakashi twitches.

Inoichi turns on his heel and stabs his finger at his former teammate, “STOP DOING THAT!”

Shikaku rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, “I’m assuming you’re discussing the Natsu and Danzo situation? I have a plan.”

“Is there anyone who doesn’t know about this?” Inoichi demands.

“Uh,” Shikaku scratches his head, “Literally everyone else?” He points to himself, “Jounin Commander,” then to Inoichi, “Head of Torture and Interrogation,” then Kakashi, “Overly invested, incredibly nosy ex-Anbu elite jounin.”

“Hey,” the younger man pouts, but Shikaku isn’t wrong.

Inoichi pinches the bridge of his nose, “What’s the plan?”

~

Sai wakes up all at once, and he’s reaching for a kunai before he’s even fully opened his eyes. A small, strong hand grabs his wrist. He looks up, and a boy who looks oddly like him is gently pushing him back onto the bed. “Easy,” he presses the back of his hand against Sai’s forehead, and frowns, “You’re okay, I don’t think you have a temperature. But that was some pretty intense healing your body went through, and it’ll take a few days for you to recover fully. NATSU!”

He blinks as the blond girl from before walks in, twisting her hair into a ponytail, “Oh, good, you’re awake! You were out a lot longer than I thought you would be, but I guess your body needed it after all.”

Sai is about to ask what the fuck is going on when the other boy grabs his chin and tilts Sai’s head towards him. “You were right,” he says to Natsu, “He’s definitely an Uchiha.”

“I’m not Uchiha!” he says, glaring.

Natsu snorts. The boy runs a gentle finger under Sai’s eye, and he almost flinches away from the feather light touch, “I’m Sasuke Uchiha. And you are definitely part of my clan. I wonder who your parents were.”

Sai pushes himself up and away from them both, standing on swaying legs, “What are you talking about? Is this is a test?”

Natsu shakes her head, “Does Danzo put you through a lot of tests?” Sasuke’s face darkens, and she places a hand on his shoulder.

Sai crosses his arms, “So you do know Danzo!”

“We’ve met,” she agrees, “but we don’t get along, on account of him being an insane, manipulative dick.”

The older boy’s eyes nearly pop out of his head, and Sasuke’s face softens again. He moves forward so he’s standing right in front of Sai and he reaches up to grab his shoulders and push him back down on the bed, “We want to help you, okay? Don’t undo all of Natsu’s hard work by hurting yourself again.”

“I didn’t do much, honestly,” she walks forward to stand next to Sasuke, “It was mostly Kabuto and Hana.”

Sai looks in between them both, “What do you want from me?”

“Wrong question,” Natsu sits next to him on the bed, “I know about the seal, Sai. I know what happens if you try to leave Danzo, or betray him.”

“I’m a loyal ninja of Konohagakure!” he glares, “I would never betray Danzo!”

“Danzo is not Konoha,” she says.

Sasuke reaches out and tilts Sai’s face up to his. “The right question is what do you want? If you want to go back to working for Danzo, to doing his dirty work – all right. If all you want to be is a tool then that’s all you’ll be.”

“But if you want something more, we’re willing to give it to you,” Natsu places a hand on Sai’s knee. “We could use your help, and we think you could use ours. We would never ask you to betray the people of Konoha, Sai. You’re a loyal shinobi, and we don’t want you to be anything else.”

“What are you saying?” he feels caught, trapped between Natsu’s hands and Sasuke’s intent eyes.

“We’re saying maybe Danzo doesn’t know what’s best for this village,” she reaches out on the bedside table and hands him a stack of files, “These are the full, undoctored files on just a couple of the missions Root has run in the past few years. Sometimes they were for the greater good – but sometimes they really, really weren’t.”

The younger boy runs his hand along Sai’s jawline before folding his hands behind his back, “And regardless of what you decide, I want you to know – I consider you an Uchiha. I may be the only currently recognized Uchiha, but there is a place for you in the clan if you want it.”

“I think Sai Uchiha has a nice ring to it, personally,” Natsu adds.

Sai looks at the files clenched in his hands, and he’s never had any other option than Root and Danzo and a short life of painful service before a likely painful death. He’s never had a choice before.

~

Kiba squints up at the sun, then at the shadows the trees are casting. He nudges Sakura in the knee with his foot.

“Hmm?” she looks up from her book on medical anatomy. Once she had the basics down, Kiba promised he’d get his sister to show her a few jutsus.

“Kakashi is late.” Sakura keeps staring. “Really late. So is Sasuke.”

The girl frowns and holds out her hand. Kiba pulls her to her feet, and hides a grin at the pounds of muscle the girl has put on since she’s graduated. “That’s weird,” she admits. “Sasuke’s usually pretty neurotic about being on time.”

“What do Sasuke and Kakashi have in common?” he asks, already heading the direction of where he’s sure he’ll find his missing teammates.

Sakura stuffs her book in her backpack and runs to catch up with him, “Uh, they’re both the last of really powerful clans?”

“No,” he frowns, “Well, I mean yes. But I was thinking about Natsu.”

“Why do you always think Natsu is at the center of everything? Every time something goes wrong or weird you think it’s her fault.”

Kiba pauses, “Sakura, Natsu could find trouble anywhere. It’s a gift. They hadn’t even been in Suna for a day when she’d made friends with a jinchuuriki.”

Sakura blinks, “What?”

“I’ll tell you the story later,” he tugs on her elbow, “Come on, the roofs are faster.”

She rolls her eyes, but directs chakra to her legs and follows her teammate without further complaint.

~

Gai watches his students spar one another, but his mind isn’t on them. It’s on Baki, and Suna, and Natsu. The sand jounin had been the instructor for the one tails for about two years, and been around the kid for his entire life. There were few people as qualified as Baki to recognize a jinnchurikki. Yet – there was no way Natsu could be one. The only tailed beast within Konoha’s walls had been the fox, but it had died along with its container eight years ago.

Hadn’t it?

~

“Shit, shit, shit,” Natsu chants while looking around her small apartment wildly.

Both Sai and Sasuke look up from where they’re pouring over Root files. They each raise an eyebrow, and fuck but that polite look of ‘literally what the fuck’ must be genetic, Itachi did it too. “Natsu?” Sasuke asks.

She looks under her bed, shoves aside a bunch of scrolls, and says, “Sai, get under here right now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Just trust me! Under here, now!” Sai throws down the scrolls and smoothly rolls under the bed. Natsu tugs the blanket down to completely hide him from view. “Make sure to mask your chakra.”

Sasuke puts aside the scrolls and walks over, “Natsu, what are you doing-”

“Sshh!” She turns around and smacks her hand over Sasuke’s mouth with more force than strictly necessary. Sasuke staggers and falls back, taking Natsu with him. She barely catches herself, and nearly cracks their foreheads together.

When Kakashi, Inoichi, and Shikaku all pile into her bedroom through the window it’s to see Natsu straddling Sasuke on her bed with their faces pressed close together.

Inoichi turns deep shade of red. Kakashi scratches the back of his head, “Mah, Natsu, isn’t Sasuke a little young for that?”

“IT’S NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE!” Natsu howls, scrambling off of Sasuke. She points a finger at the three jounin. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? WHY ARE YOU IN MY HOUSE?”

Sasuke coughs and pushes himself up so he’s sitting cross-legged on the bed. If someone were to look closely, they would see a faint blush on his pale face. “Hello.”

Shikaku sighs, pushing in front of his still blushing teammate, “I’m sure it wasn’t. Sasuke, please leave. We have to discuss something with Natsu that’s above your clearance level.”

He glances between the three jounin, then to the mission scrolls still thrown all over Natsu’s apartment, and comes to the only logical conclusion. “You’re talking about the Danzo thing right? How did you hear about that?”

All the jounin blink. “How did you?” Kakashi demands.

“I was there,” he rolls his eyes, “Did you think I would let Natsu do something that stupid alone?”

“Hey!” She glares at Sasuke, who shrugs apologetically but doesn’t take it back, which she guesses is kind of fair.

Kakashi groans and Inoichi hangs his head. Shikaku taps his chin, “No, this might be better. We know Danzo has it out for Natsu, but he values the last Uchiha. If he can’t take down one without the other, he might not go public with this.”

“Of he will go public with it, and just twist it to how Natsu definitely was involved with the Massacre, and now she’s corrupting Sasuke too, and then the whole town will want her head on a stick,” Inoichi says flatly.

“There are worse things,” Natsu says, and everyone turns to glare at her. She crosses her arms, “Seriously, is there a reason you’re here? Sasuke and I were kind of in the middle of something.”

“Ah, making Sasuke a man so young. People will talk, maybe you should wait until he’s a little older?” Kakashi suggests.

Sasuke is definitely blushing now. Natsu growls and body flickers to right behind Kakashi. The jounin tries to run away, but ends up tripping over what feels like a leg and falling on the bed. Natsu slams an explosive tag on him, and Kakashi closes his eyes against the blast of sticky purple glitter. “Was that really necessary?” he asks morosely. He pats his head and his hair is already forming into weird clumps. It’s going to take forever to wash it all out.

Natsu tosses her head so her ponytail goes swinging over her shoulder. “If you didn’t want to deal with the consequences, you shouldn’t have been an asshole.”

“Can we focus, please?” Shikaku rubs his forehead, “Natsu, we need to get you out of Konoha.”

She blinks. “Why?”

“Because you are not subtle, and Danzo knows it was you that went through his files!” Inoichi says.

“I mean, I assumed,” she continues, “but when a team of assassins didn’t come knocking on my door I figured he didn’t want to bother. Or that he’s going to try to recruit me.”

Sasuke frowns, “That’d be convenient. Can we trick him into that?”

“He is trying to recruit you,” Kakashi says, “but that’s not a good thing.”

“That’s great!” Sasuke says enthusiastically. Natsu nods, looking extremely pleased with herself.

The three jounin blink. Shikaku scratches the top of his head, “Uh, why is that great? In what way would you consider this a good thing?”

“Well, we only got the first report out of his office,” Natsu explains, “if he’s stupid enough to let me into his base so I can get to the rest I’m not going to stop him.”

“First report of what?” Inoichi demands, “What were you looking for in there anyway?”

Natsu glances towards the bed, but grabs a thick file off of her nightstand. She looks to Sasuke, who shrugs then nods, and she hands it to Kakashi. The older man frowns before flipping it open, and he pales instantly. “No fucking way.”

Inoichi and Shikaku crowd closer to read over his shoulder, and as soon as they realize what they’re reading Inoichi breathes, “Holy shit,” and Shikaku slaps his forehead.

“Who called it?” Natsu grins, “Was it me? I think it was me.” Sasuke beams and she throws an arm over his shoulder, “We were totally right, and I’m never letting any of you forget it.”

Shikaku pushes back and snorts. He claps his hand over his mouth in an attempt to muffle it, but soon he’s almost hysterically laughing. Now everyone is looking at him as if he’s lost his mind, so he manages to swallow his amusement just enough to explain, “Danzo want her on his side so she doesn’t blab. He’s not interested in getting rid of her, who knows who else she’s told, oh no. He wants her for his own so he can control who she tells and how she tells it.”

“Ah,” she looks between him and Inoichi and Kakashi, both of whom look incredibly relieved, “What?”

“We thought he wanted you as a weapon of mass destruction,” Shikaku explains, and it takes everything inside of her to not grab at the seal on her stomach, “to be used or to be killed. But he wants you as an ally. He’s not going to kill you now that you have the Uchiha file, the window has passed, so he’s just going to use you.”

“That seems,” she struggles for a moment, “unbelievably stupid.”

Sasuke nods in agreement.

Shikaku sobers, “He has ways of getting people to co-operate with him. We still need to get you away from him, but this – makes it a lot less dire, honestly.”

“Ah, right,” she rubs the back of her neck, “ways.” This time it’s Sasuke raising his eyebrows at her and quickly flickering his eyes to the bed and back. She sighs, “Yeah, we should probably tell them. Sai, you can come out now.”

Sai rolls out from under the bed and pops upright. He’s wearing a pair of her leggings and a slightly too large sweatshirt, so he looks less ridiculous than in the crop top get up, but he’s not exactly the poster child for intimidating right now. Except that three of the smartest ninja in the village are standing in her apartment, so they all slide into defensive stances on sight. Sai raises an eyebrow and tucks his hands behind his back, “Hello.”

“Natsu, who is this?” Kakashi demands.

“This is Sai,” she says, “he’s a member of Danzo’s illegal Anbu team, Root. He’s also an Uchiha. I found him bleeding to death outside of the village gates.”

There’s a dull thunk, and everyone turns. The remaining members of Team Seven are crouched on the window sill. Sakura is rhythmically banging her head against window frame while Kiba looks a cross between smug and exasperated, “I told you.”

~

It’s about a week after Naruto leaves that Baki actually manages to get his team on a mission far enough outside of Suna’s gates that he feels safe enough bringing this up. They must know it’s coming, because when exactly one hundred miles from Suna he alters their course to the closest cave and drops his pack, none of them looks surprised.

“All right,” he says sternly, “Explanations. Quickly. Now.”

“As soon as we can guarantee enough support, I’m going to overthrow our father and take his place as kazekage,” Temari says promptly.

Baki’s eyes bug out, and Kankuro coughs to hide a laugh. “Are you insane?” he asks, “Your father will allow you to replace him over his dead body.”

All the humor drains from the kids. “Yeah,” Kankuro says, “we’d figured that out.”

The jounin looks between the sand siblings, “You three are serious about this. You’re honestly planning to kill the kazekage. Assuming I don’t turn you in for treason, what even makes you think you can?”

Sand whips around them, so fast that he can hear it whistling by. In under five seconds they’re all in the eye of a sandstorm strong enough that Baki doesn’t doubt it could rip someone’s limbs from their body. Just as quickly it disappears. Baki steps forward and bends down so he can look Gaara in the eyes. “You’re okay with this? Murdering your father?” The boy nods, face blank. Baki glares, “You hate killing. You always have.”

Something in Gaara’s face softens, because even when he hadn’t liked him Baki had always understood him on a level unmatched by anyone but Naruto. He has to swallow before he can speak, but his voice comes out smooth when he says, “I am a loyal shinobi of Sunagakure. I will do whatever my duty requires.”

“You all really think this is the right thing,” Baki says, the realization a sinking weight in his stomach, “You believe killing the kazekage is the best thing for Suna.”

“It is,” Temari says. She’s only fifteen and it was him that first showed her how to grasp a kunai in her shaking hand, but looking at her steady gaze now it’s not terribly difficult to think of her in those ridiculous robes and hat, “and I think you know it too.”

Baki huffs and looks away. Damn it all, but she’s right. They all are. Fuck.

~

Natsu wastes no time in kicking them all out of her apartment, and Kakashi drags Sasuke out by his collar even though Natsu wasn’t trying to make him leave. “You can drop that scowl,” Kakashi tells him while Sakura and Kiba flank them back to the training ground, “You don’t get to be on standby while she pokes about at the seal and potentially blows up her building.”

“She likes that building,” Kiba points out, “She won’t blow it up.”

Kakashi ignores him. “I should make you all train with Gai, it’s what you deserve.”

Sakura makes an offended noise at the back of the throat, “We’re not the ones who broke into a councilman’s secret office and kidnapped an illegal Anbu! Why do we have to get punished too?”

“In all fairness, I had nothing to do with the illegal Anbu part,” Sasuke says, still being carried around by Kakashi. Civilians have started giving them weird looks. “That’s all on Natsu.”

“Well, you clearly didn’t try to stop her,” their sensei grumbles.

Sasuke scoffs. “Stop her? You don’t stop Natsu from doing something stupid and insane, you just keep up.”

Kakashi has to admit, to himself if not out loud, that the Uchiha may have a point. “Whatever. I’m still going to make you run laps with Gai.”

When they show up to Team Nine’s training, it’s to Lee and Tenten sparring against each other while Gai cheers them on. He tells his own kids to join in, and then heads straight for the other jounin, “What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think anything is amiss, my hip and cool rival?” Gai’s smile sparkles in the sunlight. Kakashi crosses his arms. The other man glances towards the group of fighting genin before he sighs and admits, “Neji didn’t show up for training today.”

“That’s not like him,” Kakashi looks in the direction of the Hyuuga compound, “Did you see if he was at home?”

“He’s been training with Hanabi at night. It’s a secret,” he elaborates at Kakashi’s raised eyebrow. “He’s helping her get better, and he’s been training with Hinata too. I’m worried something went – wrong.”

He taps his fingers against his forearm, “The young Hyuuga girl is a little bloodthirsty.”

“I had thought they were getting along better,” Gai admits, “but if she – she’s not the heir, but she’s still Hiashi’s daughter, she could activate the seal-” 

“You don’t really think she would hurt Neji, do you?” Kakashi raises an eyebrow. “Natsu likes her.”

“No,” Gai admits, “Not on purpose.” At that ominous statement Kakashi has to resist the urge to go out and find them all himself, because Hanabi is a dangerously powerful nine year old, and he’s got Rin’s name heavy in the back of his throat. Gai steps just close enough to knock their shoulders together, “Speaking of, how is Natsu?”

Kakashi waits a beat, then asks, “How do you know?”

“Know what?” Gai bats his eyelashes, but that innocent routine may have hoodwinked the entirety of Konoha, but it’s worked on him approximately never. The other man shrugs, “Iruka told me. I was all ready to go die nobly by your side, but then I sensed Inoichi and Shikaku’s chakra. You’ve figured it out then?”

“More or less,” he sighs, because he’s not going to go blabbing the truth of the Uchiha Massacre, but he also really wants to complain about his kids to someone. He supposes he can wait until Iruka gets home. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go looking for Neji?”

Gai shakes his head, “I’m probably overreacting. I’m sure he’s fine.”

~

Shino isn’t going to say anything, but he’s pretty sure his sensei is overreacting.

“You’re sure you don’t know where they are?” Kurenai asks him for the third time.

“I am certain,” he says, also for the third time. “I can go to the Hyuuga compound and look for them if you like.” His mom is about a thousand times scarier than Hiashi, and at this point he’s willing to do anything that’s not standing around waiting for his teammates to show up. They’re the Hyuuga heirs, and even Hinata is pretty fucking terrifying when she forgets to be nervous. He’s not exactly concerned.

“No,” Kurenai says, and he’s glad his glasses hide that he’s rolling his eyes. “Come with me.”

She body flickers away, and Shino pinches the bridge of his nose before following her.

~

Sai squints his eyes at the glowing matrix shimmering in between him and Natsu. “It looks complicated.”

Natsu taps her brush against her chin, leaving dabs of ink. She shifts the matrix and draws another series of lines on the paper in front of her. “It is. There are so many levels. How long did this take to apply?”

“Uh,” Sai tries to think back. He couldn’t have been more than five when he got the seal, but it hurt, and he remembers that. “A while.”

“Of course it did,” she sighs, “Well the good news is it’s a five point seal, which I’ve had some experience deconstructing. The bad news is replacing it with one that Danzo won’t notice is going to be hell.”

He nods, “I understand. I can only delay returning to Danzo for two more days, maximum, before he becomes suspicious.”

“Two days,” Natsu sighs, “Okay, that’s fine. I can make a brand new seal from scratch that superficially matches an already stupidly in depth seal in two days. Totally.”

Sai considers her pinched face while she manipulates the matrix once more. “I could go back with my original seal.”

The chakra matrix flickers and disappears. Natsu has to reach up to pull Sai down so they’re eye to eye, but he doesn’t resist her. “Absolutely not,” she says fiercely. “We’ll send you in able to defend yourself, or not at all. You and Sasuke are the only Uchihas left in Konoha – we’re not risking you just to get a little more information.”

“I’m not -”

“You are,” she interrupts, “Sasuke has claimed you as his blood kin, and officially recognized or not that’s what you are.” There’s that vulnerable look in his eyes again, and he’s one of the most deadly shinobi in the village, but like this he just looks like a lost kid. She forces a smile, “I can do this Sai. Believe in me, okay?”

He nods sharply, and Natsu’s smile becomes a little bit more natural.

~

Hinata feels as if she’s been fairly accommodating of her sister dragging her from the breakfast table and into the opposite direction of their training grounds, but they’ve been walking in the Forest of Death for twenty minutes and she still doesn’t know why. “Hanabi,” she sighs, “will you please tell me what’s going on?”

“We’re almost there,” her little sister says, Byakugan activated as she scans their surroundings.

“Almost where?” She’s trying not to sound petulant, but the cooks had prepared sweet buns this morning, and Hanabi hadn’t even given her a chance to grab one. There wouldn’t be any left when they got home either – their father can play dumb, but Hinata knows for a fact that he’s the one that ends up eating them all. “Also, aren’t only chunin allowed in here?”

“Only chunin and above are recommended to come in here. It’s not illegal.”

“Just dangerous,” she rubs at her temples, and she almost misses the days when the younger girl didn’t talk to her. At least then she didn’t end up getting dragged into all of Hanabi’s ideas. “Also I’d like to remind you that we’re late for team training.”

She blinks as they finally come into a clearing, and a familiar boy is sitting cross legged in the middle of the clearing. “Hinata-hime,” he says. He’s pale and dark bruises are under his eyes – he looks like he hasn’t slept at all.

“Neji,” she greets happily, but if anything she’s even more confused. “Don’t you meet with your team at dawn?”

“This was more important,” Hanabi stands so she’s between her and Neji, “We need to talk.”

Hinata blinks, “I’m always happy to talk to you both, but couldn’t we have done this-”

“Can you activate the Curse Mark?” Hanabi demands.

She pales and Neji flinches, “W-what?”

“Answer the question,” Hanabi crosses her arms, “We’re not old enough, but you’re the heir. You’ve been the focus point for the Curse Mark for ten years – there’s no way Father didn’t tell you how to use it.”

Hinata pushes her fingers together and looks at the ground, “A-ah, well. He – F-father, he doesn’t want me d-doing that.”

“But you can,” she confirms.

“I,” the older girl swallows and forces her head up so she can look past her sister to her cousin, “I won’t.” Neji doesn’t look away, and she straightens and flings her head back just like Hanabi had taught her, “I know how to activate the Curse Mark. But I will not.”

“How much do you know?” Neji asks quietly, “About the Mark.”

Hinata shakes her head, “Not much. How it’s applied, how to use it. Why?”

There’s something somber in her sister’s face when she says, “Hinata, activate your Byakugan, and look at the Curse Mark. Neji, perform the Dancing Dragon sequence.”

She does as her sister says, and something between jealousy and admiration surges in her chest as she watches Neji gracefully perform the move she struggled with for years. But as soon as she sees it, what Hanabi must have discovered, everything inside of her goes cold. “No.”

“So you didn’t know?” she asks.

Hinata takes a half step toward her stone-faced cousin before stopping, “No! Of course not! I would never – who would – oh my god.” This time she can’t help herself, and she runs to Neji and clutches his shoulders, “Your chakra coils – your nervous system – this has to be destroying them!”

“It’s no wonder my father was willing to die for yours,” Neji says tonelessly, “He probably would have died within the year anyway.”

She looks towards her sister, “We have to do something!”

Hanabi nods, “Yeah, we – yeah. Nami’s in-village, right?”

“Yes! She just got back, I heard it from Ino who heard it from her Dad.” The relief is almost enough to make her weak, because if anyone can fix this it’s Natsu Nami.

~

When Hana tugs him into a supply closet on his way to the labs, Kabuto has to use a chakra net to catch the fifteen vials of blood he’d been carrying. “Was that really necessary? If those had fallen I would have made you go redraw them.”

“Natsu,” she begins.

“Wait,” he gently puts the vials down on a box of spare scrubs, then reaches into the bottom pocket of his pants. He uncaps a test tube and downs the entire contents, which Hana’s nose identifies as vodka. He recaps it and tosses it on top of the tubes of blood, “Okay, I’m ready. What has she done now? It’s been less than twenty four hours since we saw her last, how much damage could she really have caused?”

Hana groans, “Please don’t tempt the universe like that. She hasn’t done anything, but the last time we saw her she had a random, near dead nameless Uchiha in her bed.”

He shrugs, “To be honest, I kind of always expected an Uchiha to end up in her bed. You know, with Itachi and Sasuke sparring to the death for her hand or something.”

She stares, “Sasuke is thirteen.”

“Natsu’s pretty cute,” he points out, and she’s finally gotten to the age where he can say that without sounding like a giant pervert, “and Sasuke thinks she hung the stars.”

“That’s not,” Hana shakes her head, “Never mind. Aren’t you worried? Natsu is always sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, and I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but Itachi tried to kill her, and now she has a random Uchiha, and the last time something this fucked up happened she ended up sealing away a tailed demon during our chunin exam and an entire clan got wiped out!”

He scratches the back of his head, “I mean, realistically Natsu didn’t have anything to do with the Massacre, that’s just bad timing. And I hate to admit it, but she’s probably right about Itachi. If he wanted her dead, she would be, so he might even be as innocent as she’s always thought.”

“How are you not worried?” she demands, “I’m worried!”

Kabuto half smiles and tucks a loose strand of hair behind Hana’s ear, “Because she needs us.” She keeps staring at him, so he continues, “She absolutely gets into every kind of trouble imaginable. But she has always, always come to us to help her. We’re her friends, her team. Once she’s sufficiently dug herself into a hole, she drags us down with her.”

Hana sighs and crosses her arms, “You know, most people wouldn’t consider that a positive.”

He shrugs, “It’s either get dragged down, or be left behind. Which would you rather?”

He has a point. “How long before you think she comes calling?”

“We’ll give it a couple of days,” Kabuto picks up the blood samples, “She was pretty eager to have us out of her apartment last night, so I’m sure she’ll be neck deep in trouble in no time.”

“That’s not comforting,” Hana moans as they leave the closet, but she’s smiling.

~

On one hand, playing dumb is getting really, really boring. She and Chouji aren’t content to cloud watch like Shikamaru is. On the other hand, they have their principles, and she’s enjoying being able to catch up on all her reading.

Asuma is trying to get them to play ninja hide and seek, but since they’re not five they’re hiding up in a tree with their chakra masked playing cards. They’re playing Go Fish because Shikamaru counts cards even when he doesn’t mean to, which means their card games have gotten increasingly boring over the years. Their sensei is yelling at them to come out and train down below, but they’ve been ignoring him for about twenty minutes.

“Do you think he’d notice if we left genjutsu in our place?” Ino asks.

“Probably,” Chouji lays down a pair of fives, “he is still a jounin.”

“He’s not very observant though,” there’s a thread of contempt in Shikamaru’s voice, and they are really going to have to resolve this before the situation becomes untenable. She’d known that Hatake was going to end up with Sasuke’s team, but having him as a sensei would have made everything so much easier. If the council wasn’t a bunch of assholes then Natsu would be a jounin by now, or at least a special jounin, and she could have been their sensei. That would have been awesome.

“Hey, guys,” Chouji tugs at Ino’s sleeve, “Shino’s here.”

They all look down, and their former classmate is here with his sensei, but there are no Hyuugas in sight. “Huh,” she leaps from the tree and lands near silently next to him, Chouji and Shikamaru a second behind her. “What’s going on?”

“Where have you three been?” Asuma spits.

Ino raises an eyebrow, “You should work on your chakra sensitivity. Natsu could probably help you with that.” She’s not being very nice, but it looks like it’s time for push to shove, so. “Where’s Hinata and Hanabi?”

Shino shrugs. Kurenai scowls, “I don’t know.”

“Have you tried chakra tracking them?” Shikamaru asks.

The jounin crosses her arms, “There’s not point. It’s pretty impossible to track a Hyuuga, they always see you coming and go the other direction.”

Chouji frowns, “What makes you think they’re hiding from you? Maybe they’re just busy.”

From the perfectly blank look on the older woman’s face, she hadn’t considered that. Ino rolls her eyes and says imperiously, “We’ll go get them, just wait here.”

“Don’t you dare,” Asuma growls.

Kurenai steps toward them, “I would really prefer if you didn’t.”

Ino shunshins away, confident her teammates are right behind her. When they both appear next her in her kitchen, she beams. “Do you have any idea what’s going on or what we’re getting ourselves into?” Shikamaru asks. Ino and Chouji catch each other’s eyes and sigh. Shikamaru’s always so suspicious – maybe the sisters are just playing hooky. Not everything has some sort of terrible explanation.

“Not a clue,” she says, “but it’s either this or play another round of Go Fish.”

Chouji pulls at the end of Shikamaru’s ponytail, “Absolutely not, I’ll go mad. Let’s go.”

Shikamaru harrumps, but waves his hand for them to get on with it. None of them are great at sensing chakra, so this is probably going to take a while. She turns to their youngest teammate, because Chouji has the best sensitivity of them all. “Well, we might as well try to find their trail first. To the Hyuuga Compound it is,” he body flickers away.

“Hiashi is going to kill us,” Shikamaru sighs.

“Only if we get caught,” Ino points out cheerfully before following Chouji.

~

“Fuck!” Sai blinks when Natsu starts herding him into her closet, but he must picks up the three chakra signatures that are definitely headed their way quickly enough, because he throws himself inside and slams the door behind him. There are two loud knocks on her door, and Natsu doesn’t have a fucking clue about what those three Hyuugas could need from her, but whatever it is she hopes that it’s quick.

When she opens the door and gets a good look at their faces, that hope fades. When her favorite bitch brat Hanabi bends at the waist and says clearly, “Nami-san, I am in great need of your help,” whatever remaining hope she had flings itself out the window.

“Well,” she steps aside, “you all better come in then.”

Twenty minutes later she has to resist the urge to find Hiashi and beat his face in. “You don’t think it could be an accident, do you?” Hinata asks, clearly desperate for that to be the case.

“I’ll have to examine the seal,” she says, but there’s no way in hell this is on accident. “Neji, come here.” He stands in front of her, and he hasn’t said a word a yet. He’s a pretty quiet kid, but it’s starting to make her nervous. She skims her fingers over the bandages covering his forehead and says, “I’m going to take these off, okay?”  He nods, and she quickly unwinds them from his head. There’s a slightly comical tan line where they’d covered his skin, but she ignores that in favor of the seal. It’s simple, and that worries her. Simple can mean sloppy, and that means very bad things for the person who the seal is on.

Natsu presses her hand against his forehead, and when she pulls back the chakra strings have sprung to life, glowing in the space between them. It’s another five point seal, and she’s so thrown by it that for a moment all she can do is stare. Five point seals are actually not the greatest, they have a very specific set of modifications that can be made, and they’re only truly useful for things like containment and chakra redistribution, which has made them popular for controlling the tailed beasts and literally nothing else. Yet this is the second five point seal she’s encountered in as many days, and it’s fucking odd.

She ignores that for now and stretches the lines out so she can look at them in full. The seal is fucking ugly, and makes no attempt to mask itself like Sai’s had. It’s a crude design, linking Neji’s chakra to Hinata’s by a thread, and holy shit but does that explain so much about the girl. It also links his chakra to his nerves in a way not unlike superglue. They’ve been chaffing and snapping against them since it’s applied, and ten years of advanced chakra manipulation that the Byakugan requires has left the whole thing kind of a mess. It acts as a barrier to stop his chakra from being manipulated in a certain way, if Hanabi’s account is accurate, then likely in the final chakra release required by the main branch styles. A slow killer and a handicap all in one – if it didn’t make her stomach turn she would almost be impressed.

“That’s fucked up,” she settles on finally, letting the chakra seal flicker and resettle into Neji. “It’s pretty tangled, it’ll be really hard to alter it.”

“I know,” Hanabi says evenly, “That’s why I want you to remove it entirely.”

Hinata’s mouth drops open. Neji’s eyes have gone so wide it looks painful, “Hanabi-hime?”

Hanabi doesn’t look at either of them, instead continuing to address Natsu. “This is a disgrace to the Hyuuga Clan, and I won’t allow it any longer. It’s stupid to have main and branch clans; we are all Hyuuga and its time we started acting like it.”

Natsu taps her fingers against her arm, “He’ll need some intense healing to repair the nerve damage, and to re-regulate his chakra system. But once that happens, you’ll never be able to beat him.” The girl flinches, so Natsu continues, “Neji’s an incredible ninja now. Without the handicap, and disability he’s unknowingly had to compensate for, he’ll be unstoppable. You’ll never be able to catch up.”

Hanabi’s hands clench into fists and she has to swallow twice before she can speak. “I don’t care. It is the right thing to do, and I expect it to be done.”

“You’re certain?” she asks one more time, and Hinata is the heir, she should really be asking her, but it’s Hanabi who figured it out and Hanabi who’s asking and Hanabi who’s still just a kid but is willing to put the cousin who used to hate her before her own ambition. “Your father’s going to be pissed.”

“Don’t make me beg,” the girl says quietly.

Natsu breaks out in a wide smile, and turns to Neji. He’s still starring at Hanabi with a fragile awe, and she claps her hands to jerk his attention back to her. “All right,” she said, grinning, “This is going to be way easier than destroying Shukaku’s seal. Are you ready?”

He raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms to hide the fact that his hands are shaking. When he juts his chin up in a challenge, she figures that’s the only affirmation she’s going to get.

Natsu gathers the thread of Kurama’s chakra that she’ll need for this, and when she slams her hand against Neji’s forehead the blast of chakra is almost entirely blue, so there’s no way any of the Hyuugas are going to pick up on it. The Curse Mark starts dissolving under the heat and weight of her chakra, and it’s not easy work but it’s not complicated either. It is taking up a rather large amount of chakra, so she hopes that no one’s paying her apartment close attention just then. If she didn’t need to get back to working on Sai’s seal she would have taken them out to the forest or something, but she’s pretty sure most people have more important things to do than track her recent chakra spike to see if she’s blown anything up.

~

When Gai feels the lunge in Natsu’s chakra, he turns over the genin’s drills the supremely unconcerned Kakashi and shunshins away as quickly as he can until he’s crouched onto the roof of her apartment building. There’s no way that Baki was right, simply no way. But just in case he pays extra close attention to the wave of Natsu’s residual chakra he can. It’s the same bright, clear chakra she’s always had, and he’s about to put it out of his mind and forget it for good when he senses it.

He’ll never forget that battle, the giant fox they couldn’t hope to stop. So when he catches the faintest hint of it wrapped in Natsu’s chakra, he knows. Baki was right. Somehow, Natsu is now the jinchuuriki of the nine tailed demon.

Fuck.

~

Kabuto and Hana are just about to get ready to leave for lunch when Natsu shunshins in front of them. “Natsu,” Hana blinks, “What are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

“Hey,” she says, just a little bit too bright and cheerful, “Have you ever wondered if you could regenerate an almost entire nervous system and repair burned out charka coils? Now’s a great time to find out.”

Hana’s mouth drops open, and she laughs to keep from crying, “How? We just saw you last night!”

“I told you,” Kabuto knocks his shoulder into Hana’s and grins down at Natsu. “Sounds like fun. Let’s go.”

“We still have a half shift left,” Hana points out, but easily falls in step on the other side of Natsu.

He shrugs, “Eh, what are they going to do, fire us? We’re too talented for that.”

You’re too talented for that,” Hana says, “I’m still technically a junior medic. I’m replaceable.”

“We’re a team,” Kabuto says easily, “if they want to fire you they have to fire me too. As you said, I’m too talented for that.”

Hana ducks her head down to hide that she’s blushing a bright red. Natsu resolves to make fun of her for it at the earliest opportunity.

~

As soon as Natsu’s chakra disappears, Gai swings himself down through her window into her apartment. “What’s going on?” he says, and he’s trying not to panic, but his precious student is passed out and pale on Natsu’s couch, and Natsu had just used demon chakra.

Hinata is seated by her cousin, tearfully clutching his hand. Hanabi stands between him and Neji, and he’s studied his student’s taijutsu enough that the young girl is a hair’s breath away from shifting into an opening stance. “Gai-san,” she says evenly, “Please leave.”

“What happened? What did Natsu do to him?” he tries to move closer, but Hanabi growls. “Tell me!”

“She did nothing that I did not ask of her!” the girl snaps, “I would suggest you leave now.”

“Get out of my way,” Gai says quietly, because he loves that boy as dearly as his own son, and he won’t allow a noble brat or a nine tailed demon or anything or anyone to take Neji from him.

Hanabi slides into an opening kata. He really, really doesn’t want to have to fight her, because if he damages either of these girls Hiashi will murder him.

“Sensei?” Neji peels his eyes open and shifts enough to turn his head in their direction. “S’okay, he’s okay.”

The pain roughed, slurred voice has him abandoning all taijutsu and rushing forward. Hanabi’s hand slams against his stomach, just chakra-enforced enough to stop him, “Don’t move him, okay? Nami will be back with help soon.”

Gai nods once, and Hanabi steps back. He drops to his knees, and Neji actually smiles at him. For a moment he’s so thrown by it that he doesn’t notice the glaring difference. He raises a hand and gently rubs his thumb over the clear skin where the Curse Mark used to be, “Neji?”

“Natsu did it,” he whispers, and has to clear his throat as another spasm of pain shudders through him, “It was – connected to – some stuff. It’s okay. I’ll heal.”

“You better,” Hanabi glares down at him, “I still need your help. You’re no use to me crippled.”

He’s about to snap at her, but Neji only smiles wider and says warmly, “Of course, Hanabi-hime.” Gai shifts his gaze from his student to Hanabi, then to the tearily smiling Hinata, and he’s clearly missed something.

The front door opens, and in tumbles Natsu along with her former teammates, “I’m back!” She sees him and wilts, “Ah, Gai, I can explain.”

Kabuto and Hana roll their eyes and easily push him and the Hyuuga sisters aside with the untroubled ease that all medics seem to have around over-powered ninjas. He supposes being on a team with Natsu helped with that. He meets her sheepish gaze, and he doesn’t know how this girl ended up with the fox sealed inside her, but he knows that she’s a good person, a loyal shinobi, and his best friend’s dear sister in everything but blood.

“Natsu,” he says, and holds his cold expression only until she anxiously starts winding the ends of her ponytail around her fingers. He’s known this girl since she was a too young genin, just this morning he was willing to die for her, and that has to mean more than the instinctual fear he’d had at realizing what she is. He pats her on the head, and when her expression clears and she leans into his hand he feels the last of his reserves leave him. “Maybe you could have planned this a bit better, hmm?”

She pouts, “I feel like people tell me that a lot.”

“There’s probably a reason for that,” they all turn and Ino is standing on Natsu’s window sill. “Shino and Kurenai are looking for you, by the way,” she directs to the Hyuugas as she slips inside, Shikamaru and Chouji behind her.

“They can wait,” Hanabi says coolly.

Hinata sighs and stands up, “I will go and speak to them, Hanabi. If that’s all right?”

Everyone freezes and Neji who’s currently being poked and prodded by Kabuto and Hana breaks into a coughing fit. Hinata is the heir – she doesn’t need to ask Hanabi’s permission for anything. She shouldn’t ask her permission for anything. “Hinata?” she asks, and this is the first time any of them have seen the girl look uncertain or off balance.

“I know what I’m doing,” Hinata says firmly, “So, I’ll go see Kurenai and Shino. Okay?”

Hanabi nods, lips pressed tightly together and eyes wide. Hinata walks past Team Ten, head held high, and gracefully jumps down from the window. “Holy shit,” Ino says in the ensuing silence, “When did she become a badass?”

Shikamaru sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose, “Perhaps we should follow Hinata and go have a conversation with our sensei.”

“A conversation or a conversation?” Chouji asks. Shikamaru shrugs, but the line of his shoulders is too high to be anything but irritated. People think that Chouji’s a little slow about people, but between Ino who talks too much and Shikamaru who doesn’t talk enough, and neither of them actually saying anything, he’s actually really good at it. “Okay, awesome. Let’s go.”

Ino places one hand on her hip and uses the other to point at Natsu, “You’re getting involved in something stupid and dangerous, aren’t you?”

The older girl scratches the back of her head, “Probably, yeah.”

She sighs and lowers her hand, “Well just be careful, all right?” Natsu nods, and Team Ten piles themselves out of her window.

“Hanabi,” Kabuto says, “this will go about a thousand times faster if you can help us map where his chakra lines should be so we know how to direct the healing.”

“Of course,” the girl says, silently activating her Byakugan and moving to stand beside her cousin.

Hana holds out a wad of bandages for Neji to bite on, “We can either do this slow and pain-free and it’ll take a couple weeks, or we can do it fast and painful and you’ll be up and around in about two days.”

Neji raises an eyebrow and clamps his teeth down on the bandage. Hanabi almost smiles, “Fast.”

“You’re the boss,” Kabuto says before getting down to work.

Natsu is looking at him strangely, and he should probably inform Kakashi of what’s going on and that Lee and Tenten are with him for the rest of the day, because he is not leaving Neji’s side. Natsu must figure that out, because she sighs and says, “Sai, come on out.”

Gai blinks as a boy that looks eerily like a young Fugaku. “You know,” the teenager says calmly, “for a supposedly superior ninja, you’re pretty horrible at this secret keeping thing.”

Natsu rolls her eyes, “Throw on a genjutsu and let’s go. My apartment is once again being invaded by medics-”

“Keep it up and we’ll start charging you,” Hana shoots back.

“-which I’m ever so grateful for, really truly. But we still need to figure out your seal, so let’s track down Team Seven. Lee and Tenten are with them, right Gai?”

He nods, still trying to wrap his head around where the random Uchiha had come from and why he was in her closet.

“Great! Okay, we’ll be back later!” She jumps out the window, Sai a second behind her, and Gai’s positive that she uses that thing as an entrance and exit more than her actual door.

There’s not real room for him to hover or Neji, not with Hana and Kabuto at either end with their hands flaring green and Hanabi calmly directing them while Neji sweats and grits his teeth against the pain. From this angle he can see the death grip he has on his cousin’s hand. Gai leans against the wall and simply watches. He’s Konoha’s top taijutsu master, he shouldn’t feel this helpless.

With nothing else to think of, his thoughts turn to Natsu. He should tell Kakashi, he should really, really tell Kakashi. But the last container of the nine tail was Minato’s son, which actually brings up another point he doesn’t want to think about. The last time the villagers knew of a jinchuuriki, they’d sliced up a little boy. Natsu’s strong, but that doesn’t mean he wants her to have to be. Whoever sealed the fox inside of her clearly did a good job, or else there’d be a lot more to show for it than some tiny wisps of chakra, which means – should he tell anyone? Will it change anything, or just make everyone’s lives worse?

He resists the urge to put his head in his hands. First finding out about Orochimaru and then this – there’s a reason he’d never worked in intelligence, damnit.

~

Team Ten appears to Hinata saying, “-clan business, and frankly none of your concern regardless,” to Kurenai.

“Shit, she’s gotten so cool,” Ino whispers. Shikamaru just grunts, but she knows that he agrees.

Kurenai snaps, “You’re my students, you can’t just not show up for training, I have a right to be kept informed-”

Please stop antagonizing the future Hyuuga clan head!”

Everyone shifts and blinks at Shino. The quiet boy is glaring at Kurenai. Chouji takes a half step towards the Aburame, “Uh, Shino, are you okay?”

He doesn’t look at them, but he turns to speak to Asuma as well, “Both of you – you’re jounin! Shouldn’t you be smarter than this?”

“Now hold on,” Asuma glowers, “I don’t know what you’re talking about-”

“NATSU!” Shino shouts, and holy shit this is amazing, she’s never really payed attention to him before but Ino is so going to start. “You two hate Natsu, for whatever stupid reason-”

“They think she was involved in the Uchiha Massacre,” Shikamaru interrupts blandly.

Shino stops. Opens his mouth. Closes it again.

“That’s moronic,” Hinata says crossly.

“You didn’t know how close she and Itachi Uchiha used to be,” Asuma says, “You weren’t there that night.”

“True,” Ino says brightly, “but do you know who was there? Sasuke. Do you know who Sasuke’s favorite person in the world is? Natsu. Somehow I don’t think that’d be the case if she’d killed his whole family.”

“Sasuke was just child,” Kurenai says, enough pity in her tone that if Sasuke was here he’d set her on fire, “He couldn’t really know what was going on; there’s a reason the Sandaime forbid Natsu seeing him.”

“Kurenai!” Asuma snaps.

The older woman pales, but this isn’t the conversation Ino is interested in having, so she says, “We all know she stayed away from Sasuke on orders. It’s the only reason she would have. We’re not idiots.”

“Might I add,” Shikamaru says, “that if at ten Natsu was old enough to help orchestrate a whole massacre, then at seven Sasuke was likely at least old enough to understand what was going on literally right in front of him.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Shino continues, and this is absolutely the most Ino has ever heard him speak at one time. “The point is that you two aren’t being smart about this. I already know that your dislike of Natsu has stalled Team Ten’s training.”

“I wouldn’t say stalled,” Chouji protests, “We still train on our own time.”

Asuma whirls around to face them, “What is he talking about?”

Ino rolls her eyes, “We’re the next generation of Ino-Shika-Cho. Do you really think we don’t know how to work together? That we’re so undisciplined?”

“Why would you lie about your skill level?’ Kurenai asks.

“Because we don’t like you,” Chouji says, almost apologetically, “and, well, you’re strong, but – you’re not very smart, are you? We haven’t been subtle.”

Asuma spreads his hands, “I don’t understand.”

“My dad was Natsu’s sensei,” Ino continues, “we all grew up with her around. We don’t appreciate the way you think of her – and it’s just not smart to make enemies of us.”

“We are the future clan heads,” Shikamaru agrees smugly. “Hana was Natsu’s teammate, and Hinata likes her. Hanabi doesn’t like her, but she does respect her, and the little brat doesn’t respect anybody.”

“That makes,” Chouji counts off his fingers as he speaks, “Akimichi, Nara, Yamanaka, Inuzuka, and Hyuuga – so five major clan heads you’ve pissed off.”

“Six,” Shino adds in, “I like Natsu too.”

Kurenai and Asuma have gone pale, and Ino almost wants to feel sorry for them except that she really, really doesn’t. “Not your smartest move,” she says with false sympathy, “Come on, everyone. I think they have some thinking to do.”

She shoves chakra towards her legs and jumps onto the nearest tree branch, skipping off in the direction of home. The other genin follow her, and she really, really hopes that those two make the right decision.

~

Sasuke is the one who senses her coming, even before he does. Kakashi should maybe start paying more attention to the Uchiha, because he’d known the kid’s chakra sensitivity was good, but not that good.

“Nice genjutsu,” Kakashi tells Sai when the two shinobi stop in front of them.

“Thank you,” the generic, brown haired brown eyed ninja tells him.

Tenten and Lee rush over to Natsu, crowding in around her. “You’re okay!” Tenten beams, “We were so worried about you!”

“Most concerned!” Lee agrees jubilantly, “It speaks well of your youthful fire that you’ve returned unharmed!”

Natsu laughs and scratches the back of her head, “Thanks guys, I’m glad you’re okay too.”

“What are you doing here?” Kakashi asks, “I felt the chakra spike earlier. Gai went to check it out.”

“He’s at my place now,” Natsu says, “there’s a thing with Neji. Hana and Kabuto are taking care of it.”

Lee grabs at Natsu’s arm, “Neji? Where is my eternal rival?”

“He must be hurt pretty badly,” Kiba frowns, “if you got both Kabuto and my sister.”

“He’s hurt?” Tenten asks quietly.

Natsu throws up her arms, “Whoa, whoa, calm down! He’s fine! He just needed some work done on his nerves and chakra coils, and that’s some delicate stuff, so I just got the two best medic-nins I know to help out. Nothing to worry about!”

Sakura crosses her arms and glares, “You’re lying. The nervous system isn’t connected to the chakra coils at all, so if they’re both being worked on something went really wrong.”

Natsu winces, “I’m lying a little bit. But he’ll be fine, I promise! Gai is with him now at my place.”

“They’re at yours?” Tenten asks, “You live in that big apartment building near the butcher’s, right?”

She doesn’t wait for an answer, already bolting off in that direction. Lee shoots Natsu an apologetic grin before running behind her.

Sasuke jerks a thumb in their direction, “Should we stop them?”

She sighs and shakes her head, “No, they’re his team. Gai will be able to sense them and stop them if he feels the need.” She pauses and then stares hard at the Uchiha for a long moment. Sasuke raises an eyebrow. “Hey, do you have any buildings in the Uchiha District that you’re not all that fond of?”

“Why?” he asks, but by the way he’s doing his best not to smile, Kakashi is pretty sure he already knows.

 Natsu points to Sai, “I still need to work on his seal, but my apartment is a little crowded. Can I do it at yours?”

Sasuke shrugs, “Why not? Do it in in one of the weird houses on the west side. They were built crooked, and they look haunted. I hate those things.” Kiba laughs. When Sasuke turns to glare at him, he ducks and hides behind Sakura. Sasuke’s stare turns contemplative, and he says to Kakashi, “Actually there’s something I need to teach Sai. Can I go with them?”

Kakashi is sure he’s talking about the Grand Fireball Technique. Every Uchiha, ninja or not, learned that jutsu as a coming of age initiation. Obito had always adored it, and as much as Kakashi thinks that sometimes Sasuke overuses it, he has nothing on Obito. “Go ahead,” he says, “please try to contain the destruction.”

Neither Natsu nor Sasuke acknowledge that before shunshining away, Sai along with them. At least they didn’t lie to him.

He turns to his two remaining students and sighs, “So we could continue training, or we can give up and I could let you go for the day.”

Sakura scrunches up her face in distaste. Kakashi knows that going home means her mom fussing over her and her training scars, and making pointed comments about how much she’s eating and that muscles aren’t a very attractive look on a young woman. She may have complained about it to them once or twice.

Kiba nudges her, “Do you want to come over and play with the ninken? You can stay for dinner too, if you want.”

She instantly brightens, “That sounds great! Thanks Kiba!” She looks to Kakashi, “Give up, please.”

He snorts, ruffles Kiba hair, and pats Sakura on the head, “Off you go then. Meet tomorrow bright and early, all right?”

They don’t answer him before leaving either. He gets no respect around here.

~

Inoichi is going over the flower shop’s profits for the past quarter when his daughter’s team, Hinata Hyuuga, and Shino Aburame spill into his kitchen.

“Hi Dad,” Ino says breezily before digging into the pantry, “Do we still have any of the cookies that Chouji’s mom made us?”

“Bottom left,” he says, blinking at the strange group of children in front of him, “Should I be concerned?”

“Nah,” Chouji shrugs, reaching around Ino to grab at the cookies.

Inoichi looks to Shikamaru, who shrugs, “Probably not. Standby.”

He rubs his hand over his face and gives in, “Ibiki made scones this morning. I brought some home, they’re in the fridge.”

Chouji cheers and opens the fridge. He opens the container and offers it to Shino and Hinata, both who smile at him before taking one.

Inoichi rests his chin on his palm. Their families have never gotten along particularly well with the Hyuugas, but if their children can be different, can be better – well, that changes things.

 ~

Kakashi has just walked in his front door when Iruka slams the door shut and pushes him up against it, hands fisted in his flak jacket, “You asshole!”

“Yes,” Kakashi agrees, “Why?”

Iruka growls and pulls down his mask to kiss him instead of answering. He tugs off the other man’s flak jacket to get his hands under his shirt and run his hands over his skin. “I was worried! Gai had to tell me that you and Natsu were okay!”

“Ah,” he says, helpfully stripping off his shirt so Iruka can continue inspecting and ravaging him both, “Yes, I – that was an oversight on my part.”

“An oversight,” Iruka hisses, biting at Kakashi’s neck, “I was going out of my mind!”

“I’m very sorry,” he grabs Iruka’s thighs, and hoists the chunin up so he can wrap his legs around Kakashi’s waist. He walks toward the bedroom, “Let me make it up to you.”

“There’s an escort mission to wave, C Rank,” he says in between kisses, “I’ve assigned your team and Natsu to it.” They’ve finally gotten on the bed, and both men start tugging their pants off. “The client is obviously lying about something, it’s probably more of B-Rank. But you need to get out of the village.”

“How long is the mission?” Kakashi lets Iruka press him into the bed, but tilts his head to catch him in another kiss.

Iruka runs a gentle hand down a particularly long scar on Kakashi’s side, “Three weeks. You leave tomorrow.”

Kakashi flips them so he’s leaning over Iruka and grins, “Better make the most of this then.”

Iruka rolls his eyes, but pulls Kakashi down on top of him.

~

Sai has lived his whole life never being given approval, or praise. If he did something correctly it wasn’t remarked upon, if he did something incorrectly, it was pointed out and fixed. Usually painfully.

So when he sends the giant fireball more or less the size he intended but in the completely wrong direction, he’s not expecting Sasuke to turn to him and say, “That was awesome! You’re picking this up really fast, I thought it would take longer. Good job!” Sai stares at him, blinking slowly. Sasuke’s smile doesn’t waver. Instead he grabs Sai’s hand and makes a minor alteration to the placement of his fingers, “This is how you control the size, remember. It’s really sensitive, so even the smallest adjustment can change it. I know it comes from your mouth, but the direction really depends on what you do with your tongue, okay?”

Sai nods, and has to swallow twice before he can get out, “Okay.”

“Do it again,” Sasuke steps so he’s at the older boy’s back. 

Sai takes a deep breath, gathering his chakra to do the jutsu once more, and Sasuke behind him is the most comforting presence he’s had in a long time.

~

Hanabi takes one looks at her cousin’s teammates and rolls her eyes. “He’s not dying,” she says caustically. Neji’s still gripping her hand, and he’s definitely broken a couple bones.

“What happened?” Tenten asks, hushed.

Gai puts a hand each on her and Lee’s shoulder, “Do not worry, my precious students, he is in good hands.”

“Thanks,” Kabuto says, frowning as he repairs minute damage that none of them can see.

Lee squeezes over to sit by Hanabi, and the girl glares at him but doesn’t hit him, which as far as he’s concerned is an open invitation. He touches the side of his teammate’s face, and his skin is cold and clammy. “Neji?”

The other boy opens his eyes, and there’s something soft there that Lee has never seen before. He thinks that as long as Neji lives through this, it’ll have been worth it. He hesitantly places his hand on top of Hanabi’s grip, and Neji tangles their fingers together before another wave of pain hits and he’s biting back a scream.

Hanabi leans into his side, just a little, and Lee has a lot of strength inside of him, he’s more than willing to share. He shifts them so his hand is taking the brute of Neji’s shattering grip, and it also allows Hanabi to rest against him more fully without actually moving at all.

Tenten turns away from the sight so they won’t see her crying, because boys are so stupid. Gai pulls her against him in a loose hug, and that’s how all of them stay while Hana and Kabuto do their best to put Neji back together.

~

Natsu is a genius. She’s amazing, the best seal master since the fourth hokage, people should write odes to her, erect statues in her honor.

It’s a blood seal, which is fucking gross, but it works, she would dare any seal master in the history of Konoha to do more with less. Besides, with Kurama inside of her she’s got blood to spare.

“I DID IT!” She bursts out onto the streets of Uchiha District’s west side, “Guys?”

There’s a trail of charred wood and ash where she knows for a fact a row of houses used to be. She follows it for a block until she finds Sai and Sasuke on their backs in the middle of the road, covered in soot. They’re looking up at the sky, and as she gets closer she can hear Sai methodically listing off the constellations. She stops in front of them and crosses her arms.

“Hey,” Sasuke cricks his neck so he can look her in the eye from the ground, “how’s the seal going?”

“I figured it out, because I’m awesome,” she gestures to smoking remains of about a dozen houses, “What happened?”

“Target practice,” Sai says happily, and she’s momentarily thrown by how much lighter the boy seems from when she saw him last.

“Overkill much? And this is me talking here,” she holds out her hands and heaves them both to their feet.

Sasuke shrugs, “I’ll build more.”

Natsu grins and shakes her head before saying to Sai, “Are you ready? It’s time to get that seal off of you. I figured out a replacement that he won’t notice.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sasuke asks the older boy, solemn. “It would help us out a lot to have a spy on the inside, but we won’t risk you if you don’t want to. You can stay here, we’d figure something out.”

Sai looks to Natsu, and she nods. He breaks out in a smile, the first real smile he feels he’s had in a years, and says, “I want to help. Let’s do this.”

~

Kakashi had sent Pakkun to get his genin and Natsu for the mission, so he’s not surprised when Sakura, Akamaru, and Kiba show up, the latter holding Pakkun content in his arms. He absolutely has to stifle a laugh when Sasuke walks up with Natsu asleep on his back and drooling on his shoulder.

“Is she okay?” Sakura asks, bending down to get a closer look at her.

“The fuck is this?” their client burps, gesturing to them, “I didn’t pay to be – be protected by some brats and a passed out bitch.”

Kiba looks very much like he’d like to rip the old man’s throat out with his teeth. Before he gets the chance, a wide awake Natsu pushes herself onto Sasuke’s shoulders, frontflips to just behind the old man, and puts him in a choke hold faster than most people can blink. “I could have killed you just then,” she says brightly, “We’re way above a C rank, actually. You lucked out.”

Tazuna swallows nervously as Natsu lets go of him, then quickly steps away. “Oh.”

“Indeed,” Kakashi agrees, smiling in the way that always makes his genin back away from him. “Natsu, have a long night?”

“So long,” Natsu moans, going from dangerous killer to sluggish teenager as she shuffles over to Kakashi, trying to look as pathetic as possible. “I invented a whole new seal, and I applied it, and it took forever, Niichan. Forever.”

The jounin looks amused until Sasuke adds, “It was a blood seal, too.”

“That’s dangerous!” he glares.

Natsu huddles down and twists the ends of her hair between her fingers. “So tired,” she pouts.

Sakura slaps her hand over Kiba’s mouth to muffle the sound of his laughter. Kakashi sighs and hands his pack to Sakura, who slings it on top of her own.

“Thank Niichan! You’re the best!” Natsu jumps up and wraps her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. Kakashi grabs her legs to keep her steady, and she leans her head against his shoulder. She falls asleep almost immediately.

“We’re wasting daylight,” he says sternly, doing his best to looks intimidating with a sixteen year old chunin softly snoring on his back.

Sakura says to Tazuna, “In the middle please, so we can better protect you.”

They leave the village in standard protection patrol, with Kakashi as point and Sasuke in the rear.

“Sasuke,” Kiba calls out, “Where’s your pack?”

He smirks, “Natsu sealed ours both away.”

Sakura tosses him Kakashi’s, and he pulls it on without protest. He flicks his eyes to Tazuna, then to Sakura, and raises an eyebrow.

She makes a face and shrugs, then jerks her chin to Kiba. Sasuke looks to his other teammate, and Kiba frowns, points to Akamaru, then nods.

Well, at least they’re all aware the drunken old man is up to something. It would be nice to know what though.

~

Haku sits by Zabuza’s side, carefully tending to the unconscious man’s wounds and doing his best not to let his hands shake. They’ve faced a lot together, and Zabuza is strong, he’s the strongest person Haku knows.

But that girl. He remembers that girl from Kiri, and the extreme destructive power she wielded so casually. Copy Nin Kakashi would be concerning enough, but him and that girl – he’s worried. He’s very, very worried.

Zabuza groans and pries his eyes open.

“Please don’t move,” Haku says gently, placing a calming hand on his chest, “I wouldn’t want you to reopen your wounds.”

“Fuck,” he groans, hissing against the pain. “This is bad.”

“Yes,” he rubs the last of the healing salve they have into the bigger of his cuts.

Zabuza lets out a long breath, “It doesn’t change anything. We still need to complete the mission.”

“Yes,” Haku agrees, even though everything inside of him is saying that this is a terrible idea, that they will regret this. “Please rest, Zabuza. I will care for you.”

Zabuza grunts and closes his eyes, and it’s probably pathetic, but at such an automatic show of trust Haku has to smile.

~

“Something was off about that right?” Kiba asks once they’re all sequestered in the upstairs of Tazuna’s home.

Sakura doesn’t look up from where she’s doing her best to heal the burn out on Kakashi’s coils, “Yes. Kiri hunter-nin kill on sight.”

Sasuke methodically flips his kunai over and under his hand. “I suppose it could have been not wanting to reveal techniques to enemy ninja.”

“What techniques?” Kiba shrugs, “It’s not like slicing someone’s head off is hard.”

Sasuke points his kunai at Natsu, who’s leaning against the wall with Kakashi’s head in her lap, supervising Sakura’s healing. “You’ve got that look on your face.”

“No I don’t,” she says automatically, “What look?’

Kiba squints at her, “You do kind of have the look.”

“What look? I don’t have any look!”

“It’s your ‘I’m thinking probable and dire thoughts’ look,” Kiba says, “Hana and Kabuto hate that look.”

She crosses her arms, “I think – I think I recognized that hunter-nin’s chakra, but I don’t know from where.”

“Well,” Sakura wipes her arm across her brow and leans back, “You’ve been here a few times haven’t you? Wasn’t your mission before Sand in Kiri specifically?”

“I’ve been to the Land of Water a lot,” she concedes, “The last of Uzushiogakure’s sealing scrolls are kept in their libraries, so it was mostly just research missions.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Sakura says confidently, and Natsu smiles at the other girl. “But, we all agree right? Zabuza is still alive, and that hunter-nin, whoever he is, is probably working with him.”

“Yeah,” Sasuke scowls and tosses the kunai to Kiba, who catches it by the end and tosses it back. “We should have killed him when we had the chance.”

“You know what this means right?” Natsu grins, and even Sasuke wilts under her glee.

“Training?” Sakura asks weakly.

Natsu cracks her knuckles, “Training.”

~

Asuma knocks before entering his father’s office, Kurenai at his side.

The hokage smiles when he sees them, although Asuma can’t help but think with some guilt that he also looks weary. “Dad,” he says, swallowing. “I want to talk to you about Natsu Nami.”

The older man’s face drops, “Son, please, not today, I’m well aware of your feelings-”

“We were wrong,” Kurenai interrupts, and Sarutobi falls silent. “I think we may have been wrong, and I know we’ve done this before, but – please, talk to us about Natsu Nami one more time. Just – give us some evidence, try to convince us again. Please.”

The Sandaime leans back and gestures to the seats in front of his desk. Asuma and Kurenai silently sit down, and listen as Sarutobi begins to speak.

~

The thing is, being a spy for Orochimaru is pretty boring most of the time. He sends in reports weekly, and it’s almost never anything interesting. He’s basically a normal Leaf ninja.

This report though. The Hyuuga Curse Mark is huge news, and he has to tell Orochimaru-sama about it. If anything, it probably just means that he won’t choose a Hyuuga for his next body. Kabuto is a little bit worried about listing Natsu’s involvement, but he’s actually spoken about Natsu before at length. Orochimaru knows how talented she is, and he doesn’t have any interest in her. Granted, the things she’s been pulling off lately kind of put her on a whole new level of seal master, so that may change.

He’s confident Orochimaru-sama won’t try to hurt her though. If he needs her to do something, that won’t be so bad – Kabuto is sure he can figure out a way to make it work where he doesn’t betray either of them.

~

Sakura had been the only one of them who hadn’t known how to use her chakra to tree climb, and she’d picked it up with alarming quickness, so now all three of them are focusing on water walking. Kiba’s task is extra difficult, because once he figures this out for himself he’s going to need to figure out how to manipulate Akamaru’s chakra so that his nin-dog can follow him if need be.

Natsu and Kakashi are sitting on the ground and watching them.

“I’m impressed with what you’ve done with Sakura,” Kakashi says, watching the pink haired girl wobble precariously on the water before falling in.

Natsu shrugs, “I didn’t do much. She’s really smart, smarter than I was as a genin. She’s going to be an amazing medic-nin. Once she’s up to snuff I’ll throw her at Kabuto.”

“He’ll be thrilled,” the jounin says dryly. He scans the perimeter around them before asking, “Sai?”

Her lips twists like she’s eating something sour, “Back with Danzo. The fake seal that I replaced his with is actually connected to his heart like the other one was, but it’s actually just a tracker. So I know he’s alive and hasn’t been under any extreme stress since he returned, but that’s it.”

“Natsu, lots of people have tried to take down Danzo, but that man is a cockroach. He knows who you are and he’s interested in you. You need to careful.” She turns to him and raises an eyebrow. Kakashi sighs and flicks her forehead, “I’m serious. We left the village so Inoichi and Shikaku could attempt to do damage control, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

She shifts so she can lean her head against Kakashi’s arm, “Don’t worry so much, Niichan. I’ll be fine.”

Kakashi huffs and settles back to watch Sasuke take a careful two steps on the water’s surface before his control breaks and he falls under. Sakura manages a full ten seconds upright, but slips under when she grabs at Kiba to try to keep him from falling.

~

Hanabi throws up her hands in frustration, “Stop!” Hinata halts her kata. Hanabi turns to Neji, “Did you see what Nami was talking about? I didn’t.”

Neji shakes his head, “I mean – I see where the knot of connecting chakras for all the Curse Marks are, but that’s not really helpful.”

“It’s obviously disrupting her chakra flow,” Hanabi says critically, “but I can’t figure out how, so I have no idea how to stop it.”

Hinata flexes her hands, “Do you think Father knows about this side effect? It seems – unwise, to put such a strain on my chakra system this way.”

“We should have known you couldn’t be the anchor for so many seals without some sort of repercussions,” Neji sighs, “I can’t believe Natsu had to point it out to us.”

“Because any of us have any real skill with complex sealing maps,” Hinata scolds, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Hanabi smiles at her sister, but it’s fleeting. “I wish we could just get Nami to remove the rest of the Curse Marks on the Branch family! Then we wouldn’t need to figure out a way to work around the chakra threads.”

“Hiashi would never notice,” Neji rolls his eyes, “We’ll just remove the seals off a couple hundred people and expect them to keep quiet about it.”

Hanabi blinks, “Would they?”

Hinata stares at her sister before switching that gaze to Neji. The older boy takes a step back from them, “What?”

“Would they keep quiet about it?” Hanabi questions, “There’s no love lost between the Main and Branch families, I know that. So if we were to remove their seals, would they say anything?”

“I,” Neji looks between them, “You can’t be serious! If Hiashi finds out-”

“If my father finds out what I’ve done already, I will be banished, at best. There’s nothing stopping me from taking it further,” Hanabi says intently, “Then – we could train them all! Neji, what you’ve accomplished in just this past week without the Curse Mark is insane, it’s amazing how quickly you’ve picked up on everything. If the rest of the Branch house can become even a tenth as proficient, and supposedly Hinata will become even stronger when she’s not being held back by all the seals connected to her chakra – then the strength of the Hyuuga Clan will double!”

Hinata and Neji share a glance, and this time it’s Hinata who says, “Hanabi, I’m with you, I stand with you. But are you sure? We can’t take it back.”

“I don’t want to take it back!” she says viciously. “We are Hyuuga! We are called the strongest of Konoha, and that is what we shall be! We are crippling ourselves with these Curse Marks, holding back the potential of this family out of a sense of – of pride, or power. I won’t stand for it! We will become more, become better, and we can’t do that if we’re holding ourselves back. Fuck it – there’s no reason for a Branch and a Main family! It’s stupid, and I will abolish all of these ridiculous, pathetic rules separating us the moment I am clan head! Hyuugas should fight and live as one!”

She’s panting at the end of her speech, fists clenched at her sides. As one, Hinata and Neji bow to her at the waist. “Your will be done, Hanabi-hime,” Neji says, “My knowledge is yours, my skills are yours, and my loyalty is yours.”

Hanabi swallows, and Hinata tilts her head up just enough to wink at her, and Hanabi has to bite her lip just to keep from crying. Hinata breaks from her bow to pull Hanabi into a hug, and Neji only hesitates a second before joining her, and this is so much better than when they all hated and were terrified of each other.

“Just one problem,” she sniffs when they detangle themselves, “Nami’s going to be gone from the village for at least three weeks, probably more. I don’t want to wait that long.”

“Well,” Neji hesitates, “she’s not a master, but I do know someone who’s good with seals.”

Having just woken up to start her day, Tenten is surprised when she rapidly sneezes three times in a row. She has a sneaking suspicion that someone is talking about her.

~

So Natsu, personally, would rather find Gato and slit his throat for being giant dick than fighting his lackeys, but beggars can’t be choosers. Kiba and Sakura are protecting Tazuna and Kakashi is fighting Zabuza again, which leaves her with Sasuke against Haku, and she should have paid more attention, because she knew she’d recognized him from somewhere. “I really hoped we wouldn’t meet this way,” she calls out, back to back with Sasuke.

“I agree,” Haku says, somehow in every mirror at once and his voice surrounding them. “You are a clever and destructive opponent.”

“Thanks,” she mutters, flipping out of the way of a barrage of senbon. “Sasuke, cover me.” She has a suspicion, but she can’t tell for sure unless she concentrates, and she can’t concentrate while dodging attacks from every direction.

She stills, and she can feel the shifts of air as Sasuke whirls around her to deflect all of Haku’s attacks, which is perfect, because she locks her senses onto the older boy’s signature, and – almost – she follows the flow of his chakra as the attacks dip around them, and –

She opens her eyes and uses a chakra strike to deflect a dozen senbon. “That better have been worth it,” Sasuke pants, a couple senbon imbedded halfway into his shoulder blade.

“He’s fast, not – everywhere,” she tugs Sasuke in front of her to pull him away from more senbon, but also so she can whisper in his ear, “We need to switch places with Kakashi, but Haku’s got a chakra barrier up.”

Sasuke back flips out of the way of an attack in a way that he definitely learned from her and says, “How?”

“Remember what we’ve been working on?” she asks, and hey, it’s not perfect, but it should probably work.

Sasuke pales, “We can’t use that, it’s not finished! We almost blew up a training ground last time!”

“Are you ready?” she asks, slipping out a shuriken, and thank fuck for nin-polish, because it only takes her about fifteen seconds to use her nails to carve the ignition seal into it.

Sasuke catches the shuriken when she tosses it at him, “This is such a bad idea,” but she can feel him shifting his elemental chakra into it already, so she switches her attention to making sure Haku doesn’t get in the way. Now that she has a lock on his chakra she has a half second’s notice from where the next attack is coming, which isn’t nearly enough to launch an attack of her own, but does give her enough time to block it.

Sasuke flings the shuriken into an ice mirror, and the seal and elemental chakra combine and react fucking perfectly. Just like she’d accidentally done in Kiri, the hydrogen and oxygen in the water separate, and react, so the ice mirror becomes an explosion of fire which has the added bonus of being fueled by chakra, so it eats through the barrier Haku had set up. She should tell the Sandaime about it – apparently there is a chakra barrier that can hold her.

She grabs Sasuke and body flickers out, landing next to Kakashi. She ducks under Zabuza’s sword, then balances on one foot and twists her lower body up to kick him in the face. The missing-nin staggers back, and she yells, “Kakashi, take care of Haku! Use the Sharingan!”

He does as she says, thank god, and now Kakashi is the one trapped by the ice mirrors, but with his eye he’ll actually manage to land a hit on the boy. Of course, this leaves her and Sasuke facing the Demon of the Mist, which she isn’t exactly thrilled about. “I can’t believe that worked,” Sasuke says, slipping into a defensive stance as Zabuza gets to his feet and comes charging at them.

“Please don’t die,” Natsu says before ducking under the sword once again and flipping on top of Zabuza’s shoulders. The other man is clearly used to training with the super-fast Haku however, because she’d barely landed when Zabuza swings his sword above his head. She jumps off of him, landing in a crouch behind him. Sasuke charges forward and manages to get a kick the man in the stomach. He stumbles and trips over Natsu behind him, but before they can gain any sort of advantage because of that he spins out of the way and swings his sword so he would have cut Natsu in half if she’d rolled out of the way a second slower.

“You brats aren’t bad,” he rumbles.

“Thanks,” Natsu pants, “You’re pretty good yourself.”

Zabuza smirks, “Yeah, I know.”

He moves faster than he’s moved the entire battle, and he swings his sword to stab Sasuke in the chest. The Uchiha starts to dodge, but Zabuza’s already accounted for that, and Natsu can see that he’s not going to make it.

“SASUKE!” she screams, and not him, not Itachi’s little brother, not her friend, not Sasuke. She body flickers in front of him and knocks him to the side.

This means, of course, that Zabuza ends up running his massive sword through her stomach instead.

It hurts until it doesn’t. She looks down, and the giant blade has run her through from navel to just under her sternum. She’s survived a lot, but she’s not going to survive this.

“NATSU!” Sasuke scrambles to his feet, pale and reaching for her.

Zabuza wrenches his sword out of her. A rush of blood leaves her body. By the time she falls to the ground, she sees nothing at all.

~

Kakashi can see Natsu’s crumpled body between the mirrors. He wants to scream, but there’s no air in his lungs, no blood in his veins. He freezes for only a second, but it’s enough for Haku to gain the upper hand.

He’s such an idiot. Danzo was preferable to this, anything would be better than this – god, why does he end up losing everyone, what has he done to deserve this, to have the girl who’s as close as family die in front of him.

A senbon jams itself into the back of his neck. Natsu’s so far away that it’s pointless, but before he gives into the blackness swimming in his vision he reaches for her anyway.

~

Sasuke collapses next to Natsu, and she’s changed in death, somehow. Her hair is a deep blond and her sightless eyes have become bright blue. There are slash marks across her cheeks, and Sasuke doesn’t understand why, but this is Natsu. It was her chakra, her movements, and no one else would be so stupid as to die for him.

He cups her cheek, and it’s warm, her skin still soft. He rubs his thumb against her bottom lip, and it’s still moist from her tongue. A splatter of water lands on his hand, and he thinks it’s rain before he realizes he’s crying.

“So sad,” Zabuza says mockingly, “young love can be such a drag. But hey, at least you’ll be together soon, eh?” He heaves up his sword.

Natsu died for him, and he won’t allow her death to be in vain. Sasuke howls as he surges to his feet, and somehow dodging Zabuza is easier than it was before. It looks like the missing-nin is moving through honey, almost, and he’s just delivered an extremely satisfying slash to the man’s face when that other shinobi’s ice mirrors appear around them. He doesn’t have Natsu to make the fire seal this time, but he finds he doesn’t need it. He can see Haku moving from mirror to mirror, and it’s almost pathetically easy to dodge the ninja’s attacks.

“Sharingan,” Zabuza breathes softly.

Well, that would explain it. Sasuke doesn’t take the time to dwell on it, instead putting all his energy into punching Zabuza so hard he breaks his jaw and he staggers back. Sasuke doesn’t even have to turn around to step away from Haku’s attack.

They killed Natsu. He’s going to kill them.

~

Kiba grabs Sakura around the waist as she bolts towards Sasuke and Natsu, “Don’t! We need to protect the client!” God, he hates this, he doesn’t want to protect this alcoholic asshole of a bridge builder. But Natsu and their sensei are dead, Sasuke has lost his fucking mind, and someone has to think of the mission. Frankly, he’s pissed that it has to be him.

“I can help her, let me go!” Sakura packs a mean punch these days, and he staggers back under the force of it but still doesn’t let go. “I need to get to her and Kakashi-sensei!”

“Sakura, you can’t,” he’s going to have to be the one to tell Hana, he’s going to have to tell her and Kabuto both, oh god. “Natsu and Kakashi are dead. You can’t help them, okay? We need to protect the client!”

Sakura sags into his arms and now he’s holding her up instead holding her back. “She can’t be dead,” she whispers, “she’s so strong. And Kakashi-sensei’s the best shinobi in the village! What about – we need to help Sasuke!”

Kiba glances over to his teammate, “Uh, actually, he’s doing okay. Fuck. Remind me never to piss him off.”

Sakura wrenches away from him. She grabs the terrified Tazuna by the front of his shirt and pulls him down so their faces are inches apart. “Kakashi Hatake was an S class jounin,” she hisses in his face, “Natsu Nami was an expert seal master, the only one Konoha had. Your bridge better be fucking worth it, do you hear me?” She pushes him, and he staggers and falls on his ass, and he looks more scared of Sakura than of the missing-nin. Kiba can relate. “If not, mission be damned, I’ll kill you myself.”

Fuck, but Sakura is some serious shit. He looks over to Sasuke. His teammate is wearing down Zabuza and Haku with a level of single minded fury that he’s definitely going to have nightmares about.

Sakura comes back over to him to cover Tazuna, her eyes red. He wants to hug her and tell her everything is going to be okay, but this is so not the time, and honestly maybe it won’t be.

Akamaru starts whining at his side, and he looks down at his ninken in surprise. “What’s wrong buddy?” Akamaru sniffs loudly and jerks his head in the direction of Natsu’s body. Kiba frowns, but closes his eyes and extends his senses, trying to smell whatever it is that’s freaking out his battle trained ninken so much. He smells Natsu, and blood, but – under that, there’s a faint … earthy scent? It’s growing stronger, and if he didn’t know better Kiba would almost think her body smells like –

“A fox?” he says, and what the fuck is going on.

~

Naruto hasn’t been here since he was five years old, but he’s still surprised when the place that used to manifest as a sewer is a dense forest instead.

“Kurama!” he calls out, swinging around. “Where are you? I need your help! Please!”

The forest has already gone blurry at the corners. They don’t have enough time.

“I’m right here, kit,” a deep voice rumbles from suddenly right behind him, and Naruto whirls around to face the fox.

“I’m dying,” he says desperately, “Can you help me? Please, like you did before.” He has seconds at most, and Kurama is just staring at him with those intelligent, bright eyes. “Please,” he repeats, and he has nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with, and he knows his seal. If he dies, maybe Kurama will die, but maybe the demon will be let free. If Kurama is willing to take that chance, then Naruto has no way to stop him.

The fox bends his massive head to look Naruto in the eyes, “Eight years ago you were dying, bleeding out with glass shoved inside you and tearing you apart, and I healed you. That day, you begged me not to, begged me to let you die. What changed?”

What changed? Last time he’d had no one, been no one. He was alone and hated and didn’t have single person who really cared about him, except maybe the Sandaime. Now he has friends close enough to be family, he’s a respected ninja, a renowned seal master. He has teammates, Kakashi-niichan, a whole bunch of genin friends, and he has Itachi-senpai even if the older boy can’t be with him now. “Everything changed,” he says blankly, because it’s true.

Kurama grins and jerks his head to the forest, which is dissolving more and more. “I noticed. I must say, I much prefer this to the sewer.”

“Please,” he says throat tight, “my friends are in trouble. They need help, and I have this idea, and it might work, and then no one needs to die. But I need to go back to do it. Please don’t let me die.”

“Relax, kit,” Kurama gives off massive waves of orange chakra, and Naruto nearly collapses in relief. The forest has started rebuilding itself around him, and soon things start to go black as he’s pulled back to consciousness, “I’ve got you.”

~

Zabuza has seriously underestimated this genin, and if he’d known this was going to be the reaction from killing blond bitch he would have just killed the genin first.

Gato is gathering at the edge with a crowd, and this is just great. He’s going to have to finish off the genin and kill the stupid bridge builder, or else Gato is going to get ideas about killing him. He won’t succeed, but if Gato gets ideas then he doesn’t get paid, which is the point of all this to begin with.

The Sharingan the kid is packing is also freaking him out – it’s not the tomoe’d one like Hatake had, instead it’s all weird connecting triangles. So far it hasn’t acted any differently than a normal Sharingan, but it’s making him nervous. Haku can’t get a solid hit in, which isn’t helping his nerves any. His boy is the fastest shinobi he knows, and this fight has the potential to turn against them if they can’t finish it quickly.

He finally finds an opening, and swings to cut off this damn Uchiha’s head.

Of course, the last thing he’s expecting is for the girl he’d already killed to gasp to life, and then jump up in between them and knock his sword out his hand. That’s never happened to him before, but he’s never had an opponent pop back to life on him before, so he’s willing to give himself a pass on that one. Also, now that he’s looking closer, the girl isn’t even a girl anymore. He’s so confused. Even Haku doesn’t have tits that spontaneously appear and disappear.

“Natsu?” the genin demands, Sharingan still spinning.

The blond ignores him, instead focusing on Zabuza. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Tough shit,” he snarks. Haku throws more senbon at them, but the blonde uses a wave of orange chakra to knock it aside.

He jerks his head to Gato and the crowd, “You’re doing this for money, right? You can’t seriously enjoy doing that asshole’s dirty work. I know Haku doesn’t.”

Zabuza hesitates. The boy isn’t making any move to attack them, and now the Uchiha isn’t either. “What are you getting at?”

“I met Haku before. He said that he was a loyal shinobi of Kirigakure, and I think that means you are too. Gato is suffocating Kiri too, the daimyo could remove Gato and he hasn’t,” he says intently. “He’s right over there. Kill Gato, and take his money, and we can all leave here alive and the better for it.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he drawls, “but he has an army with him.”

Something like humor glints in the boy’s eyes, “I’ll take care of that. Trust me. Stand with me, and I won’t let you fall. I promise.”

It’s fucking stupid, he doesn’t know this strange, weird boy. He has no reason to trust him or believe in him, and he can’t be that great otherwise Zabuza wouldn’t have been able to kill him in the first place. Fuck, but he’s such an idiot. He’s absolutely going to regret this. “Haku,” he sighs.

That’s all he needs to say. The mirrors come down, and he doesn’t see Haku move, but the next thing he knows Haku is by his side and Gato’s got three senbon shoved in his neck.

The boy nods sharply, his front still soaked with blood when he turns to crowd and calls out, “Gato is dead. There is nothing here for you now. Leave.”

“We’re going to kill you!” one of them roars. Zabuza tenses, and neither he nor Haku are in great shape. He’s not exactly in the mood to fight a couple hundred thugs.

The blonde snorts. His hands form the Ram, and he says calmly, “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.”

There’s suddenly at least a thousand shadow clones covering the bridge, and fuck but Haku was right, this brat is some terrifying shit. Even the Uchiha is surprised. The amount of chakra that kid just wasted – that’s nuts. Nobody uses shadow clones, and there’s a goddamn reason for that.

The mass of clones move as one, forming a defensive stance with kunai extended. “Who wants to die first?” they ask in unison. Zabuza has to admit he’s a little bit impressed when the entire mob turns tail and runs away.

“Shit,” he says, offhand, and Haku nods in agreement.

The blonde dispels the clones, then turns once more to Zabuza. “I’ll help you with Kiri, I promise. But you have to promise to work with me too. I have friends, I’ll help you. I want to help you. Do you swear to work with me?”

He looks to Haku, and he knows his boy will follow him anywhere, but Haku’s been right about this kid every step of the way, and he wants to know what he thinks. Haku nods, just once, but without any hesitance or doubt.

Zabuza swings his sword up to rest on his shoulders and offers his hand to the kid, “Deal.”

He shakes, and for a moment the seriousness breaks and a grin overcomes his face. “Great,” he chirps, “Catch.”

He blinks, “Catch?”

The boy’s eyes roll to the back of his head and he slumps like a ragdoll. Zabuza reaches out and grabs the boy around the waist, holding him against his chest to keep him from falling.

The Uchiha darts over, “Natsu!” He pulls the boy’s hair away from his face and checks his pulse. His shoulder’s slump in relief when he finds it steady. “She’s okay,” he assures them, as if they’d been worried.

Zabuza looks to the passed out ninja in his arms, to the two gaping genin over by the bridge builder, to the passed out Copy Nin, then to Haku. “What the fuck,” he sighs.

He’s been part of some strange shit, but he thinks this might just be the top of the list.

~

Kiba takes the stairs two at a time, going over where everyone is in his head. Haku and Zabuza are currently in the kitchen being fed by Tsunami, Inari’s mom, who seems to be reacting to this traumatic and weird situation by baking. Hilariously, Zabuza and Haku are perfectly polite when they aren’t trying to kill you. Zabuza had made a joke, pointing to his sword and offering to chop up the carrots for the cake. Haku had changed from his battle clothes into a pink kimono, and is actually helping in the kitchen. It’s so weird.

Speaking of, the rest of his team is upstairs with Sakura tending to Natsu unconscious in one bed, and also Kakashi unconscious in the other. Natsu is currently a boy, and Kiba isn’t stupid. He doesn’t know when the fuck Natsu became the container for the kitsune, but he’s certain that’s the Natsu he’s known all his life. He has the same base scent as Natsu, so they’re definitely the same person. Sasuke confirmed it by saying they have the same chakra, so Kiba literally has no idea what’s going on, but his friend and teacher are alive and he’s not going to have to tell Hana that her teammate is dead, so he’s mostly okay with how this all turned out.

He pushes into the room. Sasuke is sitting by Natsu and Sakura is checking Kakashi’s pulse. “How is he?” he asks.

She shrugs, “Haku said he should he wake up soon. It was basically a nerve reaction, so once those recover he’ll wake up.” She gestures to the other bed, “Natsu, in spite of literally being run through with a sword, is totally fine. She’s just suffering from chakra exhaustion.”

“She?” he glances over, and from what he can see Natsu is still a boy.

Sakura shrugs, “Until she wakes up and tells me otherwise, she’s a she.”

Well, that’s fair. He pulls up a chair and sits down next to Sasuke. They cut off her bloody tunic and put on one from her pack, so she’s clean and sleeping peacefully. His teammate has just been sitting quietly by her side, starring, for hours. He tries to figure out something of Sasuke’s thought process from his face, but it’s just blank. This could be a tricky situation, because Kiba doesn’t really care about what Natsu has between her legs, but he can kind of see how Sasuke might take it as another betrayal. He’s sure Natsu has a good reason for not telling them, and changing her hair and eyes, but there’s also the whole demon container thing, and – the point is, there’s a lot that Sasuke could be taking the wrong way or internalizing here, and as Kiba’s recently discovered, Sasuke has the potential to absolutely be the scariest shinobi he knows. Excluding his sister.

So this is delicate and important, and he’s the last person who should be having this conversation.

“Hey Sasuke,” he says, trying to think of a way to approach this topic that’s not either offensive or super awkward, then gives up. “What are you thinking about?”

“I’m trying to figure it out if I think Natsu’s just as cute now as before,” he admits easily, “you know, considering,” he gestures to her body, and Kiba assumes he’s talking about her physical changes.

“Ah,” well, that’s a lot more positive than he’d been expecting, but now he really has no idea where to go with this. “How’s that going?”

His teammate reaches out and delicately traces a single whisker mark on Natsu’s face, and he half smiles, “I think I do.”

“Awesome,” he chokes out, and he has to get out of here right now immediately before he bursts out laughing in Sasuke’s face. What a fanboy. It’d be creepy if he wasn’t pretty sure Natsu felt the same way.

~

Naruto wakes up slowly, and he’s got to say, for all the drawbacks of being jinchuuriki the healing is amazing. He feels refreshed and his chakra reserves are strong – this is awesome.

That feeling continues until he opens his eyes and sees Sasuke looking down at him. There’s a split second of happiness before he remembers that he’s not in his Oiroke, and shit. “Sasuke, I can explain,” he bolts up right, “I can – I swear. I know I lied to you, and I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” Sasuke’s face is stone, and oh god, Naruto’s going to start crying, and he’s ugly crier as a boy, that’s the last thing he wants. “I guess you noticed the whole fox demon thing right? Well there was – wait no, before that, my name isn’t Natsu. I mean, my name is Natsu, but I was born with another name. Naruto Uzumaki. But then, there was this man, and-”

Sasuke reaches over, and Naruto falls silent. He grabs a lock of Naruto’s long hair and gently winds it around his fingers. Sasuke finally looks up at him, and smiles. “Hello,” he says, “It’s nice to meet you. You’re very pretty.”

Oh god, it’s the same thing he said when they were kids that first time they met. Naruto throws himself at Sasuke, and the other boy wraps him in his arms, strong and there and not hating him. “Thank you,” he whispers.

 “I’m still pissed at you for dying on me,” Sasuke scolds, but he runs his hands through Naruto’s hair while he buries his face into Sasuke’s shoulder, so Naruto doesn’t think he’s that mad.

~

Haku and Zabuza both look up at the same time.

“Which one’s awake?” Sakura asks.

“The blonde,” Zabuza answers.

She and Kiba share a look. “We’ll give her and Sasuke a few minutes,” she decides.

“Really?” Zabuza says mildly, “The Uchiha seems a little young for that, buy hey, whatever floats your boat.” He waggles his eyebrows in a way that Sakura never ever wanted to see an S ranked missing-nin do, and she buries her face in her hands. People had warned her about the pain, the blood, the long missions, but no one had said anything about the weirdness of ninja life.

Haku bites back a smile. Kiba looks at Zabuza in horror and says, “Oh my god, you’re just like Kakashi-sensei.”

“I’m sure we’ll get along now that we’re not trying to kill each other,” he says mildly. Tsunami places a slice of carrot cake in front of him, and he grins at her in a way that isn’t even bloodthirsty. “Thanks. Smells good.”

“You’re welcome,” she says evenly, slightly more at ease than when they’d all burst into her house.

Inari peeks around his mother’s legs, “Can I touch your sword? It’s really big.”

Sakura and Kiba are horrified, but both Haku and Tsunami turn away to keep from laughing.

Zabuza chuckles, “I’m used to people who are a little older asking me that.” He pulls his sword from his back, “Careful, it’s sharp.”

Inari cautiously runs his fingers over the flat part and whispers, “So cool.”

~

Kakashi hasn’t woken up yet, but their mission is still in progress. Naruto stays a boy, and shyly tells Sakura that its ‘he’ when he as a penis, and ‘she’ when she has a vagina.

“You know it doesn’t have to work like that, right?” Sakura asks intently, “You can be a girl with a penis or a boy with a vagina.”

“I know,” Naruto says happily, and he has the best friends ever, “but I like it that way.”

“Okay,” Sakura nods, “as long as you know.”

The bridge is still in the process of being built, and just in case Gato’s little gang comes back Naruto sends the genin along with Zabuza and Haku to guard them, the latter who’s happy to kick around for now considering they’ve seized all the money Gato had on him, which was a lot, and Naruto had helpfully sealed it for them. He’s staying behind at Tazuna’s house so he’ll be there when Kakashi wakes up.

He’s considered not telling him. He’s sure he could come up with an explanation for not dying that doesn’t involve Kurama, but the thing is that for ninja the entirety of Team Seven are pretty horrible liars.

It's night, so currently he’s holed up in a corner with Zabuza, at least theoretically away from prying eyes and ears. He’d bet money that Haku and Kiba have found a way to listen in.

“So what’s your plan?” the older shinobi asks, arms crossed. “You do have a plan, right? You didn’t make a deal with me based on nothing?”

There’s definitely a threat in there. Naruto ignores it. “You’re the strongest ninja in Kiri, right?”

Zabuza raises an eyebrow, “Yes. More or less.”

Naruto nods, and he’s been thinking this since he last went on that intelligence gathering mission in Kiri, “How do you feel about being Mizukage?”

He stares. “You’re not serious?”

“I am!” he says intently, “Look, Kiri is a fucking mess. And – okay, so the Daiymo is awful. Literally the worst. But he has a sister, Masuyo.”

Zabuza sneers, “That girl is a pathetic coward.”

“Maybe,” Naruto agrees, “but she’s also a good person, from what I hear. She spend her time at orphanages. She’s scared of her family, which is fair, because they’re terrifying. But if we kill them, and put her on the throne-”

“You think we should kill the royal family and put a seventeen year old girl in power,” Zabuza repeats numbly.

“Listen,” he continues like the other ninja isn’t looking at him like he’s nuts, “she’d be a good leader. People will go after her because they think she’s weak, fine – that’s why daimyo fund shinobi villages in the first place.” Naruto leans forward, eyes bright, “Take over Kiri, become the new Mizukage, then march to the daiymo’s palace and place Masuyo on the throne. Work with her to bring Kiri and the Land of Water up from the ashes.”

Zabuza’s still looking at him like he’s crazy, but he’s also thinking about it too. “I’d need an army for that,” he says. “And you can’t promise that. You can’t even be officially aiding me as a shinobi of Konoha.”

Naruto smirks, “Do you know what I am?”

“Insane?” he says immediately.

“Probably,” he concedes, “but I’m also the container for the nine tailed fox demon. I am an army.” The missing-nin is staring at him opened mouthed, and he continues, “And as far as Konoha is concerned, officially the container for the nine tailed demon died eight years ago. Also – I’m very good friends with the container of the one tailed raccoon demon. He would absolutely be willing to aid in a revolution in exchange with some aid in the future.”

“What kind of aid?” Zabuza asks suspiciously.

Naruto grins, “Let’s just say he’s going to be right in the middle of a coup of his own. Not as bloody as ours is going to be, probably, but once the new kage is in power they need to be recognized. If you swear to recognize this kage when they ascend, my friend will come.”

Zabuza leans back in his chair. “Haku,” he says at a completely normal volume, “what do you think?”

Haku body flickers to his side, and Naruto knew the boy was listening somehow. He places a delicate hand on Zabuza’s shoulder, but his smile is vicious when he says, “Yes. We can do this – we should do this. They are our people. We can protect them, so we must.”

Zabuza raises his eyebrows, but turns back to Naruto and says, “Fuck, okay. Let’s do this.”

 

Kakashi wakes up slowly, at first becoming aware of the ache throughout his body, then that he’s lying in some sort of soft bed so things couldn’t have gone too horribly.

Then he remembers, and a wave of grief washes over him with such intensity that for a moment he wishes he’d never woken up at all. Natsu is dead. He has other responsibilities, he has to find his genin and make sure they’re all right, and demand how the hell they got him out of there alive. He needs to do these things, but all he can focus on is the misery sitting heavy in his chest when he thinks of the little girl he’s known for so long and who’s now dead

“Niichan?” His eyes pop open, because they voice is off, but only one person calls him Niichan. He shoves himself up, and for an extremely disorienting moment he thinks he’s seeing Minato if he’d had hair down to his waist. Then his eyes focus on the whisker marks on the boy’s cheeks.

“Oh god,” he chokes out, “I am dead.”

Naruto rolls his eyes smacks him in the chest, “Kakashi-niichan! You’re not dead, don’t be stupid. You’ve been out for a while though, you missed some stuff.” He grins guiltily.

Kakashi reaches out a shaking hand and cups the boy’s face, “Naruto?”

“How do you know my name?” he frowns, “Did you wake up earlier and someone told you? I told everyone to tell me if you woke up! Was it Zabuza? It was, wasn’t it.”

Kakashi can’t even begin to make sense of the last bit, but he has more important things on his mind, “How did you get here? How are you alive? Have you been in the Land of Water this whole time?” This is too much, Natsu is dead and Naruto is alive in front of him, it’s all too much and he has no idea what to feel.

Naruto frowns, “What? I – Kurama healed me, the fox. But we haven’t been in the Land of Water that long, you’ve only been out for about two days.”

“What?” Kakashi repeats, and he wants to understand, but he also lets out brokenly, “God, Naruto, you look just like your father.”

His mouth falls open, “What? You know who my father is?”

“I,” he blinks, and pulls back enough to grab Naruto’s hand and pull it up to his face. His nails are perfectly painted with purple nin-polish. He looks from the nail polish, to his hair, and Naruto had called him Niichan when he’d woken up. “…Natsu?”

“Yes?” he frowns, “Oh! Are you asking to see?” There’s a ripple in the air, and now it’s Natsu sitting in front of him, pale hair and dark eyes. “It’s a ninjutsu, I think. That’s what Haku says. I made it when I was five. Neat, huh?” Natsu shifts back to Naruto, and bites his bottom lip. “I didn’t mean to lie to you about who I was. But I had a good reason! I, uh, well you remember the Kyuubi attack, right? I mean of course you do. Well, I-”

“Have the fox sealed inside you,” Kakashi says numbly.

Naruto blinks. “Right. So, when I was five-”

“- a civilian killed you. He slit you open with a glass bottle. There was so much blood,” he remembers it, that room bathed in blood where his sensei’s son had died. But Naruto is sitting in front of him, alive and whole.

He crosses his arms, “Okay, who have you been talking to?”

“You are Natsu? And Naruto?” he confirms, because it’s not possible, but the evidence is in front of him now, and he wants it to be true so badly, he wants to have not lost two of the most important people he’s had.

“Yes?” Naruto blinks, “Seriously Niichan, what’s going on here?”

“Naruto, I knew your parents,” he grabs the boy’s shoulders, afraid if he’s not holding on to him he’ll disappear from his sight. “I knew them, and we weren’t allowed to talk to you, hokage’s orders, and we watched you, I watched you the most, and you always had a guard, but that night – that one night,” he doesn’t know when he started crying but he is now. His chest is tight and he can’t get enough air in his lungs.

Naruto throws his arms around his neck, “Kakashi-niichan, it’s okay! I promise!”

Kakashi holds Naruto tightly, “I – I’m so sorry, Naruto. I searched for you for so long, I didn’t want you to be gone, but we couldn’t find you. There was so much blood, we didn’t think you could be alive.”

“You looked for me?” Naruto asks quietly, “Me, Naruto? Not Natsu?”

“I looked for you,” he whispers fiercely, “I was devastated. I’m so sorry, Naruto. I failed you. I wanted to be there for you. I could never replace your parents, but I wanted – I wanted to be something to you, I never should have listened to the hokage. I wanted to be there for you. I’m sorry, Naruto, I’m so sorry,” he nearly sobbing again, chest hitching, because the boy he’d thought was gone is in his arms, and Natsu’s body isn’t rotting somewhere.

Naruto leans back enough to look Kakashi in the eye, “But you were.”

“I – what?” Naruto has Minato’s eyes, and god, he should have known, because Natsu had acted just like Kushina. He’s such an idiot.

Naruto places a hand on Kakashi’s chest, right above his heart. “You were there for me. You helped me pass my genin exam, and trained with me, and you bought me my first tunic, and you’ve cared about me and cared for me since I was a kid. You’re my Niichan! So – you didn’t know, but I’m Natsu and Naruto. So you did just what you intended. You don’t have to be sorry.”

Kakashi blinks, and the idea that he’s actually managed to fulfill one of his promises is – astounding. “That first day,” he croaks, “your genin exam – I was going to hand you over to Inoichi and be done with it. But, but you reminded me of Naruto, of, well, yourself, and I couldn’t do it.”

Naruto beams and hugs him again, “That’s – that’s amazing! I’m so happy Kakashi-niichan!”

He hugs Naruto back, and they stay like that for a long time.

The moment, however, is eventually broken when Naruto says, “Oh, by the way, I made a deal with Zabuza and Haku. I’m going to help them take over Kiri!”

Kakashi pulls back. “What?

 

Chapter Text

Tenten almost wants to laugh in their faces, because this is insane. But Neji thinks that she can do this. More importantly, he’s asking her to do this. He never asks her for anything.

“Well?” Hanabi snaps, “Are you going to help or not?”

“Yes,” she says, and she really hopes she doesn’t end up getting beheaded for this or something. “But I can’t just – poke around at a seal for a few minutes and figure out how to unravel it. That’s Natsu’s party trick, not mine.”

“How long do you need?” the girl asks.

She sighs, “A day or two, at least, to reverse engineer it. I’d say a week, but it’ll be a lot easier to track the chakra strings with the Byakugan. That’s most of the work anyway. I also need someone with the Curse Mark who will let me poke around at them.” Hinata and Hanabi glance at each other. Tenten knows that the only person in the Branch family they really talk to is Neji, so she’s unsurprised when they both turn to her teammate.

Neji rubs his forehead, “I – yeah. I know some people.”

The Branch family loves Neji. He’s the talented prodigy of the Hyuuga clan, and he’s theirs. Half the time Tenten thinks that Neji trains so hard so that he doesn’t let them down.

“Great,” she says with just as much enthusiasm as she feels, “let’s get started.”

~

Gaara has to admit that he has no one to blame but himself. She was his friend first, after all.

“She can’t be serious,” Temari says, scanning the letter.

Kankuro, who hasn’t even gotten his hands on the letter yet, snorts. “Oh, I’m sure she is.”

“This is insane,” his sister insists. Gaara raises an eyebrow. She sighs, “What do you think?”

“Konoha may or may not support your ascension,” he says clinically, “They are our biggest threat. If they go to war, we will have few allies. Kumo will fight with us, if for no other reason than they hate Konoha. Zabuza of the Seven Swordsman is no small ally, and if he and Natsu are successful and they pull off this coup – the Mizukage would be an invaluable friend to have in dark times.”

Temari bites her bottom lip, “Do you think they’ll win, though? This won’t be the first time someone’s tried to gain power in the Mist. I won’t risk you if you don’t think this is a battle you can win.”

Her concern sends a rush of affection through him. He doubts he will ever tire of it. “Natsu specializes in the impossible,” he says. “She has given me much, and asked for nothing in return. I would aid her, with your permission.”

Temari looks to Kankuro. He shrugs, “I trust her judgement. She cares about Gaara too – she wouldn’t risk him if she didn’t think it was worth it.”

She shakes her head and snaps her fingers, releasing a burst of wind chakra that shreds the letter. “Go. Stay strong, and stay safe.”

Gaara kisses her quickly on the cheek, accepts a gruff hug from his brother, and gathers up the sand around him to take him as far as the desert’s edge.

Once he’s out of sight Kankuro says to his sister, “How are we going to cover up his disappearance?”

“We’re not,” she turns to him, “Punch me in the face.”

He stares. “What?”

“Punch me in face,” she repeats. “No one’s going to believe we let Akatsuki take Gaara without a fight.”

Kankuro gets it then, can picture how his sister’s plan will unfold.

It takes him a long time to stop laughing.

~

Inuzuka dogs aren’t like normal dogs. They’re born with the ability to sense and manipulate chakra and a keen intelligence that allows them to communicate with their human partners. These aren’t traits that come from good breeding, but instead from a centuries long positive relationship with the spirits. There was a time when Inugami, evil dog spirits fueled by rage and forced into slavery by foolish humans, ran rampant across the lands. The Inuzuka swore to fight off these spirits, and in return the spirits of the forest gave them the means to survive – companions who could understand them, fight for them, and die for them.

There hasn’t been a report of Inugami in over a hundred years, but the spirits honor their bargain none the less.

So when the most recent litter born of two spotted tan dogs contains a pure white runt with clear green eyes, Tsume takes it a sign that there is a change on the wind, and she should prepare for it.

~

Kakashi hates this. It’s stupid and suicidal and the most ridiculous thing he’s heard in at least a week.

“I don’t know why you’re surprised,” Kiba says to him as he glares at Zabuza.

I’m not surprised,” Sakura adds, “and I’ve only known her for a few months.”

Sasuke doesn’t say anything, but he can feel the youngest Uchiha’s judgement from here.

“If it’s any consolation,” Zabuza says, “I was surprised. I’m with you, the kid’s off his rocker.”

It’s of no consolation, in fact. He looks at the hunter-nin, Haku, and the pretty boy simply gives him a bland smile and says, “Having fought with Natsu in the past, even I’m aware this falls within a pattern of behavior.”

He hates everything.

“If you’re all done talking about me like I’m not here,” Naruto says irritably, “I’ve gotten the letter of confirmation from Temari. Gaara should arrive tomorrow, and the bridge is set to be completed by the end of the week. Once that happens, you’ll need to head back to Konoha. Without me.”

“This is moronic,” Kakashi snaps, “You’re an A rank chunin and our only seal master. The council will label you an S Rank missing-nin, and you’ll end up dodging Anbu teams your entire way to Kiri. It’s suicide.”

Zabuza looks up from where he’s comfortably sprawled in the grass, “He’s got a point, kid.”

Kakashi would feel a lot better if the Demon of the Mist would stop agreeing with him, actually.

Naruto shakes his head, and with a pulse of chakra Natsu is standing in front of them. “Natsu Nami is an A ranked chunin seal master. She is worth a high bounty, and the expense of sending Anbu out to capture. Naruto Uzumaki, however,” she shifts again, and Naruto grins back out at them, “is presumed dead, and if he’s alive – well, he never even attended the Academy. As Naruto, I’m officially just a civilian. No one’s going to give a shit about a Konoha civilian traveling through Water.”

“Okay, so you’ll be able to travel unnoticed,” Sakura says, “but what about Natsu? People are going to notice fast when you don’t come back with us.”

The smile drops off Naruto’s face, “Ah, this is the less fun part of the plan. So when you guys go back to Konoha, you’re going to tell everyone the truth – that Zabuza ran me through on his sword, and I died on it.”

“Absolutely not,” Kakashi snarls.

Kiba growls, “I’m not fucking telling my sister you’re dead!”

Sasuke raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. Even Haku winces.

“That’s cold,” Zabuza nods, “I like it.”

“Look,” Naruto placates, “it’s the only way that I can help Kiri without the Council putting a bounty on my head. And even if they didn’t think I was worth the money, the fact is I can’t do this as a ninja of the Leaf. If we fail, I won’t let the backlash reach Konoha.”

Sakura glares, “You can’t just fake your own death!”

Naruto shrugs and spreads his hands out, “Why not? I’ve done it before.”

“Why don’t we have your body?” Kiba demands, “Kakashi-sensei’s high level enough to perform a stasis and a seal. If you’d died, we’d have brought you home.”

“Mutilation,” Haku offers, “If Master Zabuza had hacked her up enough, it would have been kinder to simply burn her remains here. Ashes are easy enough to fake.”

Naruto points to Haku, “What he said.”

Kakashi crosses his arms, “I don’t like this.”

“Nobody like this,” Naruto says, “but I made a promise, and I’m sticking to it. This isn’t just for me or to honor my deal. Sand is an uneasy ally at best, their Kazekage is fucking nuts, and Mist is one huge mess. Ever since Uzushiogakure fell the whole Land of Water has been one huge mess. If I can fix these things, and make them allies of Leaf in the process, this will change everything. For the better.”

Kiba squints, “It’s really fucking annoying when you’re logical and insane at the same time.”

“It’s a gift,” Naruto grins, “Now, Team Seven, get back to guarding the bridge. That’s an order.”

“What are we even guarding it against?” Sakura gripes, “Zabuza and Haku are on our side now, Gato is dead, and all his former employees are too scared of you to even think of attacking.”

“Don’t question orders,” Naruto says, “Get to it.”

Kiba and Sakura roll their eyes, but disappear in a swirl of leaves. Sasuke sighs, “I really don’t like letting you go off on your own.”

“I won’t be on my own,” he says, “I’ll be with Zabuza and Haku and Gaara.”

Sasuke pokes Naruto’s forehead, and the blonde’s face goes blank with shock. “Even still,” he says before body flickering away.

Naruto hesitantly reaches for his forehead, and the smile that spreads across his face threatens to break it in half.

“You two are disgusting,” Zabuza says, heaving himself up and swinging his sword across his shoulders, “Come on Haku, let’s go train. We’re going to go overthrow Kiri, after all.”

“Of course, Master Zabuza,” Haku says, and when the older man holds out a hand to pull him to his feet, Haku’s smile is nearly as blinding as Naruto’s.

Once they’re alone, Naruto turns to Kakashi, “All right Niichan, let’s hear it.”

“This is a stupid plan and I don’t like it,” he answers, well aware he sounds like he’s five and not caring in the slightest.

Naruto rolls his eyes and sends a burst of chakra to his feet to flip up onto Kakashi’s shoulders. He leans and pushes himself up so he’s balancing on his fingertip on top of the jounin’s head, “It’s a good plan, and you know it. Otherwise, genius that you are, you’d come up with a better argument than it’s stupid.”

“If you die I’ll lose my mind,” he answers instead, his throat tight, “You’re my sensei’s son and my little sister and if you don’t return to me I will go to Kiri and raze it to the ground myself.”

Naruto lowers himself enough to plop a kiss on top of Kakashi’s head, “You worry too much, Kakashi-niichan. I’m a jinchuuriki. It takes a lot to kill me.”

For the first time, the demon sealed inside of Naruto is more of a comfort then Kakashi wants to admit.

~

Hating the Akatsuki is easy. Madara helped him kill their clan and the rest of them want to find his best friend and tear the demon from her stomach. He hates only three things, really – Danzo, the man that leered at Natsu when she was ten years old, and Akatsuki.

“Hey,” Kisame says, ducking back into their room. He’s got breakfast for two in his hands.

He has tried very, very hard to hate the Kiri missing-nin over the past four years. It’s proving difficult.

“Hmm,” he answers, accepting the rice balls. He’d say thank you, but that doesn’t fit in with his current persona, and also Kisame has a pile of fatty, sugary pastries stacked in front of him for his first meal of the day. In spite of witnessing this very thing every day since they become partners, he still wants to lecture him about blood sugar and nutrition. Not forcing Kisame to eat a proper fucking meal for once in his life under threat of Mangekyo is as close to gratitude as he gets these days.

Dear god, he’s becoming his mother.

The thought makes his chest seize, and if he was alone he’d reach under his cloak and grasp at the necklace he has worn faithfully every day since the Massacre.

“So, I heard some rumors today while I was at the market,” Kisame says. The raspberry jam smeared all over his face is comical against his blue tinted skin. “Did we capture the one tailed demon? Are you hiding him in a storage scroll or something? Did I black out from too much to drink?”

Itachi has actually never seen Kisame consume so much as an ounce of alcohol, but he’s so thrown for a moment that he has to wonder if the other ninja is drunk at this very moment. “What?”

“Rumor on the street is that we captured the one tails,” he repeats calmly, “As far as I remember, the last time we saw that kid and your BFF-”

“Please stop referring to the nine tailed demon container like that,” Itachi sighs. He knows the other man says it as a joke, but to hear it said so plainly is disconcerting. There was a time when every ninja in Konoha associated him and Natsu together.

There was also a time when there were more than a handful of Uchiha left to walk the earth. Best not to think on it, really.

“Whatever,” he snorts, “Anyway, the last time we saw them we got our asses handed to us and a very uncomfortable one way ticket to my old stomping grounds. So I don’t think we captured the one tails, but everyone else seems to think so.”

“Hm,” he answers. So the red headed boy is missing. He’d say kidnapped, but if someone is trying to give them credit for the capture then it’s unlikely. Unless they’re trying to throw the investigation off their scent, which would only make sense if they were in Suna, or someone closely connected to it –

Itachi puts down his half-finished rice ball, suddenly no longer hungry.

Somehow, someway, he’s certain that this is Natsu’s fault.

~

Gaara shows up two days later than expected, just as the bridge is being finished. Team Seven and Naruto are helping clean up the last of debris when that familiar chakra appears so close so quickly that he must have been cloaking it.

The boy is the most even tempered person Naruto knows, except maybe Iruka, so when the redhead marches up to him, scowling, he has to fight the urge to hide behind Kakashi.

“Gaara!” he grins, “Have a nice trip?”

“I,” he growls, “am sweating.”

Naruto blinks. There are in fact beads of perspiration peppering the genin’s skin. “Yes?”

“I hate sweating,” he crosses his arms.

Naruto opens his mouth, then closes it. Finally he says, “… you live in a desert?”

“A dry desert,” he snarls, “this humidity is awful.”

“You do know we’re going to the Land Hidden in the Mist, right? It’s only going to get worse.”

Gaara’s face drops, “I changed my mind, conquer Kiri on your own. It’s not worth it.”

“Gaaaaaaaaaara,” he whines, throwing his arms around the other boy’s neck, “You promised!”

“Who’s this?” Sasuke asks.

Naruto blinks. Sasuke had been on the other side of the bridge a moment ago. “This is Gaara!” he beams, ignoring the redhead’s attempt to break out of his embrace.

“Natsu, you’re a damn heater,” he whines, “please let go.”

Humidity makes Gaara cranky. This is hilarious.

“It’s actually Naruto again,” he says, and it’s his name, it’s the name his parents gave him, that the Yondaime gave him (and isn’t that a weird thought). It hasn’t been his name in a long time, though. He’ll get used to it again. He wants to get used to it, now that he knows it was picked out with care by people who loved him and not at the whim of some orphanage administrator.

The women in the Flower District called him Sunflower. He thinks he might always like that one best of all.

“Hold on!” Sasuke glares, “He knew about you before we did? You trusted him, but not us?”

Naruto waves his arms, “No, no, no! I haven’t told anyone! It was kinda the same circumstances, it happened while I was fighting Itachi!”

Gaara yanks on the end Naruto’s ponytail. This is why he always used to keep it in a bun. “You almost died again? How many near death experiences do you have a month?”

Sasuke snorts. Gaara rolls his eyes, like he should have known better than to ask. The two genin look at each other and trade commiserating smiles.

On one hand, at least neither of them are yelling at him. On the other, he wishes their point of bonding wasn’t how reckless he is.

“This,” Kiba says, suddenly right next to them with an arm around Sakura’s shoulders, “is Gaara of the Sand. He’s the jinchuuriki Naruto made friends with during his chunin exam.”

“That really happened?” Sakura demands. “I thought Kiba was messing with me!”

Gaara nods, “I though Naruto was quite insane at the time.” He pauses, “Still do, in fact.”

Naruto rolls his eyes, “All right everyone, back to work. The sooner we get this finished, the sooner we can all leave.”

“Considering you’re going off on what basically amounts to a suicide mission, that’s not really great motivation,” Kiba says.

He smiles sweetly, “Do it or I’ll beat you all up. How’s that?”

Team Seven salutes and then gets to work. Naruto would feel better about that if he didn’t think they were laughing at him.

He nudges Gaara, “You too, you need the practice.”

The redhead frowns, “But – the sand.”

“There’s lots of it,” he points outs. They’re on a sea coast. Of course there’s lots of it.

“It’s wet,” he spits out.

Naruto pats his shoulder and doesn’t laugh at him, “The sand in Kiri will be wet too. You should practice using it now.”

Gaara pouts in a way very unbecoming of a fearsome ninja warrior, and it reminds Naruto so much of when Gaara was a kid that he ruffles his hair.

A pouting, cranky Gaara with hair sticking up every which way is the best.

~

Haku is out gathering herbs. Or at least that’s what he told Zabuza, and Zabuza is sure the boy will in fact go and do that – as soon as he comes back from the city’s center and running his hands over hair ribbons and makeup, like he always does.

He already goes around in a pink, flowery kimono. Zabuza doesn’t give a shit what he does with his face or his hair. He could probably actually tell this to Haku, but then he’d have to talk about his feelings. Talking about his feelings makes him break out in hives.

Which is probably why he feels faintly itchy with Kakashi sitting across from him at the table and glaring.

“Cake?” he offers, holding up his plate. It’s the last piece of carrot cake. He’ll cut Kakashi before he gives it up.

Then again, he’s pretty sure Haku got the recipe. Would it be weird if he asked Haku to make him cake?

Probably.

“No,” Kakashi says coldly. Well, good. He hadn’t wanted to share anyway.

He sighs and leans back in his chair, “I’ll watch out for your brat, okay? I’m not going to throw him at the Mizukage and run.”

“You already killed him once,” Kakashi points out.

He shrugs, “Well yeah, we were enemies. Now we’re not.”

Kakashi raises an eyebrow.

“Look, considering the company the kid keeps it’s in my best interest to keep him alive, all right? But we’re going off to start a war, Kakashi. This won’t be pretty.”

The jounin slumps in his chair, and it’s kind of hard to tell under the mask but Zabuza is almost certain the other man is pouting. He looks like he should have a raincloud hovering over him. Maybe he should have shared his cake.

Nah.

~

Fuuinjutus is hard, and this seal is stupid complicated. Thankfully, taking something apart is always easier than building it in the first place.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Hanabi asks, eyes and tone sharp. The little girl is like the personification of a kunai.

“No,” Tenten says honestly.

Lee throws his arms in the air, “You can do this! The flames of youth burn brightly inside you!”

It’s probably a little messed up that that’s comforting.

Neji places a soft hand on her shoulder, “I believe in your skill and your strength. You can do this.”

“And if you fuck up, we’re right here,” Kabuto adds cheerfully. Hana elbows him in the side. “Ow!”

“The less they’ve used the Byakugan, the less damage there is,” Hana reminds kindly, “Neji was probably the most complicated healing we’ll do. So don’t worry – if anything goes wrong, we’ll be here.”

Tenten swallows and looks at the kid hanging off of Neji’s hand. He’s nine, a year younger than Hanabi, and just about to start training with the blacksmith in the market. Isamu has never activated the Byakugan, and so he’s the perfect first subject. “You’re okay with this?” she asks him.

Isamu looks up to Neji, and the older boy smiles at him. He looks back to Tenten, “Neji asked me and my parents already. If he thinks it’s a good idea, we trust him.”

Tenten knows that Hanabi hadn’t been thinking this when she’d first asked Neji for help, but she wonders if the girl knows that by holding Neji’s loyalty she now holds the loyalty of every Branch family member.

Judging by the look on her face, if she didn’t before, she does now.

“Okay,” she says softly, “C’mere.”

Isamu squeezes Neji’s hand one more time before letting go. Tenten kneels in front of the boy and carefully unwinds the bandages around his forehead. Chakra sparks against her fingers, and the seal shimmers to life in front of her, the complicated lines and locks that exist under the skin.

Natsu had unraveled Neji’s seal in under a minute, but she’s not Natsu Nami. There’s one line in all this mess that she could hit and get rid of it all once, like a loose string in a knot, but she doesn’t know where it is or how to find it. Instead she has to unweave the warped and clinging chakra strings from each other separately. Natsu had burned them off as she’d went, but Tenten doesn’t have anything close to the amount of chakra she’d need to do that. So the threads of chakra are still attached, and they get knotted up in each other all over again while she takes another section apart. The chakra that had made up the seal finally dissolves away once she’s taken it all apart. All in all, it takes over an hour.

That was a fair amount of chakra that just fizzled away. If there was a way to harness that – well. She has a couple of ideas.

“How do you feel?” Kabuto asks Isamu, hands lighting green.

He blinks. “Tingly.”

“Only minor nerve damage,” Kabuto diagnosis, the healing chakra sweeping up and down the boy’s body.

Tenten doesn’t even realize she’s listing to the side until Neji wraps an arm around her and steadies her against him. “Are you okay?” he asks intently.

She nods, and normally she’d be too embarrassed to give in to her desires like this, but she’s tired. “M’fine,” she murmurs, curling into the solid heat of Neji’s chest. Her teammate stiffens, and she’s about to force herself to pull away when he reaches under knees and lifts her up, holding her in his arms. “Neji?” she blinks up at him.

“Go to sleep,” he says, flushed red and not looking at her, “You did well, Tenten. I’m proud of you.”

Her mouth goes slack, but then she’s grinning. She throws an arm around Neji’s neck and drifts off to the sound of Neji’s heart beating in her ear.

~

They’re all packed and ready to go their separate ways, standing at the Natsu Nami Bridge (named for the kunoichi who died for it, ha). There’s just one thing he needs to teach them first.

“This is a secret,” Naruto emphasizes, “I figured this out a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t going to tell anyone. This is the secret I was definitely taking to my grave. But things are going to get a little rocky from here on out, so I want you all to have this in your back pocket if you need it.”

“Awesome,” Kiba says with all the enthusiasm of a popped balloon.

He points at Zabuza and Haku, “I’m especially talking to you two. If Kiri shinobi start doing this, I’ll know who they learned it from, and then I will march back into Mist and kill all of you. Got it?”

Haku nods and Zabuza snorts. Naruto’s choosing to take that as agreement,

“So you all know about Shadow Clones, right?” he asks.

“That’s what you did on the bridge,” Sakura says, “They’re a solid clone, but they’re a huge chakra drain.”

“Right,” he says, “Why?”

Sasuke shrugs, “Because you have to split your chakra up, and they can only take one hit. So if you make one clone, that’s half your chakra gone in one punch. If you make ten, that’s ninety percent of your chakra gone. It’s almost never worth the risk.”

Naruto nods, “But what if you could make it so that chakra you split up doesn’t disappear, but instead comes back to you? So instead of losing all your chakra, you just lose the initial small amount it had taken to form the clone in the first place?”

“That’d be some crazy shit,” Zabuza says thoughtfully, “One ninja could become a whole army. Shit, someone who’s kage level could send battalions of themselves out into a village, and desecrate it without ever putting themselves or their ninja in danger.”

“You didn’t,” Kakashi says with all the calm he doesn’t feel, because he’s seen what Naruto can accomplish with some paper and ink, and he’s very certain that he did.

Naruto rubs the back of his head, “This can’t get out, okay? It will revolutionize warfare, and not for the better. Understand?”

“You’re fucking with me,” Zabuza says, “No fucking way.”

Naruto digs his nail into his skin (thank fuck for nin-polish) and lightly carves the whirlpool symbol into the flesh of his arm, the same one that’s stitched onto every Konoha flak jacket. “It’s simple really, you just add in the re-circulation symbol, and channel the chakra through that symbol before initiating the Ram,” the bloody symbol briefly flares with chakra before Naruto forms the Ram. There are then three Narutos in front of them. “Then that way the redistribution symbol is copied into the clone,” all of them say at once, holding out their arms to show they share the identical sigil, “so when they disperse,” Naruto punches both of his clones, and they disappear in a poof of smoke, “all the remaining chakra comes back to you.” He throws out his arms, “Tada!”

“So what you’re saying,” Haku says, excitement shining in his eyes, “is that you and me and Gaara and Zabuza, who combined have the chakra of roughly eight kages, can march literal armies of ourselves into Kiri.”

“Pretty much,” Naruto grins, “Isn’t this plan at least a little less insane now?”

“Naruto,” Gaara rubs at his forehead, “I am, as always, grateful that we fight on the same side.”

“Imagine, for a moment,” Sasuke says serenely, “if Danzo had actually wanted to use Natsu as weapon of mass destruction.”

Sakura whistles, “Yikes.”

“A creative and vicious opponent,” Zabuza grins. He throws his sword onto his back, “All right, we’re wasting daylight. I want to be out of this dumb village by nightfall.”

Everyone’s mood dampens. Sakura and Kiba don’t hesitate to pull Naruto into a fierce hug. “Be careful, and come home,” Kiba says fiercely.

“Stay strong, and stay safe,” Sakura whispers, wiping at her eyes when they finally let go of him.

Kakashi’s hand falls heavy on top of Naruto’s head, “Raze it to the ground,” he reminds pleasantly, “and if I do that, Iruka will be cross with me.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Naruto grins, “I’ll be home as soon as I can.” Kakashi tugs on the end of his ponytail, and that gives Naruto an idea. “Hold on,” he shifts into Natsu, and grabs a kunai from her pouch. She briefly mourns, because she’s spent years of her life growing this hair, but it’s the least she can do. She undoes her ponytail and cuts off about two feet of her pale, ash colored hair so what’s left falls to right below her shoulders. She shifts back to Naruto, but the hair in his hands remains the color of Natsu’s and not his own. He ties it off and hold it out to Kakashi, “If I was really dead, you’d bring something home.”

Kakashi gently takes the hair and places it in his pack, “A lot of people are going to be upset by this, you know.”

“I know,” he swallows, “but this is important.”

Kakashi sighs, and even with the mask covering two thirds of his face it’s easy to see how sad the jounin is in this moment. It almost makes Naruto want to throw all his plans out the window.

The he turns to Sasuke, and the Uchiha is solemn in way that reminds Naruto’s of the years after the massacre. “Hey,” Naruto says, forcing a smile, “it’s only temporary.”

“Unless it’s not,” Sasuke says evenly, “Now both you and my brother are off roaming the elemental nations.”

“It’ll be okay,” Naruto says, and he has nothing to back him up on that, but it’s what he’s been saying for years and he’s been right so far, “I’ll come back, Sasuke. I promise.”

He doesn’t know when either of them moved, but somehow they’re close enough that Naruto can see the hints of blue hiding in Sasuke’s dark eyes.

“I’m holding you to that,” the genin says softly.

Zabuza snorts and Haku says, “This is ridiculous,” right before Naruto feels the missing-nin elbow him in the back.

He stumbles a half step forward, knocking into Sasuke. The other boy catches him around the waist, and then they’re kissing. It’s painfully awkward for a moment, teeth clacking together, but Naruto shifts his head and puts his arms around Sasuke’s neck to pull him closer. It’s softer then, the both of them moving against each other like they’re made of glass. They part, and Naruto rests his forehead against Sasuke’s. “Hey,” he says, grinning.

“Hey,” Sasuke answers, flushed and as happy as Naruto has ever seen him.

Kiba makes a vomiting sound behind them, “Oh my god, please stop. I feel like I’m watching my parents make out.”

Naruto drops his head on Sasuke’s shoulder. Sakura smacks Kiba upside the head, and Sasuke says, “I hope you remember I’m stronger than you, and I will hurt you later.”

Naruto laughs and ducks forward to kiss Sasuke one more time before moving over to the Kiri shinobi and Gaara. “I’ll see you soon,” he tells them all, trying not to laugh at how Kakashi is glaring daggers at the youngest Uchiha.

He turns and walks in the direction of Kiri, and tells himself that walking away from Sasuke is far from the hardest thing that he’s ever done. That would be ridiculous.

~

After the third day of neither of the Hyuuga sisters turning up, Kurenai looks to Shino and says, “Should I be worried?”

Shino raises an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that look,” she says, “I know you know what they’re doing.”

“They haven’t told me anything,” he sniffs.

Kurenai rolls her eyes, “I’m sure they haven’t. You still know anyway. I’m trusting you three about what’s going on, whatever the hell it is. But you absolutely know.”

Shino may or may not have used his bugs to spy on the sisters from day one. With their byakugan they definitely know, and haven’t said anything, so he’s taken it as permission.

“I maybe know,” Shino concedes. “Do you want me to go check up on them?”

“Please,” she sighs, “then feel free to take the weekend off. We have a mission on Monday, and all three of you better show up to that or I’ll beat some damn punctuality into all of you.”

“Yes, Kurenai-sensei,” he says, and one corner of his mouth ticks up, which is basically the same as laughing.

He body flickers to the Forest of Death, right in between Hinata and Hanabi. “How many do you have left?” he asks, watching Neji and Lee standing at Tenten’s shoulders as she yanks hard at the Curse Mark of another branch member, unraveling the seal. “She’s gotten better at that.”

“Her time is down to under three minutes a seal,” Hinata reports, “We’re almost done. There are one hundred and thirteen Branch members carrying the Curse Mark, and we have removed eighty six of them.” Her smile dims, “Kabuto and Hana assessed them, and there are seven who are too old or have used the byakugan too long to have the Curse Mark removed safely.”

“Three of them have had the seal since beginning, ever since the Main branch began putting the Curse Mark on the Branch family sixty years ago. They’re artisans, have never bent chakra in their lives. We’re hoping Nami will be able to unravel the marks,” Hanabi adds, not taking her eyes away as the Branch member hobbles over to Hana, and the woman’s hands light green as she repairs the damage. “Tenten is quite accomplished at sealing, but she’s not a master.”

“If Natsu can’t do it, no one can,” Shino agrees. He frowns as he considers Team Nine. “What’s Gai think of all this?”

“Officially, he doesn’t know what we’re doing,” Hanabi says dryly, “He took a mini training vacation and gave them all two weeks off. He hasn’t actually left the village, so I’m assuming he’s doing more for the sake of plausible deniability than anything else.”

“Hmm,” he nods, “Team Ten?”

“We haven’t told them anything,” Hinata says.

“But,” Hanabi continues, “if Shikamaru hasn’t figured the whole thing out by now, I’ll be very disappointed in him.”

He doesn’t say anything to that, but he’s content to stand between his teammates and help them keep watch over their people.

When he’d been put on a team with the Hyuuga heirs, he’d just been planning on surviving them. This is better.

~

“So,” Kiba says when they’re a half day from the Konoha border, “we’re not actually going to tell everyone that Natsu is dead, right?”

Kakashi stares, “Of course we are.”

“No, I mean obviously the hokage and the civilians and all of them,” he flaps a hand, “but Hana and Kabuto will launch a revenge mission. Inoichi will head an investigation into her death. Anko will kill someone. Team Ten will hunt us down and kill us.”

Sakura taps her chin, “He does have a point. If we tell them the lie, they’ll look into Natsu’s death because she’s their friend. If they dig hard enough, they might find out the truth. Then we’re screwed.”

Kakashi had actually been a little worried about that, mostly because if Natsu had actually died he might have lost his mind a little, and he doesn’t actually relish the idea of both Iruka and Gai sitting on him in an attempt to stop him from doing something stupid, “So to protect the secret, we have to tell the secret.”

“Exactly,” Kiba nods, pleased with himself.

“This has nothing to do with your inability to lie to either your mom or your sister, of course,” Sasuke smirks.

Kiba throws a shuriken at the Uchiha’s head, but doesn’t deny it.

A mile outside of the village they blank out their faces, and Kakashi doesn’t even acknowledge the wall guard.

“Kakashi,” the hokage greets, smiling. Iruka is beaming at his side, and god, his boyfriend is going to kill him for this later. “It’s good to have you back.” He frowns, “Where’s –”

Kakashi, stone-faced, reaches into his back and slams a plain urn and Natsu’s ponytail onto the hokage’s desk. The old man pales. “Chunin Natsu Nami was killed in the line of duty,” he reports tonelessly, “She fell to the Kiri missing-nin, Zabuza.” He throws down a file, “This is my report.”

Iruka has his hand over his mouth, but his eyes are on the genin. Sakura is red eyed and pressed against a scowling Kiba’s side. Sasuke’s face is as emotionless as his own.

“Kakashi,” the Sandaime says softly.

“Permission to be dismissed,” he snaps.

The hokage looks at him with sad, old eyes, and god, he couldn’t lie like this for anyone but Naruto. “Permission granted.”

They all body flicker out of there. He goes to his apartment and summons Pakkun. “I’ve got an important job for you,” he says. The pug looks unimpressed.

If everyone’s following the plan, his genin are sending shadow clones out to retrieve and replace certain genin and two chunin and are meeting in the Uchiha district under a chakra cloak.

He digs around in his cabinet for a bottle or five of sake, because in a few minutes a bunch of very confused and pissed off jounin are going to be in his kitchen, and there is quite simply not enough alcohol in the world for the conversation they’re about to have.

Iruka comes storming before any of them, Natsu’s ponytail in his fist, and he figures the other man’s anger is justified. If he’d actually let Natsu die, he’d deserve it.

“Iruka,” he starts.

The chunin whips chakra around them, erecting a privacy barrier in moments that takes most jounin about five minutes to set up. “Don’t you lie to me Kakashi Hatake,” he snarls. “Natsu’s not dead.”

His mouth drops open, “How-”

“Because if Natsu had died and you’d brought back her hair,” Iruka flings the ponytail on the counter, “it would be yellow, and your report would be far thicker. Actually, there’d be no report, because you’d kill the hokage and go on the run, and then I’d have to go on the run after you, and do you know who would be left in charge if we both left? Danzo. So I know Natsu’s not dead because Konoha is still standing.”

“Yellow,” Kakashi repeats numbly, “you knew.”

Iruka flushes and rubs the bridge of his nose, “I suspected.”

“How?” he demands. Iruka had never even met Minato or Kushina as far as he knew. How did he figure it out when Kakashi hadn’t?

He sighs and falls into the stool at their counter, “The hokage lifted my ban two weeks before he was set to lift anyone else’s because Naruto was going to be in my class. So I started following Naruto around, just to get a read on him. He was a depressed, lonely, neglected kid who spent more time in Flower District of Konoha than anywhere else, because the women there didn’t always have time for him but they were never cruel to him. They at least understood what it felt like to be unfairly discriminated against. The one house Naruto seemed to spend all his time at was-”

“Madame Koi’s,” Kakashi finishes, because that’s the Madame who Natsu credited with her training and who she visited on off mornings. He’d watched Naruto as a kid, he’d known that he’d spend his days in the Flower District, god he was so stupid –

“Hey,” Iruka grabs at his hand, “Don’t do that to yourself. It was just a hunch.”

“You stumbled over her name when you first met her,” he says, recalling that day in the mission assignment office, “You almost called her Naruto.”

“If I was wrong, then I’d look like an idiot,” he says reasonably, “and if I was right, then Naruto had died to be given the chance to be Natsu. I wasn’t going to take that away from her.”

Just when he thought he couldn’t love Iruka more than he already does. He tugs down his mask and kisses Iruka just like he’s been gone for over a month and he nearly lost one of his most precious people and like Iruka is the type of amazing, caring person that Kakashi didn’t think he’s ever be able to find.

“Excuse me,” Inoichi says acidly, and Kakashi jerks his mask back up before turning to face the five jounin in his kitchen. “But what hell happened?” His eyes catch on Natsu’s hair, and he has to swallow before he can spit out, “Is Natsu really dead?”

Shikaku and Chouza are stand on either side of Inoichi, Anko is leaning against his wall with her arms crossed, and Gai is there too. Gai knows him though, knows he wouldn’t be making out in his kitchen if Natsu were gone.

“You can’t tell anyone this,” he says, “Not the hokage, not your wives, not your comrades, not you kids – well, actually, you can tell your kids because they’re being told the same thing right now. But this is a secret from everyone, do you understand?” he looks them each in the eye, “Natsu’s life depends on.”

At the confirmation she’s still alive Inoichi has to lean on the counter to keep from falling over, but he smiles wide in relief. “I understand,” he says. The other jounin nod in agreement.

Kakashi glances at Iruka before throwing out, “Natsu Nami is also Naruto Uzumaki. He’s been using that name and a genjutsu fueled ninjutsu to alter his appearance for eight years.”

Inoichi’s mouth drops open, “What the fuck?”

“Hm,” Shikaku examines his nails, “shocking.”

Chouza looks to the ceiling, “Who would have guessed?”

“That explains a lot, actually,” Gai admits.

Anko shrugs, “Cool.”

Inoichi whirls around to face his teammates, “You knew?

“I know everything,” Shikaku says, and Inoichi wants to punch him in the face, because it’s just as annoying now as when they were kids.

“Know is such a strong word,” Chouza protests, “I wouldn’t say know. Assumed. Wondered. Postulated.”

“I’ll hit you,” Inoichi threatens.

“You can try,” the other man allows.

Shikaku turns to Chouza, “How did you figure it out? I didn’t know that you knew, actually.”

“I told you both,” he shakes his head at his teammates, “Natsu nearly out ate me at the ramen stand back when she was in the Academy. The only person who’s ever been able to do that is –”

“Kushina Uzumaki,” everyone says at once.

“Exactly,” he grins, “that shit’s genetic, and Kushina and Naruto were the only Uzumakis in Konoha. So Natsu was, probably, Naruto.”

Inoichi glares, “And you didn’t say anything?”

He shrugs, “It’s none of my business if a citizen of Konoha wants to change their gender or go by a different name.”

“True,” Inoichi says through gritted teeth, “except for the small fact that this citizen is THE JINCHUURIKI OF THE NINE TAILED FOX.”

“She’s a seal master,” Gai points out, “It’s not like the fox is getting out unless she lets it out.”

“Would it have changed how you treated her?” Shikaku asks.

Inoichi throws his hands up, “Yes!” He pauses and considers that. Shikaku and Chouza keep their faces blank, which means they’re judging him. He’s never agreed with the people that outright abused the boy, but he’d had some pretty unfair feelings about Naruto and the other containers that hadn’t really gone away until about six months into Natsu’s friendship with Gaara. “All right,” he says grudgingly, “you made the right decision. I’m still pissed about it.”

“None of this,” Shikaku says, “explains why Natsu has faked her own death again. This seems a pretty extreme way to get away from Danzo.”

“Oh, this has nothing to do with Danzo,” Kakashi says brightly. “We really did fight against Zabuza of the Seven Swordsman and his partner, Haku. Naruto made a truce by offering to help them wage a war against Kiri, make Zabuza the mizukage, and kill the majority of the royal family of the Land of Water.”

Anko chokes. Gai pounds on her back, which sends her stumbling into Chouza.

“What,” Shikaku says flatly.

Iruka rubs at his temples as if warding off a headache. Inoichi flings out his hand, and Kakashi agreeably places the bottle of sake into it. The clan head starts chugging.

“Anything interesting happen while I was gone?” Kakashi asks.

Gai taps his chin, “Well, Hinata and Hanabi decided that instead of trying to detangle the chakra knot blocking Hinata’s gate it would be easier to remove the Curse Mark off of every Branch member instead. Hiashi hasn’t found out yet.”

Inoichi coughs and spits out the sake. Kakashi can’t even bring himself to be mad about it.

“I didn’t know that either,” Shikaku frowns. He turns to Chouza, “I think I’m losing my touch.”

“If it helps, I’d bet money on your son knowing about it,” the Akimichi head offers.

Kakashi regrets coming home. Konoha burning to the ground or not, he should have gone with Natsu. Starting a war with Kiri seems like it would be better for his blood pressure.

~

So they hadn’t actually cleared telling Teams Eight and Nine about Naruto, but Kiba had made the executive decision to tell them because if they didn’t tell Hanabi, when she found out that they didn’t tell her later she’d kill them. And Hanabi will tell Hinata who will tell Shino and she’d tell Neji who’d tell his teammates, and the point is that it’s just easier to cut out the middle man.

Which leaves them with all the other genin plus Hana and Kabuto looking at them dumbfounded when they finish explaining about Naruto.

Kabuto is rhythmically hitting his head against the wall. “She’s so stupid,” he moans. He doesn’t know what Orochimaru-sama is going to make of this at all.

“He’s so stupid,” Hana corrects, rubbing at her temples like it will make Naruto’s actions make any sense.

“Either works, actually,” Sakura says.

“This is the dumbest thing Naruto or Natsu has ever done,” Kabuto declares, “and that’s saying a lot.”

No one really has anything to say against that. He’s right.

~

They’ve been traveling for about a week, getting closer and closer to the cities when Naruto decides that they need to try to appear a little less noticeable. “Except you,” he says to Zabuza, “you’re past hope.”

The missing-nin rolls his eyes, “Thanks.”

Which leads to Naruto teaching Gaara the Oiroke no Jutsu and dragging both him and Haku shopping while Zabuza goes off hopefully not to kill anyone, and more than likely going to a bar.

“I don’t like all the space between my legs,” a now female Gaara informs them while twirling around in a bright blue dress, “Can’t I wear leggings like you used to?” Female Gaara actually looks a lot like male Gaara, except that his eyes are a much darker shade of green and his proportions are decidedly more feminine.

“Sure,” Naruto shrugs. He’d gotten his clothes first since his are the easiest – he’s just wearing dark blue and purple pants and black long sleeves. He can hide weapons under it, since they’re supposed to be posing as civilians. The colors are close enough to the Konoha under uniform while still being Water Country colors that he doesn’t feel like a total traitor. “I think mine might fit you, actually. We just need to get you some tunics. Blue ones.”

“Something sleeveless. And light,” Gaara tugs at his color, exposing probably too much cleavage to be decent. Even in the relatively ventilated shop he’s still sweating.

“You got it,” Naruto grins, “Haku, how are you doing?”

“I don’t believe this is necessary,” he calls from the dressing room. “People mistake me for a woman all the time. They do not need help.”

“Haku, get out of here,” he says. He can hear the boy sigh from behind the door before he steps out. He’s in one of the light traditional kimono’s he favors, but this one is cut slightly differently. While the kimonos he normally wears are cut to emphasize his waist and frame so as it make it clear that this is a man’s body underneath the kimono, this one is subtly looser to give Haku the illusion of a waist and breasts. “It looks nice,” he smiles.

Haku crosses his arms, “Does it need to be blue? I like – pink. Or red. I don’t like blue.”

“The point is to blend in,” Naruto says, and he can tell he’s walking on thin ice right now but he can’t imagine why. “Two women, a man, and a teenage boy attract a lot less attention that a man and three teenage boys. I’d be walking around as Natsu, except that if anyone recognizes me we’re screwed.”

“I understand,” Haku says, but he won’t look at either of them. Gaara raises an eyebrow at Naruto before going back into the changing room.

He goes up to Haku and hesitantly lays a hand on his arm, “Haku, what’s wrong? I thought you liked feminine stuff.”

“I do,” he bites out, eyes to the ground, “but I’m not a girl. I’m a man. I just like – kimonos and pink and all that stuff. But I’m still a man.”

“Of course you are,” Naruto says, confused, “Gaara currently has breasts and a vagina and he’s still a man. He’s just pretending to be a woman. It’s not like me – when I look like a woman it’s because I am one.”

Haku looks up at from out of his lashes and says quietly, “Zabuza doesn’t like women.”

Naruto blinks, because he’d seemed to get along with both Sakura and Tsunami just fine, but then it clicks. “Oh,” he says, “and you – like Zabuza?”

“If you tell him,” he says quietly, “I will stab a senbon through you’re eyeball.”

Ew. “I’m not going to tell him!” Naruto swears. The age difference is kind of weird, but he’s definitely seen weirder. Haku’s like seventeen, and Zabuza is in his early twenties, so in a decade or so it won’t even seem weird at all. “How about you wear your normal kimonos, and we’ll just get a blue jacket for you to wear on top?” He hesitates, because Haku doesn’t need it, but after this conversation he thinks he might want it, “I can do your make up too, if that’s okay. I don’t wear it much myself, but I know how to put it on.”

Haku still looks hesitant, but he nods once and Naruto grins.

That night they’re all cramped together in the hotel room they’re sharing, Gaara back to male form because he can only keep the Oiroke going about half a day if he still wants enough chakra ready to fight. Gaara is watching, interested in this new thing because his sister has never once worn make up in her life.

Naruto’s got a bunch of small pots and brushes lined up beside him, just like when he’s going to do complicated sealing. “Stay still,” he tells Haku sternly, sitting on his heels in front of him. He’s not painting Haku up to be a geisha, so he bypasses the white paint entirely. Actually, the point is to keep Haku looking like Haku, so he ignores the traditional techniques he’d been taught to soften and feminize a face. Instead he applies the blush in even line down his cheekbones to draw the eye to the sharpness of his jaw, and brushes shimmering powder along the crease of his eyes. He forgoes the harsh black for a deep brown, and delicately outlines Haku’s eyes. He deliberates a moment picking the lip color, because he always, always chooses plum for himself, but he doesn’t think that’s what Haku wants. He settles on a pink only a few shades darker than the Kiri shinobi’s lips, and swipes it on.

“There!” he says, and holds up a mirror for Haku’s inspection. With the light contouring, Haku somehow looks even more masculine even with shaded lips and cheeks. Haku leans closer to the mirror and reaches out as if to touch his reflection. He looks up to Naruto, and the small smile he gets is possibly the sweetest thing he’s seen since they began this journey.

Gaara twists to get a closer look at Haku. “I like the eyeliner,” he says, “it makes your eyes look really big.”

“Do you want me to put some on you?” Naruto offers, and there’s a little thrill in his chest. First everyone hated him, and then he was in and out of the Academy in year, and he never really got the chance to have sleepovers. He was taught makeup by masters at their craft, all the gorgeous women in Madame Koi’s parlor, but he hasn’t played with it just for fun before.

Gaara frowns, but nods, “Kankuro wears paint on his face,” he says reasonably, “There’s no reason I can’t as well.” Naruto goes straight for the blackest black for Gaara, and it only takes a couple strokes for him to outline Gaara’s mint green eyes in khol. He turns his face from side to side in the mirror. “I like it,” he decides, “Thank you, Naruto.”

He beams, and he’s just about to see if Haku will let him play with his hair when their door bangs open and then Zabuza kicks it shut behind him.

“Hey,” he rumbles, making a beeline for his bed. Haku turns his face away in an attempt to keep the older man from seeing, but Zabuza pauses next to them. He’s definitely been to the bar, and Naruto’s breathe catches in his throat. This absolutely has the potential to end terribly. Zabuza tilts Haku’s face up to look at him properly and cocks his head to the side. Haku is already half cringing away, waiting for the reprimand. “Nice,” he says, and sweeps his hand up Haku’s cheek to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear.

Then he leaves and collapses on top of his covers, snoring before his head even hits the pillow.

Well, it could have gone worse. He turns to Haku, ready to comfort the older boy, but he’s beaming. “Can you do my makeup again in the morning?” he whispers, although it seems like nothing short of a full scale attack would wake Zabuza, “And teach me how to do it myself?”

“Sure,” he agrees, giving up on understanding their relationship completely. As long as Haku is happy, he guesses when he thinks of it doesn’t matter all that much.

Although. He wonders who taught Haku to second guess and be ashamed of himself. In spite of appearances, it doesn’t seem like it was Zabuza. They all quietly get ready for bed after that. Naruto shifts to Natsu, because if he can’t walk around as woman he’s going to sleep as one, and as she’s drifting off Natsu touches her lips and wonders what Sasuke is doing right now.

~

“Please stop hitting me,” Kiba says plaintively, “it’s not my fault that your girlfriend went off on an insane suicide mission.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Sasuke grunts, “and I wouldn’t be hitting you if you were better at dodging.”

“Boyfriend, whatever,” he scoffs, “and the Sharingan is an unfair advantage!”

“Because your opponents will play fair?” he mocks.

Kiba sighs, “Well, they probably won’t have the Sharingan.”

“Unless you face Sasuke’s brother,” Sakura points out, nose buried in an anatomy book.

He stares, “If I face Itachi Uchiha I’m dead no matter what.”

Sakura props her chin on her hand, “If Kakashi-sensei and Itachi fought, who do you think would win?”

All three of them look over to their sensei, who’s either snoozing against the tree or at the very least giving the appearance of doing so.

“I want to say Itachi,” Kiba says, “for obvious reasons, but you never know with Kakashi. They do call him a genius for a reason.”

“He’s next in line for the hokage position,” Sasuke says, and understands completely when his teammates throw him twin looks of horror. “Yeah.”

“How do you know that?” Kiba asks. “That can’t be accurate.”

“Shikamaru told me,” which means it’s probably true. “If it happens, we can probably defect to Kiri.”

“Except that if he’s made hokage, Kakashi-sensei will probably defect too,” Sakura says.

Sasuke sighs and glances at Kakashi. Clearly the man doesn’t want to do any real training either. “How are the new puppies?” he asks Kiba.

Sakura lights up, “We haven’t seen them in so long! Paru was so little last time I visited, can we go play with them?”

“Please stop referring to him as Paru. That means pearl, you know.” He says, pained, because the puppy has grown from fitting in the palm of his hand to nearly his waist, and he’s the most spirit-touched dog his family has seen in generations. They’re not going to call him Pearl.

“Well, he responds do it,” Sakura says, “If he didn’t like the name he wouldn’t answer to it. Can we go visit? Please Kiba?”

Kiba can either bring his teammates to play in the kennels, or continue to let Sasuke throw sharp objects at him as stress relief. “Absolutely,” he says.

~

Sai has heard the rumors, but the thing about the seal connecting him to Natsu is that it works both ways. He’d nearly has a heart attack during those few minutes when he couldn’t sense her chakra through the seal, but it’s thrumming strong right now. So he knows for a fact that Natsu is alive.

Danzo doesn’t though, and Sai is disturbed by how irritated the elder is at the girl’s supposed death.

“He’s looking into the last Uchiha’s remaining companions,” Tera tells him when he asks about it, giving the young operative a strange look.

So he’s after Sasuke somehow? Or a way to manipulate him.

The Uchiha Clan, as one of the founding clans of Konoha, still holds a seat at the Council regardless of it only officially containing one member. If Sasuke were to take that seat for some reason –

He needs to get a look at the political makeup of the current Council. He has a feeling, somehow, that it’s about split right down the middle in terms of those Danzo controls and those he doesn’t.

~

Ren’s father had been a merchant, and she’d grown up with the idea that running your own business meant long hours and a lot of hard work. She’d wanted to be like her father her whole life, managing money and people and sitting on top of it all.

Even after he’d been killed by bandits on a routine caravan inspection and she’d been shuffled from spoiled heiress to a life she hadn’t planned on living, she hadn’t given up on that dream. It’s not quite the same as being a silk trader, but she’s proud of what she’s accomplished.

Becoming a Madame at the age of twenty one is no joke. She’s the youngest in Water Country, and it’s because she was good at what she did. That being said, her feet are killing her, so when three men enter her establishment and she only has two girls free right now, she hopes she can do her work on her knees. She deserves a pedicure or something. She could ask Ume to take two of them, but the sweet, flexible girl wasn’t the best at multi-tasking and always got confused and distracted when she had to service two clients at once.

Of course, that all flies out of her head when the largest of them shift and she catches sight of a fourth man. The cute blonde holds himself with the same loose, easy grace that she demands of all of her own employees.

He’s a trained courtesan, although he doesn’t seem to be employed by any of the other men. He meets her eyes and grins, “You catch on quick, huh?”

“I can’t know what you mean,” she says pleasantly, “How might I accommodate, Sirs?”

The two younger men blanch, as if just realizing what they’ve stepped into. So innocent. Maybe Ume could handle the two of them. The large man crosses his arms.

The blonde shakes his head and tugs down the band on his pants. Tattooed on his hip is a small white and orange fish.

“You’re Koi trained?” she demands, dropping her persona completely. “Do you want a job? I’ll pay you double whatever you’re making with them.” She gestures to his companions. The redhead turns the same color as his hair and the large one laughs out loud.

“My name is Naruto,” he grins, “I’m not looking for a job, but thank you. Unfortunately, I never completed my training.”

She narrows her eyes. There are roughly a dozen or so Madame Kois spread out across the elemental nations, and those tattoos aren’t given out lightly. A Koi trained worker can walk into any brothel and be offered premium pay. The current Daiymo requires his mistresses to be Koi workers. From what she’s heard, it’s a waste of talent. For being such a violent dick in regards to everything else, his sexual appetite is fairly vanilla. Last she knew, his current girl, Tatsu, had rocked his world by introducing him to blindfolds.

Such a waste.

There is one other way to receive a Koi tattoo. The Koi brothels are old, they’ve been around for a long, long time. Longer than some countries, in fact.

“You’re a shinobi,” she says. The original Madame Koi ran one school of training, but at the end there were two different paths her students could choose – that of a courtesan, or that of an assassin.

Naruto grins, “I’m glad the rumors about you weren’t exaggerating.”

“What do you want?” she juts her chin out, “Where are you from?”

“We’re kind of from all over,” he leans into her space, grinning, and she’s not Koi but she’s no slouch either, and if he tries something she can think of four different ways to snap his neck from this position. “What we want is information, information I’ve been told you have.”

“What sort of information?” she asks, and this is a lot trickier than dealing with normal shinobi. With them, it’s all the case of giving in to the highest bidder, but she’s not about to cross a courtesan with the type of connections a Koi has.  

Naruto leans in and delicately sweeps Ren’s hair away and over her shoulder so he can whisper in her ear, “We’re going to take Kiri. You in?”

She jerks back to look him in the eye, because he can’t be serious. He is though, and she feels an answering grin stretching across her own face. If these boys succeed, they’ll owe her a big favor.

Growing a business is all about taking calculated risks.

“I’m in,” she says.

~

One of the many downsides of being the last of his clan is that when using the Sharingan gives him splitting headaches he has no one to turn to for advice. Kakashi is of no use at all, because he also has no idea to make of the shapes his pupils make in his Sharingan, and the only person who can answer these questions is deep undercover in a terrorist organization.

Sasuke doesn’t think he’s ever missed his brother more than when he’s curled up with a migraine he’s sure Itachi would know how to fix. He’s supposed to meet his team for dinner, but he can’t even make himself move right now.

He wakes up hours later, and he’s disoriented enough that it takes him a moment to figure out his head is in Sakura’s lap as soothing waves of healing chakra ease the pounding behind his eyes. “This isn’t sustainable,” his teammate whispers, “We need to figure this out.”

Akamaru is curled up around his legs, the dog’s head heavy on his hip. It’s more comforting than he wants to admit.

“How?” he groans.

Kiba plops down in front of his line of sight, and he hadn’t known he was there. Now these headaches were even messing with his chakra sensitivity. “I know you haven’t been there since everything happened,” Kiba says seriously, “but we need to look through your family’s files.”

Sasuke closes his eyes, because those types of files will be in his father’s office. He hasn’t allowed anyone to step inside of it since the massacre.

Kiba reaches out and grips Sasuke’s hand like he can siphon out his pain and take it onto himself if he just squeezes hard enough.

“Okay,” Sasuke agrees.

He wishes Naruto was here.

~

They’re all stay in Madame Ren’s home in exchange for Naruto giving her girls lessons in balance and control of one’s body. He’s reluctantly impressed – for a woman who wasn’t born into this industry, she’s done an amazing job in training her women and keeping her house in order. 

There’s something inside Naruto that wants to just run into Kiri blind and get it over with as soon as possible so he can go home. The rest of him that actually wants to live long enough to return to Konoha knows that this is stupid, but he can still dream.

So he splits his mornings between training the four women under Ren’s employ and pouring over the files of information the Madame has on Kiri (holy shit is Ren a thorough information gatherer, Jiraiya could take some tips from her). Naruto knows the patrol patterns and guards from his last mission, but he doesn’t know the people, doesn’t know who will resist them or who will join them, or any of that. At nights when Ren is busy servicing her customers he, Gaara, Haku and Zabuza go out to ocean’s edge and train hard because they don’t have the luxury of training long, and do so until they’re too exhausted to move.

He knows that this information gathering that they’re doing is important, that it’s necessary, but the longer they stay at Madame Ren’s the more he wants to tear his hair out. Of course, he regrets his wish for a little excitement two weeks into their stay when two of the girls, Kokoro and Cho, get bored and kidnap Haku for what they consider to be a little bit of harmless fun.

He stumbles upon them in the upper living room, the one where customers aren’t allowed, and he has to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from laughing. Not because Haku looks ridiculous or anything like that, the girls have actually done a fabulous job, it’s just that the older boy looks so blatantly miserable. “Good morning ladies, Haku,” he greets, tucking his hands behind his back. “Are you having fun?”

“Tons!” Kokoro says enthusiastically.

“We had to promise to help him bake a cake or something if he let us do this,” Cho adds, carefully pinning the last of Haku’s hair up. “We definitely weren’t spying on you guys while you were training so we definitely didn’t see his powers and pick out his outfit accordingly.”

“Help me,” Haku begs.

Cho smacks him in the shoulder, “This is fun, Haku. Have fun!”

“You do look really pretty,” Naruto says earnestly. “Where did you get the clothes?”

Haku’s in a pale blue kimono with snowflakes stitched on it, but it only comes down to mid-thigh. It also clearly wasn’t made with Haku’s shoulders in mind, because the neck is gaped open to his sternum to accommodate them. He’s got dark blue pants on under it, and it’s all just a touch too flowy to fight it, but Naruto has to admit it does look good, especially with the ornaments in Haku’s hair. Cho has piled it all on top of his head in an intricate bun that’s being kept together with a handful of jeweled hairpins so it looks like his hair is littered with diamonds.

“The kimono is mine,” Kokoro says, “It hasn’t fit me in about a decade, but it was so pretty I never wanted to get rid of it. The pants are Taki’s. She hates dresses, she doesn’t wear them unless she’s working.”

Haku’s been doing his makeup on his own since Naruto showed him how, but his face has been done up in slightly different colors, darker and more dramatic than the more subtle look the older boy prefers.

“All done!” Cho says, jumping back to admire all their hard work.

Kokoro holds up a medium sized mirror in front of Haku, far enough back that he can see himself in his entirely. He raises a hand to his hair, lightly touching the sparkling jewels. His face softens and he looks to Kokoro and Cho, “Thank you.”

Cho beams and bumps shoulders with Kokoro, “We should all go out to dinner or something, he’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.”

“That sounds great!” Naruto says enthusiastically, “There’s this really nice ramen place-”

The girls groans and Haku rolls his eyes. “Ramen?” Zabuza says, ducking into the room, “I could go for ramen.”

He looks up, right at Haku, and he freezes. Haku locks his hands together behind his back, but smiles hopefully at the older man. Zabuza slowly looks Haku up and down, and swallows. Haku’s smile dims. “Master Zabuza?”

That snaps him out of it. He turns on his heel and stalks out, slamming the door shut behind him.

Haku’s face crumples. Kokoro and Cho stare after the man who they’ve known to be nothing but perfectly polite to them. “What was that about?” Kokoro demands.

He swallows, “I don’t – I’ll just,” he yanks out one of the diamond pins he’d been so entranced by moments before.

Before he can do any more damage, Cho’s hand snaps out and grabs his wrist. “Don’t you dare! You’re not ruining my work just because Zabuza is being an asshole!” She tugs the pin out of Haku’s hand and stands beside him, carefully putting his hair back in place, “Now stay still.”

Haku nods, but the look on his face is pure misery. Naruto finds himself walking out the door after Zabuza, and by the time he’s realized he shouldn’t get involved he’s also realized he doesn’t care.

~

Fuck. Shit. He can’t bust out his sword while being surrounded by civilians, he can’t even go to a bar to start a fight because they’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, and he just wants to punch something until he stops hating himself.

“Hey!” Zabuza closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, turning to face the younger shinobi. Naruto glares up at him and demands, “What was that about?”

He shrugs.

The boy growls and jerks him down the street into a narrow ally, and Zabuza lets him because as much as he doesn’t want to have this conversation at all, he definitely doesn’t want to have it in the middle of a crowded street. “Seriously, why are you being a dick? Was it the jewelry? You don’t care about the makeup or the dresses, but jewelry is what you decide to be an asshole about?”

“I like the jewelry,” he says.

Naruto throws up his hands, “Then what’s wrong? You have to know Haku thinks the world of you, he cares about what you think more than anything else, you can’t just brush him off like that and –”

He doesn’t realized he’s punched through the alley wall until he’s got brick up to his wrist and blood running down his arm. He pulls his hand out with a grunt and shakes off the bits of brick stuck into his skin. “I like the jewelry,” he repeats mulishly, “Makes it look like he’s got snow in his hair, like when the sun’s reflecting off it all nice and shit.”

Naruto freezes and stares at him for an uncomfortably long moment before bursting out with “You’re in love with him too!”

“Too?” he repeats dangerously, and he needs to get over himself, because somehow the red hot flash of jealousy is overriding his need to deny it. “Who else is in love with him?”

“No one!” he shakes his head, “I meant – that he – don’t worry about it, forget I said anything.” He hesitates, then barrels on, “No wait, never mind, are you an idiot? You’d have to be deaf and blind not to see how he feels about you!”

Zabuza crosses his arms, and now he’s got blood all over his shirt, great. This day keeps getting better and better. “He’s just a kid.”

Naruto punches him in the arm, and fuck, the kid is strong when he wants to be. “When you were his age you defected from Kiri! You TOOK HIM WITH YOU! You knew what you wanted then. Has any of that changed?”

He swallows. “It’s pretty messed up,” he says finally, “to raise a kid for seven years and then fuck him. I kill the type of people that do that shit. For free. I don’t do anything for free.”

“Except raise a kid for seven years,” the blonde points out wryly.

He snorts, “You think I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of Haku? He’s the best ninja I’ve ever seen. He’s going to be stronger than me in a few years.”

“And you’re trying to tell me you knew that when he was ten? A hungry, hurt orphan with no training and no family, who flinched at every shadow? Bullshit. You saw a kid who was hurt and alone and who had been betrayed by the very village you had cast aside, and you took him in. You weren’t grooming him. I’ve seen that shit, all right? Not all of Flower District works above the board. You’re saying that you spent seven years having another person depend on you to get someone to fuck?” Naruto slams his hands against Zabuza’s chest, but this time he doesn’t do it to hurt, “You’re not that type of person! You’re the type of person who turns a hurt orphan into the best ninja you’ve ever seen! Even though you were from Kiri and you knew he had a bloodline limit!”

Zabuza stares, because somehow the brat that didn’t even cry when he stuck a sword through his gut or when he had to leave his boyfriend and friends behind has tears in his eyes, and he’s in no way shape or form prepared to deal with this kid’s mental breakdown. He was in the middle of his own, actually.

He hesitantly places a hand on top of Naruto’s head, and the boy sniffles. “You were taught to hate him,” he whispers, “You were alone and the goddamn Demon of the Mist and if you’d killed him no one would have blamed you, and you saved him instead. You’ve never asked him to be anything else than what he is, and,” he hiccups, “I had to die to get what you give Haku freely, do you get that? I would have done anything for someone to save me, but I had to save myself instead. Its fine, it all worked out fine, I got Itachi-senpai and Kakashi-niichan and Sasuke and everyone else, but don’t – don’t underestimate – don’t lie to yourself. It makes perfect sense to fall in love with the person that saved you, okay?”

Zabuza lets Naruto hide his face in his chest and finally says, “Are you talking about me or Haku?”

“What?” Naruto mumbles, wiping at his eyes.

“He saved me too you know,” he shrugs.

Naruto smacks his head against the Kiri ninja. “Please go talk to Haku.”

“If I do will you stop crying?” he counters, “You’re ruining my shirt.”

He looks up, and his eyes are red but dry. “It’s already covered in blood,” he grins, “It can’t get worse, right?”

Zabuza’s tempted to tell the kid that it can always get worse, but then he’ll start thinking he’s superstitious or some shit, but really he’s just practical.

They head back, Naruto doing a handstand on his shoulders like they’re fucking friends or something. He flips off when they enter the parlor, landing gracefully next to Ren who doesn’t bat an eyelash.

When he enters the living room, it’s to Kokoro tugging on Haku’s hand and begging, “Come on, just a couple drinks, it’ll be a lot of fun!”

“People will give you a lot of respect with us on your arms,” Cho says confidently, “We don’t come cheap, and Ren has a reputation of servicing the best clients.”

Haku’s got that blank look on his face that makes Zabuza want to go back to what’s left of that shitty village he got him from and burn it to the ground.

“Scram,” he commands.

Cho and Kokoro turn to face him but don’t make a move to leave, glaring at him like he murdered their mothers or something.

Fucking whores. Regular civilians never give him this much shit. 

“Please?” he adds, because between what he’s about to do and that goddamn brat slobbering all over him in the alley, it’s not like he’s got any reputation left to lose.

The girls glance at each other, fucking considering, and then look to Haku. His boy won’t look at him as he says, “Please excuse us.”

They brush past him, and if looks could kill, jeez. He steps over to Haku, hands shoved into his pockets. “I’m sorry, Master Zabuza,” Haku says, fiddling with the sleeves of his kimono, “I didn’t mean–”

“Don’t call me that anymore,” he interrupts. Haku’s eyes widen, and fuck, that’s not what he meant. He sighs and gently cups the side Haku’s face, rubbing his thumb against the soft skin of his cheek. His boy’s eyes are filled with hurt and confusion, and that more than anything is reason not to do this, he’s slaughtered friends and lovers and he’s never been anything but a killer. But that damn Konoha shinobi wants him to be a leader, so maybe he can learn to be something more than he’s been for Haku’s sake too. “If we’re going to do this, I don’t want you calling me that. Wouldn’t be right.”

“Doing what?” Haku asks, but he’s smart, so he knows. He reaches up and trails his fingers along the bandages covering Zabuza’s face, feather light touches that he can’t even really feel.

He jerks his bandages down so they’re hanging around his neck and tilts Haku’s face up. He gives it a second, and his boy is the fasted shinobi he knows, it’s more than enough time for him to move if this isn’t what he wants. He doesn’t, isn’t even breathing when Zabuza slots their mouths together.

Zabuza has done his best to teach Haku about violence and fear and power, but if this thing is something he’s going to teach the younger man too, then he doesn’t want Haku to learn it the same way he did. He moves slowly, cradles Haku’s hips in his hands, and let’s his boy lean into him and explore, tries to give without taking.

Then something snaps in Haku, and his hands are locked behind Zabuza’s neck as he pulls him down and pulls him closer, firming and committing to the gentle touches they’d started with.

“Okay?” he asks roughly, licking the paint from his lips that had transferred from Haku’s mouth.

Haku smiles, small and sweet and the only bit of redemption Zabuza has ever had and ever needed. He pulls him closer again, and like in all other things he’s a fast learner in this too, so Zabuza opens his mouth under him, lets Haku take what he wants, and prays to every god he’s forsaken that he doesn’t fuck this up.

~

Naruto, Ume, Kokoro, and Cho lean up against the door, ears pressed to it. “Where’s a Hyuuga when you need one?” Naruto moans, “Gaara, please, won’t you-”

“Absolutely not,” he glares, standing over by Ren for protection. The Madame isn’t acknowledging any of them, more concerned with going over her profits for the last quarter. “If I use the Sand Eye then I’m the one that has to see it. No thank you!”

“Spoilsport,” Ume mutters, pressing her body up against the door like she can meld through it if she tries hard enough.

Taki walks in, soaked and clothes clinging to her from her swim in the ocean.

Ren points at her without looking up, “Don’t drip on the carpet.”

“Oh, right,” she strips off her shirt and uses it mop up excess water, “Why is everyone creeping at the door?”

Gaara whimpers and smacks his hands over his eyes. Taki is a very beautiful woman who apparently doesn’t believe in undergarments. When his siblings sent him on a mission to start and win a war, he’s certain that this wasn’t what they had in mind.

~

“We have a problem,” Hanabi says after shushining into Team Nine’s training, dodging Lee’s attack that she’d just appeared in front of and subduing him with a half-Lion’s Leap.

Neji almost puffs up with pride. She didn’t have the upper body strength to pull off that move a few months ago, and now she does it without breaking a sweat. He taught her how to do that. It’s oddly satisfying. “What do you need, Hanabi-hime?”

She frowns, eyes flickering across his teammates but settling on his sensei. “You know it’s five at night right? And since you start at dawn that’s almost thirteen hours of training. And you know they’ve been training with us at night. When exactly are they sleeping?”

Gai grins and strikes his Good Guy pose, “Your concern for your comrades is most touching, my sweet Konoha blossom!”

“We’ve been taking five hour breaks to go home and nap,” Tenten explains. “So we train from four to ten, break from ten to three, and then train again until seven. Then we catch dinner, meet you guys for another three hours at eight, and we’re in bed at eleven.”

Hanabi stares, “Have you considered just starting training later and getting a full night’s rest?”

“Rising with the sun is a sign of our youthful fire!” Lee says, rubbing at his shoulder. “Your grasp on chakra system disruption is much improved. Your progress speaks well of the will of fire inside of you!”

“You don’t go back to the Compound do you?” Hanabi asks Neji, “That would look suspicious.”

“Of course not,” he says, affronted, “I’ve been going to Lee and Tenten’s place and sleeping on their couch.”

For some reason that makes Hanabi glare at his teammate, “You two live together?”

“Yes,” Tenten says, and as soon as his cousin leaves he’s going to make his Tenten explain what she finds so funny about this, because right this second he’s just confused. “We split a two bedroom, since we’re both clanless orphans and all. It’s cheaper than if we paid for two studios.”

That’s mollifies his cousin somewhat, and he still doesn’t even know what she was pissed about in the first place. Then again, sometimes Hanabi is just in a bad mood because of the weather or what she ate for breakfast. “What’s the problem?” he asks.

She looks to Gai, “Are you still pretending you don’t know what’s going on?”

“THIS SEEMS LIKE A MOST APPROPRIATE TIME TO TEST THE STRENGTH OF MY YOUTH BY RUNNING A LAP AROUND KONOHA!” He sprints off, soon nothing more than a green dot in the distance.

“The thing that keeps me up at night,” Hanabi says, pained, “is that he’s actually one of our top jounin, he truly is a genius.”

“Messed up, right?” Tenten grins.

“Something like that,” she sighs, “Since Nami isn’t going to be back in the village for who knows how long, we need to figure out what to do with the Branch members who can’t have their seal removed. Hinata is improving in leaps and bounds, but having the base matrix still attached to chakra coils is still taking it’s toll.”

“I could try to burn it off,” Tenten sighs, “It’s a lot less of a strain on their systems than unraveling and tugging it out, but I don’t have large chakra reserves. It’ll take me over a month per seal to burn it out. At best.”

Lee frowns, “That would be quite a strain of your formidable strength, my most youthful teammate.”

Hanabi shakes her head, “It would take too long, and leave you severely compromised in the meanwhile. That’s not an option. However, those seals weren’t even originally held by Hinata, but by our father. Can you transfer them again?”

Tenten blinks, and her eyes glaze over while she tries to work out. “Maybe? I’ve done seal transfers before. Who are you going to get it transferred to? It’ll have to be another Hyuuga. The main seal has a blood sealing aspect to it, and kids that haven’t started the Academy yet are your best bet. You only have two in Main House right now, right?”

“That’s correct,” Hanabi nods, “but I’m not going to move the core of the Curse Marks to another member of the Main House. I’m going to give it back to the Branch house.” She looks to Neji, “I’m going to need you to speak with Isamu’s parents again. If he and they are willing, I want him to take on the core.”

“Isamu?” Neji repeats numbly.

“Yes,” she frowns, “Do you have someone else in mind? He’s a little old, but his chakra coils are basically untouched. And when the strain starts warping them, he won’t ever be really effected since he’s not going to be a ninja. Not like Hinata is. If he changes his mind about his profession then we’ll just move the core again, although to be honest at that point I’m hoping we won’t have Curse Marks at all.”

Neji shakes his head. She keeps on surprising him. “Hiashi will be upset if he realizes you’ve taken the power of the Curse Mark away from the Main House and given it the Branch House. It was his grandfather that made the decision to use Curse Marks in the first place.”

She rolls her eyes, “If I get caught at this point I’ve already done so much damage to the Hyuuga system and laws that he’ll have me beheaded. It’s not like I can make it any worse.”

~

“This is bad.”

Kiba smacks his head down on the desk, sending up a cloud of dust. Sasuke sneezes. “Don’t say that,” he moans.

Sakura rolls her eyes and nudges Kiba out of the way so she can lay the scroll out, “Look, I think Sasuke activated his Mangekyo Sharingan.”

“My what?” he squishes in on Kiba’s other side to get a closer look.

“It’s the next stage,” she explains, “but only eight Uchiha have ever unlocked it.” There’s a list of names with sketches of different Sharingan eyes next them, and Sasuke trails his fingers over them. “It says that it’s unlocked by the guilt of killing the person closest to you.”

Sasuke flushes bright red. Kiba elbows him, “Natsu dying wasn’t your fault, you know. She made the choice to save you.”

“Just like Itachi made the choice that killing our whole family with his own hands was preferable to watching me die,” he snaps, “I’m getting sick of the people I care about deciding my life is more valuable than theirs.”

Kiba grins, “Well I’m not about to jump off any cliffs for you. I’ve seen you in battle, you’re on your own.”

“What he said,” Sakura adds.

Sasuke rolls his eyes, and pretends that that’s not actually comforting.

“How often have you been using the Sharingan?” she asks.

“Not often,” he rubs at his forehead, “The headaches get worse when I do.”

“The increased strain is probably because you skipped straight to Mangekyo. The others had all mastered the Sharingan by the time they got their Mangekyo. Your eyes are deteriorating,” she says seriously, “It’s not fast, according to this it takes about a decade of use for the effects to really start. But eventually you’ll go blind from it.”

“And there’s no way to stop it?” he demands.

“No,” she admits, “but these are private files, and it’s not like Uchiha are known for their healing. Organ deterioration is a common ailment, and there are a handful of medic-nin who can regenerate them. One of them should know.”

Kiba sighs, “I’ll talk to Hana and Kabuto.”

“Can they do it?” Sasuke blinks. “I didn’t think they were that skilled. No offence.”

“Hana isn’t,” Kiba allows, “at least not yet. Kabuto likes to play dumb. He’s been at Tsunade’s level for years now.”

“And he’s not running that hospital why?” Sakura scowls.

He shrugs, “A chronic fear of responsibility? The Hospital Head and the freaking hokage forced the promotion of chunin on him when he was sixteen.”

“Yikes,” Sakura says, frowning as she taps the scroll. “Hey Sasuke?” He raises an eyebrow. “The Mangekyo is supposedly caused by the guilt of killing your best friend, or at least feeling responsible for it, right? So don’t you think the guilt of killing your whole family with your own hands would do the trick too?”

“You think Itachi has the Mangekyo?” Sasuke blinks.

She nods, “And if he got it that night, that means he’s had it for six years. That’s a lot of damage.”

Kiba rubs the back of his neck as Sasuke’s face goes horribly blank. “One crisis at a time, okay? We need to figure out a way to stop your super cool new bloodline limit from hurting you. Then we’ll find a way to help your brother.” He squeezes Sasuke’s shoulder, “I promise.”

He forces himself to smile back and lets Sakura and Kiba pull him along behind them.

~

Baki knows that Gaara can take care of himself, knows that there are very few people on earth who can harm the boy. That doesn’t mean he’s not furious when he finds out where his siblings have sent him.

“Natsu Nami is dead,” he hisses, “and at this rate Gaara is sure to follow.”

“Don’t be naïve, Sensei,” Temari says patronizingly as she elegantly dodges his attacks in a way that reminds him very much of the Leaf brat. “Natsu is as dead as I’m sure Gaara has been captured by the Akatsuki.”

He pauses, and the brilliant insanity of his kids’ plan unfolds before him. Maybe she does deserve to be Kazekage. However that moment of thought costs him when Temari roundhouse kicks him in the face.

“Get up!” She glares down at him, “I need to train more! I have to be better!”

“We’ve already been at it for twelve hours,” he groans, rubbing at his jaw. “More than enough time training by anyone’s standards.” Besides, now he has a headache.

“No!” She slides kunai from her sleeves, “Gaara is out there, risking his life and starting a war to help me get this position. I need to be better! I won’t risk my little brother’s life in vain.”

Well, when she puts it like that. He hauls himself to his feet and tosses a barrage of shuriken at her, stepping in to put her in a chokehold.

She counteracts him and tosses him over her shoulder like a bag of flour, then spins on her heel to catch Kankuro mid leap and knee him in the groin.

He’s sure once he stop seeing double he’ll find it in himself to be proud of her.

~

It’s barely dawn, so most of the girls’ last clients are just leaving. He’s pouring over Ren’s files again, but he’s still surprised when she walks into her office, knotting a silk robe around her. “I thought you’d go right to bed,” he says, kicking out a chair beside him. She curls up in it, resting her chin on her knees with her dark hair making mess around her.

“My last client was easy,” she yawns, “He’s into somnophilia. I got to spend half the session pretending to be asleep.”

“That doesn’t make up for actually sleeping you know,” he scolds. He puts the file on her desk and uses a quick jutsu that he may or may not have learned from Sasuke to boil the water for tea.

She groans and shuffles the chair closer to her desk, reaching for her accounting book and placing it on her knees. “I still haven’t finished balancing the financials. Taki’s helping put her brother through med school, and her parents came up short, so she asked for a substantial advance. I want to give it to her, she brings in a lot of business from repressed nobles, but the spring festival is coming up so the girls are going to need new kimonos too. Plus contraceptives are going up, or maybe the herb trader just hates me specifically, he gets pissy when I quote the actual cost of procuring and transporting materials back at him.”

“Repressed nobles?” he asks, holding out the tea to her.

She takes it gratefully, and he tries not wince when she knocks it back like she’s doing a shot. “She’s strong, and tough, and they can rough her up a little. She doesn’t mind it and she’s good at giving them just enough of a fight that when they get down to business they feel like they’ve actually won or accomplished something. What she costs in bruise salve she absolutely makes up for in incredibly rich clients that like to extend their power kick even further by tipping double the session costs.”

“You know,” Naruto murmurs, digging his thumbs into her shoulder blades, “there’s a reason most Madames don’t offer full services on top of their regular duties.”

“Most Madames aren’t twenty one and doing their best to hold on to four of the best prostitutes in Water Country,” she groans, dipping her head forward.

“You could expand,” he says, “You have an excellent reputation. It wouldn’t be hard to find girls to come to you.”

“I have an excellent reputation because I earn it. Quality, not quantity. I don’t have the time to train more girls, and I’m not sending a girl I didn’t train myself into a room with a man who could request anything. If she’s not trained to fulfill his request, she could get hurt and I could lose a customer. No one wins.” She sighs as he loosens another knot in her back, “How are my files treating you? Are you finding what you’re looking for?”

“Mostly,” he says, “your records are incredibly thorough. Do all your girls have psychological backgrounds?”

“Part of their training is trading blowjobs for lessons from this university professor I know.” Naruto tries to turn his laugh into a cough, and fails completely. Ren grins and looks up at him. “He’s a nice guy actually, his wife died eight years ago. He considers it a dishonor on her memory to get married or pursue serious relationships.”

“But not to get his dick sucked by baby whores?” he snorts.

“No one enters my service under the age of sixteen,” she says primly, “and besides, from what I’ve heard he didn’t consider it a dishonor when she was alive either.”

Naruto and Ren’s eyes meet, and they both burst out laughing. “I’ve got to tell you about some of Konoha’s Koi regulars,” he says.

She opens up her book to start finishing the accounts, but says, “I’m listening.”

Naruto regales her with his favorite stories from the women he grew up with until the milky grey of dawn shifts to cheerful morning.

~

Hana and Kabuto look at each other, the scroll, and then to Team Seven.

“If you’re too busy to help it’s okay,” Sasuke says patiently. “It’s not urgent.”

Sakura elbows him and Kiba rolls his eyes.

“As if Natsu would ever forgive us if we didn’t help you,” Kabuto scoffs, unrolling the scroll. “But damn, between you and the Hyuugas I need to find some way to actually start getting paid. Rent costs money, you know.”

“Do you want to move into the Uchiha District?” Sasuke asks. “You’re Natsu’s teammate, and if you take the time to work on this it would be a huge favor. I’m happy to pay you as well.”

Kabuto has to force his mouth shut. “Uh, Sasuke, only Uchiha are allowed –”

“The Uchiha are dead,” he says calmly, “There’s me, my brother, and Sai. I have plenty of houses. You’re more than welcome to any of them.”

Kabuto turns to Hana. She shrugs, “I think it’s a good idea. Besides, creating a jutsu that’s able to repair a bloodline limit containing organ with no negative repercussions? Talk about jackpot as far as the medical community is concerned.”

“You know I don’t like attention,” he grumbles.

She pushes his glasses up his nose, “If you succeed, you’ll be able to improve the lives of so many people. I’ll help in any way I can.”

Natsu had saved him in ways she’s never realized. Doing his part to save her boyfriend from going blind was probably the least he could do. “Fine,” he sighs. “I accept. Thank you, Sasuke.”

The smile he gets in response is the first he’s ever received from the kid. It’s kinda nice.

~

“Tsunade-sama,” Shizune says, looking past her shoulder in the marketplace with a peculiar expression on her face, “Could you describe the Yondaime for me please?”

Tsunade hasn’t been back to Konoha in years, and renewed her vow never to return when she heard of Kushina’s son’s death. People were rotten, the people of Konoha were rotten, and she wouldn’t risk her life for them anymore. On paper she may still be a Konoha-nin, but she’s put that part of her life behind her.

Which is what makes her assistant’s question so startling.

The sannin looks up from the earrings she’d been considering. “What?”

“Please, Tsunade-sama. Humor me.”

Shizune does everything for her and asks for basically nothing, so she thinks back to her teammate’s student. “Blonde, bright blonde. Like sunshine. The bluest eyes you’d ever seen. He wasn’t all that tall, which made lots of opponents underestimate him in battle. He was a solemn child, although he loosened up a little after he and Kushina got together. Strong, obviously. Book smart. A little slow on people.” She shakes herself into the present. “Why?”

Shizune takes her by the shoulders and spins her around, “By the flowers.”

It only takes a second for Tsunade to see what her assistant had seen. A boy, about fifteen years old, talking and laughing with two gorgeous women by the flower stall. A not unusual occurrence, except maybe the ease between them all. The boy wears dark purple pants and a dark long sleeve. He’s got bright blond hair, like sunshine, that goes to just below his shoulders and is kept in a neat ponytail at the back of his neck. One of the woman says something, and he laughs, shifting just enough into her line of sight for her to catch a glimpse of the bluest eyes she’s seen in over a decade. Then she sees the delicate slashes across his cheeks, and she can’t breathe.

“He’s haunting me,” she says, and her voice cracks in the middle, “I didn’t think it’d be him that haunts me.”

“Tsunade-sama, what are you talking about?” Shizune hisses, “Is that him?”

“No,” she chokes out, “it’s his son.”

~

When Orochimaru gets Kabuto's report, it's all normal until he gets to the end. He looks down at his hands, and they're shaking. They've been shaking for days, and soon he's going to have to either return to his original body or find another substitute, before what little physical and mental relief the substitute body grants him dissolves completely. 

His original body is a prison. The second he's in it again the pain rips away at him, and whatever sanity he's managed to scramble together is thrust aside. Being back in his original body denotes him to the status of a mad dog, but one that no one has the goddamn sanity to put down. "Is everything all right, Orochimaru-sama?" Karin asks, head tilted in concern.

He could take her body. She'd give it to him willingly, be glad to hand it over, and why wouldn't she be? She's nothing to him, a worthless, pathetic worm, and easing his pain would at least give her minuscule life some purpose -

He picks up the nearest object - a vase of wildflowers said girl had picked and placed in his office - and throws it at the wall. It smashes next to Karin's head, and she doesn't flinch. "LEAVE!" he roars, chest heaving.

She slips out without a word.

He grabs one of the glass shards and slashes it down his arm. The bright red hot of pain and blood allows him to focus just enough so he can force himself down to his laboratory where his body is kept.

As the container of the nine tailed fox, Natsu Nami's body will last longer than most. The demon chakra might even be the solution to his problem, and it's not like he wants to kill Minato's kid, but given the choice between the Uzumaki he's never met and the one that's sworn her life to his service - it's no contest at all.

~

The Konoha genin meet once again at Sasuke’s house, all of them spread out across his living room in the middle of the night.

“Chunin exams,” Shikamaru says.

Tenten groans, “We can’t.” Neji raises an eyebrow, “The last thing we need is someone figuring out that you’re twice as strong as you used to be. Do you know how many Main House family members are going to be there? I’m not willing to risk one of them figuring you out.”

“But that’s not fair to you two,” he protests, pained.

Lee shakes his head, “I stand with Tenten. I would rather remain a genin for another year than risk you.”

Neji softens. When he was put on a team with two clanless orphans, he never thought they’d end up being his best friends.

“I believe if it is best if we abstain as well,” Shino says, “Hinata is steadily improving since she’s no longer the core of the curse mark, but there are still moves she executes clumsily, either with too much chakra or not enough. It’s smart for us to not give all of Konoha the opportunity to observe this difference.”

“He’s right,” Hanabi nods, “We won’t participate either.” She look to her teammate, “Will your family be upset?”

He almost smiles, “My father cares little for my rank, only my skills. I’ve been learning my family’s jutsu at an acceptable rate. He is satisfied.”

“I’ll get better,” Hinata swears, “We’ll compete in the fall chunin exams. I promise.”

“Of course you will,” Hanabi says, “I expect no less.” Hinata smiles at her, pleased.

Kiba looks to his teammates. Sakura shrugs, “I’m willing if you are.”

Sasuke nods, “If we’re chunin, we can take missions outside the village. We might be able to meet up with Naruto.”

Kiba rolls his eyes, “Your boyfriend aside, you’re still learning how to use your Sharingan.”

“Kakashi-sensei has been training me in it for weeks,” he points out, “Also, I can still kick your ass blindfolded, so.”

Ino snorts. Kiba crosses his arms, “Okay, well we’re in, I guess. Team Ten?”

“In,” Ino says decisively. Chouji shrugs and nods.

“Do I have to?” Shikamaru asks. Ino glares. “Troublesome.”

“Now that that’s taken care of,” Sakura claps her hands, “Who wants to break into the Uchiha wine cellar?”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t agree to that,” Sasuke says, but he’s smiling.

Ino jumps to her feet, “There’s more alcohol in that cellar than you could drink over your next three lifetimes. As your friends, it’s our duty to help you out.”

“Well, if it’s your duty,” Sasuke mocks, but getting drunk on his parents’ overly expensive wine with them actually sounds like a great idea.

~

“Problem?” Haku asks cheerfully, approaching Gaara on the shoreline.

He doesn’t look at him. “No.” Haku pauses beside him and crosses his arms. “A little. I’m not as good as moving wet sand as I am dry sand. Which doesn’t make sense, it’s sand, I should be able to control it just fine.”

“It took me a long time to get comfortable using both mist jutsus and ice ones,” he confides, “They’re both water, so you’d think it’d be the same, but it isn’t. Zabuza made me run those drills for hours.”

“Where is he?” Gaara asks, “I haven’t seen you apart since,” he coughs and turns bright red.

A pleased flush rises in Haku’s cheeks. “He’s in Ren’s office with Cho going through the records of nobles.”

“Oh,” he says, “that doesn’t, uh, worry you?”

Haku flashes him a flat look, “Zabuza values loyalty. He would never betray someone in such a way. Besides, he doesn’t like women anyway.”

Gaara blinks, because how could someone look at the gorgeous women they’ve been surrounded by and feel nothing. It’s petty, but he can’t wait to tell Kankuro about this. “Do you?”

Haku frowns, “I … don’t think so?”

“So you’re only attracted to men?” Gaara continues.

The older boy shakes his head, “No. I mean, I am, I guess. I’m really just attracted to Zabuza.”

“No one else?”

“No one else,” Haku repeats, “There are lots of people I find beautiful. But Zabuza is the only one I’ve ever wanted to,” he touches his lips, and something deep in the gentle boy softens even more. “He’s the only one I’ve ever wanted.”

“Oh,” Gaara squeaks, and clears his throat when his voice cracks. “How’s that going?”

Haku smiles and shakes his head, “Do you want help training or do you want to talk about my sex life? If you’re truly curious, I’m happy to do both –”

“Training!” he yelps, “Please!”

Haku is laughing at him, but he honestly doesn’t care as long as he’s never again forced to picture Zabuza having sex. Uhg.

~

Sai has been digging, which for the record is incredibly difficult when everyone around him is a hyper-aware, paranoid assassin.

Good thing he’s better than them, then.

However, that research is driving him up the wall. He was right, of course he was right. The council is almost perfectly balanced between those who are loyal to the hokage, and those who are loyal to Danzo. He wants to gain control of Sasuke, and was planning to use Natsu to do it. Of course, now that’s Natsu’s not available, the question is what is he going to do instead?

Sai bounces off of a firm chest, and blinks as hands steady him. “Be careful,” Daijimu scolds.

“Sorry,” he rubs the back of his neck, looking between him and his partner, Tera. They’re both all dressed up for a mission, and last he’d checked there hadn’t been anything on the roster. “Where are guys going?”

“It’s classified,” Tera snaps, cutting off Daijimu who’d been about to answer.

Missions are never classified. They might be full of utter lies, but Danzo likes to keep up the façade of transparency so his people will trust him more.

 “The Uchiha?” he says sympathetically, “That sucks.”

Tera raises an eyebrow, “You know?”

“Of course,” he lies, “Danzo approached me first, but then decided I wasn’t a right fit.”

“No one’s a right fit for this one,” Daijimu grumbles, “killing one of our genin just doesn’t seem right.”

Sai’s stomach turns to ice even as Tera slaps him upside the head, “Stop that! Those are our orders and we’ll do it!”

“Or course we will,” he agrees, “That doesn’t mean I’ve got to think it’s right. Poor girl isn’t even from a ninja family, and we have to make it messy.”

Not from a ninja family. There’s only one active Konoha genin that isn’t from a ninja family. He’s running even before he’s completed the thought, because it’s going to take him a lot longer to sneak out a message than it’ll take those two to walk out, and all he’s capable of is sending a message because he’s not strong enough to fight his way out.

“Sai!” Daijimu calls out, startled, “Everything okay?”

“Fine!” he calls back over his shoulder, “Don’t worry about it!”

He has to hurry. Daijimu and Tera are some of the most skilled in Root, and the fact that the two of them are being sent to kill one girl – he doesn’t know how Danzo is planning to spin this, but it’s not good for any of them.

~

“He’s dead,” Tsunade repeats, bottle of sake held loosely in her hand.

Shizune scowls at her from the other side of the room, “He’s clearly not, Tsunade-sama. I would greatly appreciate if you would tell me what’s going on.”

Tsunade chugs the last of the sake and lets the bottle drop from her hands and roll away when she’s done. “Ge’me a hawk,” she slurs.

“What?” her assistant says, exasperated.

“A hawk,” she repeats, curling up in the chair as the alcohol lulls her to sleep. “Go’n ge’me a h’wk.”

For the first time in almost fifteen years, she’s going to contact Jiraiya.

~

Sakura breathes slowly as she moves herself into a handstand. She tilts her weight so she’s balanced on a single hand, and she can’t do this next part without chakra, not yet. She lifts herself up on her fingertips, and even with chakra she still needs to use two fingers to keep herself upright.

Both Sasuke and Kiba are better at this than she is, but there’s nothing for her to do but practice at this point. Sasuke is with Kiba down by the river, attempting to help the other boy extend control of his chakra to encompass Akamau as well. She’s better at that than both of them, but she needs to stop shirking the exercises Natsu had given her. Now that they’re back in Konoha there’s really no excuse.

Every muscle in her body tightens suddenly, and her breath quickens. She flips back onto her feet and pulls out two kunai, swinging her head around wildly. She can’t see anyone but that doesn’t matter. Kakashi had drilled it into her to her to trust her instincts, and she knows that there’s someone watching her. She can feel it. “Come out!” she shouts, “Show yourself!”

She still doesn’t see anyone, but she senses the flash of chakra just in time to duck out of the way, twisting her body in way that Ino taught her to do around a pole but is just as useful here. “I’m sorry, girl,” a dark voice says from all around her, and the rolling killing intent makes her swallow.

“About what?” she says, voice shaking.

A strong man grabs from behind and stabs a kunai into her thigh, “This.”

She screams, high in the back of her throat and loud enough that the birds fly from the trees.

~

Tsume is going over the clan’s active duty roster when she hears a piercing howl from the kennels, and two of her clansmen shouting. She and everyone else in the house run outside, and it’s to see her clansmen on the ground and bleeding. “What happened?”

“It was the spirit touched dog,” Nina coughs. Hana gets on her knees beside them, her hands lighting green. “He went nuts and ran. We tried to stop him, I’m so sorry Tsume.”

That dog is looking less than like a dog and more like wolf every day. He’s more than four feet tall on all fours, and she can’t blame any of her clan for failing to subdue him. “It’s all right,” she smacks her daughter on the back, “Come with me, we’re going to go get him.”

She and Hana whistle, and their ninken come loping over. They run as one, going faster than most people with their ninken besides them in a precise formation. No one can keep up with Tsume when she runs, but Hana doesn’t falter or strain to stay at her side.

Tsume has to hide a smile because this isn’t the time. Still, it’s a comfort to know that when she steps down and Hana takes her place, no one will be able to doubt her.

~

Sakura doesn’t know why they haven’t killed her yet. They’ve gagged her and are cutting her, deep, painful wounds that well all over her skin. She wants to fight back, has managed to land a few powerful kicks and punches, but they’re closer to Kakashi’s level of skill than hers, and she doesn’t understand why these men are attacking her, but she doesn’t get the point of the torture at all.

They’ve broken all of her fingers, taking away her ability to do jutsu. She’s never felt more helpless and pathetic than she does right now.

He jams the knife into the meat of her shoulder, and she jerks her head to the side, head butting him with enough force that he staggers back, but he also drags the knife through her along with him. Her knees buckle against the pain, but at least now he’s bleeding too.

“Bitch,” he spits, tugging the knife out of her, and the gush of blood that follows leaves her light headed. At this rate, she’ll die of blood loss before anything else.

His partner shakes his head, “Don’t. If you let some little girl get the drop on you, it’s your own fault.”

She’s obviously outclassed, she’s a genin and these men are at least jounin, but she’s so sick of people underestimating her. She went through the Academy same as everyone else, took the same tests, graduated the Top Kunoichi over two clan heirs, was put on the same team as the Rookie of the Year and the son of the Inuzuka clan head, is the student of Copy-Nin Kakashi, and she is fucking exhausted by people who think she’s nothing more than a little girl playing ninja.

She lets her eyes roll into her head and becomes dead weight in her captor’s arms. He stumbles, “What the hell? She can’t die yet, we’re not done!”

“Lay her down,” his partner commands, “We’ll just have to heal her so we can continue.”

Her fingers are beyond help, but as soon as she’s on her back and not being restrained anymore she surges forward and elbows the closest one in the face, simultaneously kicking the other one in the chest. They both take a step back, and it gives her just enough room that she’s on her feet and running. She’s made it maybe twenty feet when she’s tackled to the ground again. He sits on her chest and uses his knees to pin her arms to the ground. “Screw this,” he growls, unsheathing a kunai, “we can mutilate your body after we kill you.” He raises his arm to slit her throat, and she tenses to jump at just the right moment, because if she can disrupt his aim enough she might survive it.

There’s bark and growl, and she almost wilts in relief, because Sasuke and Kiba have come looking for her. But instead of her teammates a giant, pure white dog tackles her attacker to the ground.

“Paru!” she gasps, jumping to her feet. She grabs the kunai the man had been planning to kill her with, and she spins on her heel to his partner. It’s just like the training game that Natsu and Anko had set up for them, the exact same, she just needs –

The kunai goes flying and embeds itself into his throat. His eyes widen and blood spurts out, and she wants to look away, but she’s a professional. People aren’t dead until they’re dead, so she runs forward, and the pain of doing this with her mangled fingers makes her want to scream. She kicks out his legs so he falls to his knees, yanks out the kunai so his blood gushes all over them both, and snaps his neck. His limp body falls to the side, dark eyes glassy in death, and she doesn’t have the time to freak out about this right now.

She looks over and Paru is locked in battle with the other man, and the dog is favoring his left leg. She shouts, “Paru, down!” He’s a dog, and she’s not an Inuzuka, so he shouldn’t be able to understand her. But he does, flattens himself to the ground, and she doesn’t hesitate, throws that same kunai with the same force and precision as she’d been taught.

It flies true and buries itself halfway into her last attacker’s skull. He’s dead before he hits the ground.

Chest heaving, she collapses to her knees, covered in blood that’s not all her own and the bodies of men she killed at either side of her. Paru trots over and sits in front of her, head cocked to the side. For a moment there’s two of him, but she blinks her dizziness away. “You’re hurt,” she croaks, reaching out a broken hand to his leg. She knows better than to try to touch an injured animal, but before she can move away Paru limps into her and sets his massive head on her shoulder, giving her the closest thing to a hug that he’s capable of.

She’s not crying, she won’t cry, but she wraps her arms around Paru and buries her face in his fur to hide the fact that she’s shaking.

“Sakura!”

Paru starts growling, tense and ready to attack whoever’s behind her. She turns, and there’s Hana and her mom. She clumsily pats Paru’s head. “It’s okay,” she says, speaking to them and Paru both, “I’m okay.”

Hana approaches her slowly and Tsume body flickers away. Paru settles down, but still stands alert, ready to attack if Hana makes a move he doesn’t like. “I’m going to heal you now, okay?”

“Okay,” Sakura says, annoyed at being treated like glass but without the energy to do anything about it. Hana’s hands light green, and for how painful it all is her wounds are mostly superficial. Blood and muscle and skin, all simple things to repair for a trained medic-nin. She heals Paru by trailing an absent hand down his leg. Sakura has to shut her eyes when Hana gets to her fingers, straightening the broken bones so she can heal them correctly.

There’s a rush of chakra and Kiba and Sasuke crowd into her. She should be feeling claustrophobic, but seeing her teammates is only a relief. Paru snorts at both the boys, but doesn’t make any move to attack them. Kiba doesn’t hesitate to curl around her, pulling her body back into his and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Sasuke watches her, dark eyes solemn as he grabs some bandages from his pack and carefully cleans the blood from her face. “Sai sent us a message,” Kiba whispers, “we were so scared that we’d come here and find –” He cuts himself off and hugs her just a little bit tighter.

Sasuke tilts her head to delicately clean the blood from around her eyes. “You are a fearsome and competent warrior,” he says calmly, “I’m gratified to be protected by your strength and proud to say we share a village.”

Somehow that’s the thing the pushes her over edge, but Sasuke doesn’t react to her tears, only wipes them away as well. Hana backs away once she’s fully healed, and not a moment later Kakashi taker her place. Sakura hadn’t even noticed he and Tsume arriving. Sasuke leans back as well so Kakashi can cup her face. “Do you want to go home?” She thinks of facing her parents like this, the death of two men on her hands and drenched in blood, and she honestly doesn’t have the energy to deal with their screaming. She shakes her head. “Do you want to come home with me?” he offers instead, and the idea of being able to rest in the same home as Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-sensei, two of the best shinobi she knows and who have killed more people than she probably ever will, is more comforting than she wants to admit. He must be able to tell, because even under the mask Kakashi’s face softens.

He holds out his arms to carry her. “Sensei, I’m all,” she gestures to herself.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, and that’s a comfort too, that a bloody thirteen year old killer is nothing to what he’s seen, to what he’s done. He picks her up bridal style, and looks down to her two other teammates. “Write up the report and deliver the bodies to the morgue. Use a stasis jutsu.”

They both nod. Kakashi starts to walk away, then pauses and looks down. Paru looks up at him, tail wagging. Sakura lowers her hand and Paru give it an affectionate lick. The thought of leaving without Paru makes her chest ache, and she can’t think of why.

“He’s yours now,” Tsume says, and Sakura tilts her head look at her. “He answered your call and spilled his first blood in defense of you. He’ll follow no other.” The older woman hesitates, but continues, “I won’t force your hand, but just so you know – this makes you a part of my clan as much as if you’d been born into it.”

“What?” she demands, the adrenaline sparking her awake. “What does that mean?”

“Don’t worry about it now,” Tsume says gently, “We can discuss the details later. But Paru chose you long before today, and I know better than to go against the wishes of the spirits. He’s yours, you’re his, and you’re both Inuzuka.”

It’s too much to take in right now, so she lets her head drop back onto Kakashi’s shoulder and whispers, “Okay.”

Kakashi sighs, but obediently grabs onto Paru’s scruff. When he body flickers away he takes both Sakura and her companion with him.

~

They’re hiding out behind some extremely large rocks. Shizune glares, “I want you to know that this is called stalking.”

“We’re not stalking,” Tsunade insists, “We’re observing.”

“Now you sound like Jiraiya,” she mutters. The sannin wants to deny it, but her assistant may have a point.

Naruto and the red headed boy are training on the beach’s edge, one of the many strange people the boy keeps around him. Jiraiya hasn’t responded to her but she knows him, has known him for most of her life, and she trusts that he’s coming.

The light of the moon washes out both the boys so they look almost like ghosts practicing taijutsu by the tide. Seeing those two hair colors together reminds her painfully for a moment of Minato and Kushina, and she still doesn’t understand how their son who was pronounced dead is standing in front of right now, but maybe after all the shit she’s lived through this is finally the miracle she never thought to ask for.

Then a man comes flying in from nowhere, and starts attacking the boys. She rushes to join the battle, because there is one other person she knows as well as she knows Jiraiya, and she’d recognize that fighting style anywhere.

What the hell Orochimaru is doing attacking her godson she has no idea.

~

“Here,” Kakashi says, pushing her into the bathroom. He turns the shower on and steam slowly starts to fill the bathroom. “Get cleaned up. I’ll find something for you to wear.”

He turns to leave, but Sakura grabs his sleeve. “Don’t go.” It should be enough to have Paru panting at her side, but Kakashi is her sensei, and she’d seen him fall on that bridge in Wave, but she still holds onto her childish belief that as long as he’s with her nothing can go wrong. “Just – close your eyes. And stay. Please?”

“Okay.” He sits on the closed toilet and makes a show of pulling the mask up to cover his whole face, and then slaps a hand over his eyes for good measure.

Sakura giggles, and some of the tension eases from her body. She strips off her blood soaked clothes, and she doesn’t want to stick them in the hamper and get blood on everything else, so she ends up kicking them into the corner for later. Her bun is lopsided and matted, and she tugs her hair out before stepping under the warm spray of water. She tugs the shower curtain shut behind her, “You can look now.”

“There’s some of Natsu’s shampoo in the corner,” he says.

The water is still running pink, and she’s seized with the need to be clean. “Sensei,” she starts, choked, not sure how to articulate how horrible she feels in this moment, how she’s willing to peel her skin away just to get the blood off.

He shoves his hand into the shower, offering her a washcloth. “Soap’s under the shower head.”

“Thank you,” she whispers, squeezing his hand as she takes the washcloth from him. She ducks under the scalding water, and thank god he knew she’d need it to be this hot, and starts scrubbing herself down from head to toe. “Kakashi-sensei, can you – talk?”

He doesn’t need to be asked twice, immediately jumping into a stream of secondhand stories about the new kids in Iruka’s classroom. She washes her hair twice to make sure it’s really clean, and wet it’s nearly to her hips. She stands under the warm spray for a few more moments, checking under her fingernails and behind her ears to make certain all the blood is really gone. She shuts off the water, and Kakashi falls silent for second, and she can hear him moving. “My eyes are closed,” he promises before pulling back the curtain. He’s holding a large fluffy towel pulled wide between his hands, and she steps out of the shower into it. He folds it around her, and it’s almost more of a blanket than a towel.

Kakashi lifts her into his arms, and she feels like a little kid again. She looks down at Paru staring up at her. A bloody washcloth is discarded into the sink and the blood that had been covering her companion is gone. “Thank you,” she says, leaning her head against him.

Kakashi shrugs and walks her into the bedroom. Iruka looks up from where he’s tucking in a corner of the sheets he’s just changed and smiles, “Hello Sakura. I found a spare pair of Natsu’s leggings and one of my shirts. Would that be okay?”

She nods. Kakashi sets her down on the edge of the bed, making sure the towel is still wrapped firmly around her. They both move as if to leave, but once again Sakura snags Kakashi’s hand. “Don’t go,” she repeats, and she’s legally an adult, she’s a kunoichi of Konoha, and tomorrow she’ll find it in herself to move on from this, because these may be the first deaths by her hands but they won’t be the last. But that’s tomorrow, and for today she just doesn’t want to be alone.

Iruka kisses Kakashi on the cheek, “More room on the couch for me,” and pats Sakura on the head before leaving.

Kakashi again makes a big show of covering his eyes, and Sakura scrambles into the borrowed clothes as quickly as she can. She’s swimming in Iruka’s long-sleeve, but it’s soft and doesn’t smell anything like blood. “Okay.”

He uncovers his eyes and sits down beside her, turning until he’s to her back. She’s confused until his fingers start combing through her hair, “If you sleep in it like this it will get knotted. Do you mind?” She shakes her head. The last of her tension bleeds away as Kakashi untangles her hair, taking excessive care when working through a knot to ensure he doesn’t tug on her scalp. Then he starts braiding it together, easy and smooth until he ties it off with her hairband that he must have grabbed from the bathroom floor. “Okay?”

“Perfect,” she yawns, twisting so she can throw her arms around Kakashi, “Thank you, Sensei.”

“Anytime,” he tugs on the end of her braid. “Now go to bed. You’ve had a long day.” She nods and scrambles under covers. Paru hops into bed and snuggles down beside her, a massive, furry protector curled against her side. Kakashi pulls off his shoes, headband, and flak jacket before settling down on top of the covers on his side so he’s facing her, so she’s got Paru on one side and Kakashi on the other. “You did well today, Sakura. I’m proud of you.”

She smiles and curls into Paru. Kakashi-sensei is proud of her. She’s made arguably the best ninja in Konoha proud of her.

All the hard work and pain and training that she’s undergone since she was five years old has been worth it, just to bring her to this moment right here. It was all worth it.

~

Sasuke feels too big for his skin, irritable and restless in a way he hasn’t since he started hanging out with Natsu. He’s wandering the streets of Konoha, just to have something to do that isn’t training by himself. Sakura, his teammate and his friend, could have died today, and he would have only shown up in time to collect her corpse, just like the Massacre all over again. He can already tell he’s going to have nightmares about this, about Sakura having moved a hair slower and he and Kiba showing up to find her dead and mangled body.

Although, according to Sai that’s what Danzo wanted. Why the hell the creepy old man thought traumatizing Sasuke more would be in anyone’s best interest he has no idea, but this happened to Sakura because of him. Itachi killed their clan because of him, Naruto took a sword to the gut because of him, and now Sakura was nearly killed because of him. He doesn’t know how much more of this he can take before he loses his mind.

“Lost, little boy?” a smooth, feminine voice asks.

He jerks his head up, and the first thing he notices is the red lantern in every window. He hadn’t meant to wander into the Flower District, but he’s not about to panic and run out of their either. “I am not,” he says calmly.

“Are you looking for some company then? A little young, boy,” the voice continues, and he can just barely see the silhouette of a woman cloaked in the shadows.  Something about this woman is familiar to him, but he can’t figure out what.

“I am not,” he coughs, flushing. “Do I know you? Come out of the shadows.”

“Giving me orders?” she snorts, “So like a man.”

He blinks, startled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to order you. Please come out of the shadows.”

That causes the woman to pause, and it clearly isn’t what she was expecting. She steps from the darkness into the dull glow of the streetlight. She’s older than he thought, early sixties, powder white hair piled onto her head. She’s wearing a long bright orange kimono with a pure white obi, and everything about it screams expensive. His thought process stutters when he reaches her face, because it’s clear that she was once, and still is, a great beauty, but it’s more than that. The high arched cheekbones and blue eyes so dark they’re nearly black bring him back to a time when he was little more than a toddler, chasing after a woman’s skirts and pleading to be picked up. “Grandma?”

The woman quirks an eyebrow, “No, I am not my sister. We were always told the resemblance was startling.”

“Sister?” he repeats, heart in his throat as he takes a step closer to the woman, “Grandma didn’t have a sister.”

Her lips thin, “You’re right, my mistake.” She turn and walks away, “Are you coming, Sasuke?”

“Where are we going?” he demands, running up to her side. “Who are you? You’re definitely Uchiha.”

“I haven’t been Uchiha for almost fifty years,” she dismisses, “You may call me Madame Koi.”

He nearly trips, “You’re Natsu’s Madame Koi?”

“I did train Natsu Nami,” she agrees, leading him deeper and deeper into the Flower District.

“So you trained Naruto Uzumaki too then,” he presses.

Madame Koi doesn’t pause, “Well, they are the same person.” She leads him into a large, bright house that’s somehow cleaner than all the other buildings surrounding it. There’s gorgeous women and a few exceptionally pretty men standing around, all of them holding themselves with the same easy grace as Naruto. She leads him through them all and up the stairs until she reaches the attic. He doesn’t know what he expects to be behind the door, but it isn’t a perfectly functional dojo. She closes the door behind him, “You’re not trained in the art of the sword.”

“No,” he says, confused, “I never –”

“That wasn’t a question,” she interrupts, walking over to the wall and taking down two training swords, “I can tell by the way you move. Sloppy. Undisciplined.” Sasuke would probably be offended if he could force himself to look away from the other Uchiha who had somehow survived the Massacre. She tosses him a sword. “We’re going to change that.”

Why?” he demands, “Why are you teaching me swordplay? Why didn’t you tell me you were alive before? Does Naruto know? Why aren’t you a recognized Uchiha?”

“Naruto never questioned who I was before I became Madame Koi,” she says impatiently. “He, the incredibly stupid boy, found me to be kind and decided he wanted to be just like me. Hence the obsession with orange as a child. Then he became Natsu and,” she shrugs, “they say imitation is the highest form of flattery.” He hadn’t thought of it before, but Natsu’s dark eyes are the exact color of Madame Koi’s, and Natsu’s ash colored hair is only a few shades off from the older woman’s pure white. “And I am teaching you the sword,” she continues acidly, swinging the training blade up to his throat faster than he can blink, “because you had the look of a man who was going to do something stupid. I am tired of watching Uchiha men make stupid decisions.”

“But what about –” Madame Koi sweeps his feet out from under him, and again he finds a sword point at his throat.

“That’s twice I could have killed you now. No more questions.” She pulls the blade away, “On your feet. We’ll work on your stance first.”

Well. He has nothing better to do.

~

Naruto would be dead if it weren’t for Gaara grabbing the crazy ninja with his sand and slamming him to the ground. He breaks away a moment later, but Naruto’s aware enough now to hop onto the man’s shoulders, and then flip away.

“Does this crazy belong to you or me?” he asks Gaara.

The other boy sends him a flat look and finally gains enough control over his sand to put up a wall to take the hit of an electricity jutsu. “GIVE ME YOUR BODY!” the man roars.

“Definitely yours,” Gaara says.

“Orochimaru!” A woman yells, popping up from behind the rocks and chasing them both, “Don’t you dare hurt them!”

“Orochimaru?” Naruto peeks around the wall, “Man, he’s not looking so good.” It also means that the scary blonde woman is Tsunade. Great. Itachi just needs to pop up and it’ll be a party of The Worst People To Track Him Down While He’s Planning a War Ever.

He should probably work on a shorter name. 

Tsunade punches him hard enough that he goes flying and hits Gaara’s sand wall with a painful sounding crack. Naruto crouches down next the unconscious sannin. His hair’s oily and too long, his pale skin has splotches of red, and his clothes are dirty and stained. None of that, of course, is nearly as interesting as the roiling mass of dark, complicated chakra he can sense under the man’s ribs. It’s a seal, old and knotted, and he wants to see. He’s already rolled him over and started tugging down his shirt when Tsunade stomps over and roars, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

He pauses, considering that he’s straddling an unconscious S class missing-nin while undressing him, and says, “There’s an explanation for this.”

She crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow. 

“He’s got a weird seal on his chest. I want to see what it is.”

Gaara slaps a hand over his face. Tsunade’s mouth drops open. “You can’t just go messing with seals! He’s been experimenting on himself for years, who knows what that seal is connected to.”

“But twenty years though, thirty?” he murmurs, fingers twitching to bring the chakra seal to life. “That’s how old it is.”

“Only a master can tell the age of seal through it’s chakra,” Tsunade snaps, “Stop playing around before you hurt yourself.”

Naruto’s about to snap back at her, because he hasn’t spent nearly a decade studying and cultivating the reputation of a master only to talked down to like that, but then he remembers Natsu Nami is the seal master, not him. “I know what I’m doing,” he says instead.

“Maybe you should do it somewhere more private?” Gaara suggests, glancing around at the open waves. “If you’re going to experiment on him, we should do it back at Ren’s.”

Naruto frowns, “Do you think she’ll be mad if we bring back an S class missing-nin though?”

The boy stares. “Zabuza.”

He blinks, “Excellent point.” He stands and hauls Orochimaru over his shoulder before turning to Tsunade. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me walk off with your unconscious teammate so I can keep him in a brothel while I mess around with his seal, will you?” She glares. “Okay, you can come with. But don’t cause trouble.”

He spins on his heel and walks away. Tsunade sputters after him, “You’re telling me not to cause trouble? Me?”

Gaara rubs his forehead. Being friends with Naruto causes him to experience migraines. Of course.

~

Kabuto looks down at the scroll he’d just finished inking. It contains the complicated series of seals that actually form a jutsu to pre-emptively repair the damage done by the Mangekyo, and if this is how Natsu feels every time she casually breaks every known rule of sealing then he understands why she does it so often.

Hana’s asleep with her face buried in her arms. He pokes her, and she startles awake with a snort. “Wah?” she blinks at him, and even with her face sleep creased and covered in drool he still thinks she’s cute. He’s so fucked.

“Finished it!” he brandishes the scroll and her face lights up. “Should we go see if Sasuke’s awake?”

“He didn’t come home last night, remember?” she yawns, “Again.”

Kabuto frowns and taps the scroll against his palm, “You know, if he wasn’t so obviously in love with Naruto I would find his constant visits to the Flower District extremely disconcerting.”

“He’s just training,” she reminds him, rolling her neck around to work out the kinks.

“He’s learning sword fighting from a prostitute,” he counters.

Hana shrugs. “My family was taught combat jutsu by forest spirits. Whatever works.”

Kabuto considers that he himself has a stash of ninjutsu and taijutsu that he learned from the snakes, and concedes that she has a point.

~

Sakura isn’t rushing into this. It’s been weeks of training with the Inuzuka and Paru, and maybe she could continue on like this, being an Inuzuka without the commitment, but Paru has grown even more since they’ve become linked, and he’s not done yet. It’s likely that by the time he’s done he’ll be the size of a horse. Her parents love her, but they don’t understand her, and they don’t understand Paru.

They try to make him sleep outside, away from her, and they got all upset when they’d found out about the assassins and threatened to complain to the hokage that their little girl had been attacked. It makes her want to scream, because they mean well, but they don’t understand that it doesn’t matter that she’s thirteen. She’s a ninja of Konohgakure, and when assassins come she’s the one the hokage calls in to take care of them. She doesn’t need protection, she is that protection.

Her mother had cried and her father had yelled, but she’s an adult now and they can’t stop her from moving out. They can’t stop her from dropping the Haruno from her name, and they can’t stop her from sitting quietly in a chair while Tsume pushes ink into her skin. “We were all born with them,” the older woman murmurs as she tattoos the red ink into Sakura’s skin, “but these will look the same when I’m done, I promise.”

“Okay,” she whispers, and she knows it’s petty but she can’t help but think that the red ink will clash with her hair. She runs her fingers over her braid as Tsume works. She’s started styling it like this instead of the bun. On one hand, people can grab on to it. On the other, as she demonstrated on Kiba during training last week, she can also use it to strangle people. She startles when she feels Tsume start to ink another triangle into forehead.

“It’s to show you’re spirit touched,” Tsume explains.

“I’m not though,” she frowns, “that’s just Paru.”

She has her eyes closed, but she can still tell the woman is silently laughing at her, “My dear, Paru is more spirit than he is not. He came to this plane through us for you. He’s the spirit that’s with you.”

Sakura holds out her hand, and Paru bumps his massive head into her hand. “Why?” she asks, “Why me?”

Tsume taps her on the nose, “I have no idea! You’re clearly destined for interesting things, Sakura.”

“That sounds like a curse,” she grumbles.

The older woman hums her agreement and continues inking the Inuzuka clan markings into Sakura’s skin.

~

Tsunade would like on record, somewhere, that Naruto definitely inherited his mother’s personality, also known as insanity. Tsunade’s been keeping Orochimaru in a coma and alive while Naruto’s been studying his chakra seal, of which he’s been annoyingly tight lipped about. What she should have done is either killed him and collected the bounty, or shipped him off to Sarutobi and been done with it. Since she doesn’t actually want to do either of those things, and would actually prefer to heal that gruesomely extensive nerve damage the man is sporting, probably explains why she’s been helping a thirteen year old poke around at her teammate instead.

“Will you let me run some tests on you?” she asks suddenly, starring at Naruto who’s spending his daily handful of hours trying to pick apart Orochimaru’s seal. An entire wall of the room he’s being kept in is covered with Naruto’s notes.

Gaara had confided in her that this was actually fairly slow progress, as far as Naruto was concerned. He’d taken apart a Curse Mark he’d never encountered before in under a minute on the fly. The fact that it’s taking him this long to pick apart the sannin’s seal means it’s either extremely complicated, extremely deteriorated, or both.

Naruto blinks and looks up, “What?”

“You don’t look like a thirteen year old boy,” she explains, “The jutsu you use to be a girl has an aging component to it, right?”

“Yes,” he frowns, “Three years.”

“Well, you look about that much older in your original body too,” she says. “Can I run some diagnostic jutsu? I just want to see if it carries all the way through.”

He shrugs, “Knock yourself out.”

She runs a scanning jutsu she developed herself, and isn’t that surprised at the reading. “It carries all the way through.”

“Cool,” he says, pulling apart another intricate section of the chakra matrix in front of him, “What does that mean?”

“Your brain is, development wise, about the same as a sixteen year old. Your body also roughly matches a sixteen year old hormonally.” She sighs, “I would have loved to track your aging speed over the last several years. The data must be fascinating.”

He nods, “Hey, Tsunade? You’re kind of a nerd, you know that?” She crumples one his discarded notes and throws at his head, but doesn’t attempt to deny it. “Tell me about Orochimaru.”

She stares, “What?”

“Tell me everything, from when you first met in the Academy to now,” he says, “You never know what ends up being useful when it comes to sealing. Start talking.”

She has the feeling like he’s trying to humor her or distract her, but she does it anyway, casting her mind back to a time she hasn’t thought about in decades.

~

When Sasuke shows up for his daily sword lesson, there’s something sadder and more open on Madame Koi’s face today than any of the other days before. “Come with me,” she says, once again in another slightly different, but equally elaborate, orange and white kimono. She doesn’t take him to the dojo, but instead to a room in the corner of the house. It takes him a moment to realize he’s in her room, and he looks around with renewed interest. It’s got large windows on both exterior walls, and the color scheme unlike her clothes seems to be gold and dark blue. “You’ve been progressing more quickly than I ever thought possible over these past weeks.”

“Thank you Madame Koi,” he answers, pleased. The older woman is a strict taskmaster, and extremely skilled at the sword. She easily could have been a great shinobi.

Mounted behind her desk is a short chokuto blade. She lifts it down and then turns to Sasuke, holding it out to him flat on both hands. He looks to her, then back down. “Take it,” she says.

He folds his hands around the leather of the sheath, and it’s worn and butter smooth. “This is old.”

“Very old,” she agrees, “It’s the sword of Kusanagi.” She visibly hesitates, but continues, “When I was disowned by your great-grandfather, he gave it to me as a form of insult. I want you to understand that I’m giving it to you for a different reason entirely.” Sasuke’s head snaps up, because he’s asked and asked, and still she’s refused to speak of her past. “I was set to graduate the Academy as Rookie of the Year. My jutsus were shit, but no one could beat me with a blade in my hand. I was twelve,” she lifts Sasuke’s chin to look him in the eye, “There are many adults who will tell you that twelve is far too young an age to fall in love. Those people are wrong. I was in love with a boy, Hikaru Hyuuga.” Sasuke winces, because he can already tell where this story is going. The Hyuuga and Uchiha have been rivals as long as both clans have existed.  “He was kidnapped by Kumo diplomats.”

Sasuke blinks, “Wasn’t Kumo also the ones that tried to kidnap Hinata?”

She smirks, “Kumo clan families now have something of deadly rivalry between them and Hyuuga. I’m afraid that’s my fault. This first time, it was only as a way to get a closer look at the Hyuuga eyes. However, Hikaru was only a branch member, so his clan head refused to pay his ransom.”

“Of course,” Sasuke scoffs.

“I wasn’t about to let the boy I loved die in Kumo,” she says calmly, “so I missed the graduation exam to march to him by myself and took him back.” 

“By yourself?” Sasuke repeats, laughing.

She shrugs, “No one could stop me with a sword in my hand. I went to Kumo, snuck my way in, and then fought my way out with Hikaru slung across my back.” His grin melts across his face, because if this story had a happy ending they wouldn’t be standing there now. “The Hyuuga clan head considered it a dishonor that an Uchiha had reclaimed their kin. To cleanse themselves of the dishonor, the clan head activated his Curse Mark. He died of a chakra triggered brain aneurysm right in front of me.”

“You were twelve,” Sasuke whispers, pale and horrified.

“My father considered my actions foolish and considered me a useless failure for putting my personal wants before the needs of my village,” she continues. “He disowned me, stripped me of the name Uchiha, and left me with nothing but the clothes on my back and,” she briefly touches the handle of the chokuto, “this sword.”

He clenches the sheath, “I don’t understand.”

She sighs, “He meant it as an insult, because he believed my only purpose in life was to serve as shinobi of the Leaf. Without that, my life was worthless. My father expected me to kill myself with this sword, Sasuke. He gave me a sword that had been passed down our family for generations so I could die on it, and he could collect it from my corpse.”

Sasuke kind of hates some of his family sometimes. “Why are you giving it to me?”

“Because you’re going to be an amazing swordsman. You may even be better than me, and I’d love to be the one training you. But this isn’t where you need to be right now, or where you want to be.” He opens his mouth, but she shakes her head, “Natsu is alive. I know that quite well. I also know that wherever she goes, trouble follows.”

“You want me to go after Naruto?” he asks, heartbeat ticking up because he would do anything to be by Naruto’s side again.

“She never gave up on you,” she tells him, “After the Massacre she took every patrol that went by the Uchiha district. She petitioned for you to graduate early at least a dozen times. She was ecstatic when they finally let you become a genin.” She meets his gaze firmly, “I want you to do what you want to do. The chunin exams are coming. If you leave now you’ll miss them.”

Sasuke doesn’t have to ask her what she would do, she just told him what she did. “Do you regret it?”

She smiles, the first Sasuke has ever seen from her, “Never. I’d do it again.”

He swallows. He hasn’t had the courage to ask this since the first time, but if ever there was time she’d answer him it’s now. “Why didn’t you come get me, after the Massacre?”

“Sasuke,” she sighs, and there’s another story he doesn’t know here, because the grief in her eyes is suddenly much closer, much more personal, “a brothel is no place to raise a child.”

“Naruto grew up here,” he argues.

She shakes her head, “Naruto spent every day of his life wishing for a family.”

“After the Massacre, so did I,” he says, and he’s absolutely going to be mortified about this later.

“Well,” she says softly, “go get him then.”

He grips the sword in one hand before bowing neatly at the waist. “I want you to know, Aunt Kiyomi, that I still consider you an Uchiha.” He throws himself out the window before she can yell at him.

Because birth records were easy to find when you knew where to look, and it turned out that his grandmother did have a sister – Kiyomi Uchiha, his great-aunt.

He can’t wait to tell Naruto about this.

It’s easy enough to strap the sword to his back and throw clothes and rations into a pack. He doesn’t have anything of real sentimental value. What takes longer is digging out the good paper and calligraphy pen, and writing out a document that he honestly should have done long before now. The jutsu to infuse the paper with his chakra is simple enough, and has been used by clan heads for generations. Even if his language isn’t perfect, no one will question the validity of the claim.

He still has two more stops to make before he can leave the village. He’s doesn’t have to sneak onto the Inuzuka compound, and instead he just waves at the guard as he walk in. Sakura’s already waiting for him outside of the Main Inuzuka House. “It’s creepy how you always know when one of us is coming now,” he tells her.

She rubs at her eyes, more asleep than awake. “It’s not me, it’s Paru.”

“Your magical spirit wolf knowing doesn’t make it any less weird,” Kiba calls out, still in his pyjamas and being dragged toward them by Akamaru. “It’s also weird that Paru talks to Akamaru. Sasuke, I hope you realize it’s two in the morning.”

He hadn’t, actually. “Sorry.”

“You’re going after Naruto, aren’t you?” Sakura asks. “It’s either him or Itachi.”

“It’s Naruto,” he admits.

“They’re going to declare you a missing-nin,” Kiba warns.

He shrugs, “I’m a genin who, as far as they know, hasn’t even activated his bloodline limit. They’ll give me a C rank at best. Do you know who goes after C rank missin-nin? Literally no one.” He sobers, “I’m sorry about bailing on you guys for the chunin exams.”

“It’s okay,” Sakura says, “I need more practice fighting with Paru anyway. Team Ten is just going to have to represent Konoha.”

“You’re a pretty terrible shinobi,” Kiba adds, grinning, “choosing one person over your whole village.”

Sakura smirks, “You should have been a samurai if you were going to go being loyal to a single person on us.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, “There’s no reason to be rude about it. Samurai, tch.”

Kiba claps Sasuke on the shoulder, “Be safe out there, okay? Write us letters.”

“Don’t get killed,” Sakura adds, “There’s lots of ninja that’ll be pissed if you get killed. Us included.”

He grins and pulls them both in for a quick hug, “Back at you.”

He doesn’t look back as he leaps away, but only because he knows that they’ll be watching him. His last stop is important for a few reasons, and he taps on Kakashi’s window until it slides open, “Sasuke?” Iruka says, startled, “Is something wrong?”

“Hey Iruka-sense,” he says sheepishly, “I need to talk to Kakashi-sensei.”

Iruka backs up and Sasuke slides in through the almost too-small window. Iruka ruffles his hair, “Be careful out there,” and then leaves to go wake Kakashi.

Well. Apparently everyone but him knew he was going to end up leaving the village to go after Naruto.

Kakashi exits the bedroom still pulling up the mask. “Natsu?”

“You could at least pretend to be surprised,” he says, holding out the document he’d just written up. Kakashi takes it. “That’s my official recognition of Sai as a member of my clan, and naming him as clan head in my absence.”

Kakashi raises an eyebrow, “That’ll destroy all of his use as a spy.”

Sasuke shrugs, “Natsu and I are going to be out of the village indefinitely. I’d feel better knowing Sai was out from under that asshole’s thumb.”

The jounin sobers and ruffles Sasuke’s hair, “Be careful out there, all right? Make sure you and Naruto take care of each other."

“We will,” he promises, “if you also swear to be careful. There are dangers inside the village too.”

“I’ll be careful,” Kakashi says softly, “now go. The night guard will be changing watch soon.”

Sasuke winks and slips back out his window. The moon is high, and he has lots of ground to cover before sunrise.

~

Sarutobi hasn’t survived this long by being stupid. He looks up from the document reeking of Sasuke’s chakra and says, “You’re keeping secrets from me.”

Kakashi doesn’t flinch, “I thought you’d be happy. You’ve been looking for some sort of concrete reason to mess with Danzo’s Anbu. Especially since we couldn’t pin anything on the men that attacked Sakura.”

“They weren’t in the system,” he repeats for possibly the hundredth times. Tsume has taken to berating him in her free time ever since the girl had joined her clan. It’s exhausting.

The jounin snorts, “Right. Are you going to honor Sasuke’s wishes? Genin or not, he’s still the Uchiha clan head.”

The old man leans back in his chair, “Sasuke isn’t in the village anymore, is he?” Kakashi raises an eyebrow. “If he’s not the in village, Danzo can’t attempt to manipulate him further. So he left.”

That’s half the reason Kakashi hadn’t tried to stop him. He’s actually getting really sick of Danzo targeting the people he cares about. “That’s possible,” he allows, because as long as he keeps wording his responses carefully he can convince himself that he’s not outright lying to his hokage.

“I don’t like this,” the Sandaime says finally.

“No one likes this,” Kakashi slides Sasuke’s paper closer to the hokage, “but all we can do now is make the best of a poor situation.”

Sarutobi rubs at his temples, but Kakashi can tell that he’s won.

~

On one hand, a chunin finding her father’s rotting corpse stashed in the basement of the Kazekage tower means that at the very least Gaara won’t be forced to kill the man himself.

On the other hand, it’s moved up their timetable to literally right now, and Temari finds herself standing in an arena surrounded by her future council and jounin instead of on her way to Konoha to take the chunin exam.

“If you manage to defeat us all, you will be sworn in as Godaime Kazekage,” the Shirogane clan head recites at her, “You are permitted a five minute break between every five opponents. If you fail, we will bury your body besides your father.”

“You know,” she says conversationally, unhooking her fan from her back, “in Konoha they just elect their Kages.”

He smiles at her, “Sounds boring.”

That’s the last bit of talking they do. She defeats the first jounin in under a minute, but she’s not fooled. They’re sending in the weakest first to wear her down, like sand against stone. It’s a fine strategy, except for one thing – she’s neither sand nor stone.

She’s wind.

~

When Naruto unravels the last bit of Orochimaru’s seal, everything else falls into place. He’s such an idiot for not figuring it out sooner.

“Danzo put it on him,” he tells them all, nearly shaking he’s so excited. It’s the middle of the night, so the girls are all working, but everyone else is seated in the living room. “It’s been him the whole time!”

Tsunade blinks, “What?”

Shizune frowns, “Why bother?”

“Your crazy councilman?” Zabuza asks, “I’ve heard rumors about that guy. Isn’t he a dick?”

Gaara rubs at his forehead.

Haku, seated comfortably in the older ninja’s lap, sighs. “Naruto, please start from the beginning.”

Naruto runs his fingers through his hair, and it’s grown out to his chest. He can’t wait until it’s back to how long it was before. “Okay, so the five point seal, right? It’s powerful and all, it’s what’s used to keep demons contained. As far as I knew that’s all it was used for, it’s fairly susceptible to tampering and degrades if there’s not a large enough chakra supply to support it – which for a juncchuriki obviously isn’t a problem, but can get a bit tricky for everyone else. But when I took apart the Hyuuga seal, I found out that that the base design matrix was a five point seal.”

Tsunade pales, “That’s what the Curse Marks are using? That’s ridiculous! They’re added so young – there’s no way people’s chakra systems are developed enough to handle the strain.”

“They’re not,” Naruto says seriously, “they decay and tear apart the nervous system while burning out the person’s chakra coils. It’s pretty nasty. Anyway! Before that I got my hands on a Root member, and the seal that’s used to ensure their silence is also a five point. Slightly more elegant than the one used for the Hyuuga, so it takes longer for the seal to destabilize and start effecting the carrier. Considering how short the average Root member’s life span is, I doubt it was ever an issue. Which brings us to Orochimaru,” he points up at the ceiling to the room where the man is being kept.

“He also has a five point seal?” Shizune guesses.

Naruto deflates, “I – yeah. He does. I was going to build up to that reveal! Anyway, underneath all the frayed chakra strings and half collapsed connecting lines, there is indeed a five point seal. The really interesting part is that it’s the Hyuuga seal, the Root seal, and a little something extra.” He shakes his head, “It’s the closest thing to a slavery seal I’ve seen. It incorporates mental and physical control all along with a failsafe that kills the person with the seal if they try to go against the wishes of the person who put the seal on them, but doesn’t allow them to kill themselves. Which I’m sure was a bad enough strain on his chakra system when the seal was being actively maintained, but once it was left to degrade on its own it collapsed.” He turns to Tsunade, “You said that Orochimaru started going nuts after he was passed over for Hokage, right? I think that’s when Danzo stopped caring about the seal and left it to degrade.”

“Wait,” Zabuza glares, “What does Danzo have to do with this?”

“He’s the one that’s been making seals!” Naruto says, “It’s obvious! He would have been a teenager when the Hyuuga first implemented the Curse Mark, just experienced enough with seals to make something effective but gruesome. Then by the time he’d started Root he’d refined it, made it better and more adaptable. By the time he got to Orochimaru, he was just skilled enough – likely with the help of a Yamanaka – to attempt to control him. Orochimaru was in Root for a while, right? I bet that’s when Danzo got his claws into him! He thought the Sandaime was going to pick Orochimaru for hokage, so he devised a way to control the future hokage in a way he’d never managed to do with Sarutobi! But when he was passed over, Danzo had no reason to keep up the maintenance for the seal. The physical effects would have been bad, but the mental ones? Letting a mental seal decay means it literally would be eating away at his sanity.”

“So you’re saying,” Tsunade says slowly, and this is too good to be true, it’s all the things she’s fantasized about wanting and hated herself for, “that the Orochimaru I’ve known for the past two decades isn’t – isn’t really him?”

“Sanity comes and goes, probably. But no. I don’t think the man Danzo made him is the man he truly is.” He hesitates, “It explains the body hopping too. You’ve seen the state his original body is in – it has to be painful. By switching bodies he could alleviate the physical effects of the seal, if not the mental ones.”  He stands in front of Tsunade, “I can remove the seal.”

She looks up at him, and she looks small and lost and Naruto is so sorry that he’s doing this to her. “You can?”

“Yes. I can remove the seal, and for better or worse it’ll relieve the mental strain. But I can’t heal the physical, I’m not a medic-nin. If I remove it, you’re going to have to heal over thirty years’ worth of damage on his body. Can you do that?”

Tsunade looks to Shizune. The younger woman nods, and when Tsunade looks back at Naruto there’s a sureness and steel in her gaze that he hasn’t seen before. “I’m Sannin Tsunade Senju. Bring it.”

~

Sasuke enters the house that’s neither the cleanest nor the dirtiest. He’s only just stepped inside when a giggling redhead drapes herself across her shoulders. “Hi little boy,” she says, pressing her ample breasts against him, “if you want, I can make you a man.”

He holds out what’s likely double or triple her rate, “Could we go somewhere more private?”

Her eyes widen and she quickly pockets the money, “Anything you want, honey.” She drags him upstairs into a spare room. She slams the door shut, and then presses him up against it. She’s got deceptive upper body strength. “Is it your first time, baby? What me to show you a good time?”

He gently pushes her away from him, and her eyes darken in wariness. He bows, keeping his hands where she can see them. “My lady, it’s not your body I desire, although you are very beautiful. I’m looking for someone. I’m hoping you can help me find them.”

“And if I can’t?” she challenges, clenching a hand around the cash he’d handed her.

He inclines his head, “Then I insist that you keep the money in return for your time, and request you direct me to someone who may be able help me.”

She stares at him for a long moment, searching. She relaxes and when she speaks it’s without the airy tilt to her voice. “Tell me about them. I’ll do my best.”

Sasuke smiles.

~

They’re in the middle of a field at the city’s edge in an attempt to minimize collateral damage. Watching Naruto work is humbling and terrifying. Not even Jiraiya can untangle and dissolve chakra seals as easily as he does. She aches that Minato isn’t able to see what his child has grown into, is still growing into.

Then there’s no time to think at all, because Orochimaru’s body is a broken thing. The nerves are fried, the lungs struggle to breath, and his heart only sluggishly beats. It was bad before without the seal to keep it together, but now she and Shizune race to heal his body before it can die on them.

It’s the longest healing she’s done in a while. It was still dark when they began, but when she blinks back to awareness her joints ache and the sun is high in the sky.

“Fourteen hours,” Naruto says cheerfully, holding out a water bottle. “Shizune had to sleep after ten. I’m impressed.”

“Her chakra stores aren’t as large as mine,” she explain, draining the water in one long pull.

“Few are,” he agrees, swapping out her empty bottle for a full one. “Just one last thing.”

She sips at this one, slower now. “Right.” She places a hand on Orochimaru’s head, and she’s never been a religious woman, but she sends up a prayer before breaking the jutsu she’d been using to keep him in a coma.

At first nothing happens. The he opens his eyes, slowly, and his gaze meet hers. In that one moment she knows that they’ve been successful, because Orochimaru has always been curious and manipulative and powerful, but as a child he wasn’t cruel, and it’s that lack of cruelty shining in his eyes now that makes a smile break out across her face.

This is why she’s not expecting him to lunge up into her and reach around under her jacket to grab at the kunai she keeps strapped to her hip, just where he suggested she keep it when they were kids. She holds up an arm to deflect the blow, but finds herself scrambling forward when instead he attempts to plunge the kunai into his own neck. “Stop it!” she jerks his arm back, “What are you doing!?” She forces the kunai from his hand and throws it out of reach. He dives for it, but Tsunade catches him by the waist and slams him into the ground.

“Kill me!” he demands, “If you don’t want there to be blood then strangle me, but do it!”

Naruto looks between them both, eyebrows raised to his forehead.

“I’m not going to kill you!” He reaches for the kunai and she grabs his wrists and pins him to the ground. “Why would I kill you? I just saved you!”

“I don’t know when it’s coming back,” he spits, “You have to do it now! I’m never this clear – I won’t let you do it when I lose it again. You have to kill me now!” He struggles against her hold but can’t throw her off, “For fuck’s sake Tsunade, get off me and I’ll do it myself!”

“What are you talking about?” she asks, and she thinks she knows, but she wants to hear him say it.

“I keep hurting people,” he spits, “and you need to stop me! If the fucking seal would let me, I’d have done it myself years ago, but it won’t so I need you to do it!” He swallows, “Hime, please, I’m begging you, and I don’t beg. Kill me.”

“You just talked about the seal,” she tells him, and she can’t tell if she’s about to start laughing or crying. “You would have killed yourself if I hadn’t stopped you. Orochimaru, it’s gone. It’s not controlling you anymore.”

He goes slack under her, and his next phrase is slow and deliberate, “Danzo put a seal on me before I left Root.” His eyes widen, “How?”

“That’d be me!” Naruto waves, “I took it off. Nasty piece of work.”

His eyes narrow, “Natsu? I was coming to take your body.”

He falters, “Ah. Do you still want to?”

“No, thank you,” he sniffs, “It’s quite a relief to be back in my own, actually.”

“Why were you in your original body when you attacked?” Naruto asks, “It must have been painful.”

“It’s easier to transfer from my old one,” he explains, still looking dazed, “I can jump from temporary body to temporary body, but the stretch becomes too long and they don’t last as long. I was quite interested in your body lasting me a while.”

Naruto blinks. “That’s really creepy.”

“I’m aware,” he drawls. He looks up at Tsunade, “I don’t suppose you’re willing to let me up?”

“Are you going to try to kill yourself?” she asks. He sighs but shakes his head. She cautiously get off of him, and pulls him up with her.

Of course, this is when Jiraiya finally takes the moment to arrive by body flickering into the field and punching Orochimaru in the face. “GET AWAY FROM TSUNADE, BASTARD!” He pulls out a shuriken, ready to throw it into Orochimaru’s skull.

Tsunade moves to stop him, but before she gets the chance he crumples to the ground, revealing a dark haired boy who’d apparently knocked him out by hitting him with the butt of a sword.

“Sasuke!” Naruto yells, “What are you doing here!?”

Sasuke throws the sword onto his back and crosses his arms. He looks from the sannin to Naruto and says, “I don’t know why I’m even surprised, honestly.”

“Are the others with you? Is something wrong?” he asks, marching up the boy.

Sasuke reaches out and pulls Naruto close enough that their foreheads touch. “Everyone’s fine,” he says, “You didn’t really think I’d let you go off to fight a war on your own, did you?” He tugs on Naruto’s ponytail, “I’m not about to let you do something this stupid alone.”

Naruto softens, “You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”

“No where’s safe,” he rolls his eyes, “but here has you, which is all that matters to me.” He cups Naruto’s jaw, “Can I kiss you now?”

Naruto doesn’t answer, instead ducking that much closer to seal their lips together.

Tsunade looks to Orochimaru, who shrugs. “I’m just as confused as you are.”

“How did you know Naruto was going by Natsu?” she asks, choosing to ignore the two teenagers making out in front of them.

He winces, “I may or may not have a sleeper agent inside Konoha who reports back to me. Or several, actually.”

“YOU WHAT?” she screams.

Naruto and Sasuke don’t even pause.

Orochimaru looks at her reproachfully, “I’m not going to tell you things if you yell at me for them.”

She wants a refund. She forgot how much of a brat Orochimaru was when he wasn’t psychotic.

~

The Konoha genin minus Sasuke are gathered at the Inuzuka compound.

“I think I get why your dad drinks so much,” Shikamaru mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Ino shrugs, “Because he’s a wimp? Come on, this isn’t that bad. We all knew that Sasuke was going to go after her.”

“I was hoping,” he groans, “that it would be after the chunin exam.”

All the genin exchange glances. “Why?” Lee asks when it’s clear no one else knows either.

“Because now we’re going to be the only Konoha genin team in the exam. So we actually have to pass. Do you know how pathetic it would be if Konoha’s one team of genin didn’t get promoted? This is awful. I don’t want to be a chunin. Once I’m a chunin I’ll have to start doing patrols,” Shikamaru crosses his arms, “Troublesome.”

It’s times like these that Shino’s actually grateful he was put on a team with the Hyuuga sisters.

~

Jiraiya is going to march back to Konoha and strangle his sensei just as soon as all the information he just got stops making his head spin. “So Naruto, you’ve been alive this whole time pretending to be a girl –”

“She wasn’t pretending,” Sasuke interrupts, “She was a girl.”

He stares. “Right. So you were Natsu Nami, the seal master Sarutobi was trying to get me to train. And you,” he points to Orochimaru, who after his intense healing session with Tsunade and a shower looks closer to his friend than the insane missing-nin, “have been under a mind control jutsu for two decades.”

“It wasn’t mind control,” he says, and no one else would be able to tell anything else was wrong, but he grew up with the bastard and he almost looks – haunted. “I was still me, more or less, in the beginning. But then the as seal frayed I became – less stable. Almost a form of schizophrenia. On my better days, I knew what I was going wasn’t right, wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. On my worst days, I knew and didn’t care.”

“You left on one of your better days, didn’t you?” Tsunade asks.

He looks away, “If I couldn’t stop what I was doing, I could at least stop who I was doing it to. I – there were moments of clarity, but what I was thinking and what I was doing never managed to match up. I kept hoping someone would notice, but,” he shrugs, mirthless, “you’d both left the village at that point, and Sensei was busy.”

“We should have noticed,” Jiraiya says darkly, “If we had –”

Orochimaru places a hand on Jiraiya’s arm, his skin smooth and cool to the touch like it’s always been, “Don’t do that. Leaving was the right decision. The farther I got from Danzo, the less pull his chakra had on mine. It slowed down the process quite a bit.”

“You can go back now,” Tsunade says, “we’ll go with you, we’ll explain everything to Sensei.”

He runs his hand through his hair, “I can’t. I have responsibilities. I should probably be heading back, actually.”

Responsibilities?” Jiraiya sputters, “What the hell could you have to do that’s so important you can’t come home?”

“Oh, didn’t you hear?” he grins, and he’s got the same look on his face from when they were twelve and he’d easily mastered another jutsu Jiraiya was struggling with, “I started my own hidden shinobi village. I’m a kage.” He studies his nails, “Always falling behind, aren’t you Jiraiya?”

“Uh,” Sasuke raises his hand, “if you’re the kage of a village, shouldn’t you be there?”

That’s another crack in Orochimaru’s veneer, and Jiraiya wants to go back to Konoha and strangle Danzo for doing this. “I leave whenever I start – hurting people. It’s okay. They’ve gotten used to it.”

“So,” Naruto says, “you don’t have to, you don’t owe me or anything. But since I did do you a favor, do you want to do me one?”

He raises an eyebrow, “Such us?”

“I’m taking over Kiri, putting a new Mizukage in power, and then causing a coup of the Water royal family,” he says, “You in?”

Orochimaru snorts, “Well when you put it like that, how can I refuse?”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight,” Tsunade says to him, “So I’m coming too.”

Jiraiya crosses his arms, because if his teammates think they’re leaving him behind when they go to start a war they’ve lost it. “Me too.”

“Great!” Naruto chirps, flipping up so he’s doing a handstand on Sasuke’s head.

Jiraiya can’t believe this kid is the next great seal master.

~

The note he receives from Orochimaru stating that he’s joined up with Natsu to take Kiri should absolutely be the strangest thing, or even the line after that telling him to track down Itachi Uchiha to teach him the Mangekyo healing jutsu, but instead he find his eyes lingering on the last bit.

I’m gratified by your loyalty.

A strange combination of affection and devotion surges in his chest. Orochimaru-sama and Natsu are working together, he doesn’t have to choose.

Maybe he’ll go find Hana and ask her to dinner. Today seems like a day for miracles.

Elsewhere in the village, Anko is running through her taijutsu katas when there’s a shift of familiar chakra. She’s never had the heart to end her contract with the snakes, training with the creatures are some of the best memories she has, but those memories are a double edged sword, and she can’t bear to summon them more than necessary.

She recognizes the chakra though, and crouches down to the small mamba that’s slithering towards her. “Miki,” she says, recognizing the odd diamond pattern on her head, “is something wrong? What are you doing here?”

“You bled for our contract,” the snake hisses, “you should use us more.” Anko winces, but knows for a fact the uppity little snake didn’t come all this way to berate her. She holds out her tail to Anko, depositing a scroll in her hand. “He at least hasn’t forgotten about us.” She dismisses herself with an arrogant toss of her head.

Anko stares down at the scroll in her hand, and it’s soaked in Orochimaru’s chakra. She should absolutely hand it over to the hokage, her old sensei had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her, he was a terrible man and a missing-nin of her village who hurt people, who tortured them, and she should hate him for what he’s done.

Never mind that he took her under his wing as a lone Academy graduate, that he dressed her wounds, taught her almost everything she knows, never mind that he never hurt her, not until that day she can’t remember. Never mind that he cared for her in a way she’d wanted all her life, never mind that he’s the closest thing she’s ever had to a parent.

She opens the scroll.

Anko,

I did not leave you behind. I asked you to come with me, and you refused to betray Konoha.

You made the right decision. I’m proud of you.

Your Sensei

She doesn’t realize she’s crying until she’s buried her face in her knees, clutching the note to her chest. Orochimaru is proud of her.

It shouldn’t mean anything. It means everything.

~

There’s a knock at her door. “Come in,” Ren looks up from her accounting book, and isn’t surprised to see Naruto on the other side. “Got everything sorted out?”

“Yeah,” he sits in the chair across from her, fidgeting in a way she’s not used to seeing from him. “We’re heading out tomorrow.”

She leans back in her chair, “Well, I’ll be sorry to see you go. Your entourage on the other hand,” she shrugs. “You found what you were looking for?”

He nods, and swallows. “I want to offer you something, as a thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“This wasn’t a favor,” she reminds him, “I’ll collect one day.”

“I know,” he almost smiles, “and this isn’t payment. But,” he pulls a letter from his pocket and hands it to her. “This is a letter of introduction. If you want, if you’re willing to make the journey, Madame Koi of Konoha’s Flower District will take you on.” Ren stares down at the unassuming letter in her hands, and she doesn’t know what the look on her face is, but whatever it is causes Naruto to babble, “You’re good, you’re mostly trained already. You can take your girls with you if you want, and I know it’s a step down, to go from a Madame to a courtesan again. But being Koi opens up a lot of doors, and Madame Koi will take you on if I ask her to. You don’t have to. But if you want,” he shrugs, helpless. “You’re the best, Ren. We like the best to belong to us, you know? You can do a lot with Koi training to back you up.”

“Naruto,” she says, a smile breaking out over her face, “Thank you.”

She’d never dreamed she’d get this opportunity. This more than makes up for every incredibly dangerous shinobi under her roof.

She and her girls are going to be Koi. Leaving her business and steady income behind is a risk, but growth requires risk. She’s ready to grow.

~

Naruto has already shifted back to Natsu for sleeping purposes when there’s a knock on her door.

“Sasuke,” she grins, stepping aside to let him in. “What’s up?”

“I just wanted to say goodnight,” he says, but he’s frowning. He reaches out a hand, delicately twisting her hair around his finger, “You know that I don’t care what you look like, right? I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl, or anything like that. You can do whatever you want.”

“Okay?” Natsu says warily.

“Have you tried being a girl while still looking like – you? Like Naruto?” he asks hesitantly, “If you like how Natsu looks, that’s fine too. But you don’t have to look like someone else anymore. Not if you don’t want to.”

She hasn’t thought about it, actually. She’s just always looked like this when she’s done the Oiroke, but she thinks back to the very first time she did the technique, before she figured out to change the things that people would recognize her by. There’s a quick pop of chakra, and her hair is sunshine yellow and her eyes a bright blue. Her face shape is a bit broader, but still clearly feminine. Sasuke smiles and cups her face to rub his thumb over her whisker marks. “How do I look?” she asks.

“Gorgeous,” he says, dark eyes soft. “How does it feel?”

“I like it,” she decides, even though she hasn’t even looked in the mirror yet. She got her hair and her eyes from her father, and like her name she’s invested in reclaiming these things too. She’s glad Sasuke thought to point it out to her. “Did you really come just to say goodnight?”

He takes a half step closer, “If that’s all you wanted me to come for, then yes.”

Naruto giggles and leaps onto Sasuke, wrapping her legs around his waist. He backs up until she can pin him against the wall, and ducks down to kiss him. He holds her easily, and hesitantly reaches under her shirt to run his hands against the skin of her back. He doesn’t try for anything farther, even though Naruto wouldn’t stop him, has done more than this with people who meant a lot less to her than Sasuke, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever tire of how Sasuke makes her feel safe and respected and loved.

~

When the news reaches them that Sasuke Uchiha is now a missing-nin of Konoha, Itachi has to take a deep breath to keep from tearing his hair out.

Next time he sees Naruto he’s going to strangle her.

~

“This is so undignified,” Orochimaru sniffs, hands tucked into the wide sleeves of the short purple kimono he’d bought at the market. Jiraiya absolutely plans on making fun of him for it later.

They’re all piled in the back of topless wagon on that’s headed in the direction of Kiri with an extremely nervous driver up front.

“I’ve been in worse,” Zabuza shrugs, Haku curled up against his side.

“I think it’s nice,” Shizune adds, because the last thing she wants is a fight breaking out.

Gaara rubs the sweat from his brow with a disdainful flick, “Yes. Nice.” He can’t wait to be back in a desert. Naruto snorts, and Sasuke quirks his lips up at the corners.

“I have to ask,” Jiraiya says, leaning into Orochimaru’s space, “why is it the Village Hidden in Sound? How do you even hide in sound? What does music have to do with rice?”

“I like music,” he says. After a moment, it’s clear that that’s his answer to all three questions.

“That’s it?” Tsunade asks, “Really?”

He shrugs, “What was I supposed to call it? The Village Hidden in the Marsh? That’s a terrible name.”

“You were a pretty good singer,” Jiraiya concedes.

Orochimaru scoffs, “I’m still a great singer, thank you. Unlike you, you tone deaf buffoon, I have perfect pitch.”

“Oh really?” the toad sannin challenges, “Prove it.”

“Do you seriously expect me to burst into song?” he asks.

Tsunade starts clapping, a slow easy beat. Zabuza begins stomping counter to it, and Orochimaru glares at them both. “Come on,” Jiraiya nudges his shoulder. “You’re the Otokage. Put your money where your mouth is.”

He scowls, but after a moment more he clears his throat. Orochimaru’s voice is a clear, bright tenor that cuts through the air around them, and Naruto recognizes the song as a lover’s ballad that Madame Koi would hum sometimes when he was kid. Everyone settles, becoming entranced, because Orochimaru is in fact an amazing singer.

Sasuke holds out his hand palm up, and Naruto smiles and threads their fingers together. Sasuke leans his head on Naruto’s shoulder, and separated from his village and most his friends Naruto’s still so happy in this moment that he could burst.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 


Commission by Crispicat

 Commission of Natsu and Naruto done by Crispicat

 

 

 

One Thousand Two Hundred and Eight Days Later

 

“Otokage-sama.”

Orochimaru doesn’t dare look away from his experiment, because there’s a slight chance that if he does everything will explode. But everyone in his village knows that interrupting him in his lab tends to end in explosions, so it’s probably important.

Oddly, nearly four years of sanity has only made him more inclined to experiment with explosive substances.

“Hmm?”

“We’ve received important information on your former allies, the Akatsuki.” Kimimaro is loyal, but he’s also smart, so he hasn’t done more than lean into the doorway. Ha, as if that would save him. If this thing goes south the whole building will go down. “We have info on their movement, and we believe Konohagakure is in danger.”

Konoha. It’s not his village anymore, not his home, but it’s still the place he grew up, the place he met his first two friends. It’s where Kabuto and Anko live, and if for no other reason than that it must be protected. He sighs, and with a powerful chakra strike dissolves the bubbling mass from the flask and douses the flame. Such a waste. He turns to one of his most loyal shinobi, and Kimimaro dips into a slight bow. “Tell me everything.”

~

Sasuke’s hand squeezes her hip and he mutters into her hair, “I wish you’d worn more of a disguise.”

“You didn’t,” Naruto points out. She hasn’t even bothered to hide her whisker marks, but she’s not worried. Rumors are whispered about the scarred, blue eyed blond man that helped bring Kiri to its knees, and people rarely take the time to look past her gender.

Besides, no one’s looking at her face in this dress. Long, tight, and shimmering in the bright light of the Water Daiymo’s ballroom, and low cut enough that at least four women have given her scandalized looks and pulled their husbands away. Gaara had picked it out, pointing out that he was the only completely straight man in their group. They’d all side eyed Jiraiya, but he’d only sniffed and turned up his nose at them.

Naruto grabs a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and downs it all in one go. “You did get the sleeping tonic in his drink?”

He glares.

“Just checking,” she hands him the empty glass and winks, “Guess it’s my turn.”

“Have fun,” he mutters, glancing at the Daiymo. If the world was fair, he’d be just as ugly outside as he is on the inside. Instead he’s quite attractive, too strong jawed to be called beautiful but lithe and fair enough for handsome. His wife is on his left, his consort on his right, and his sister far behind him.

Naruto slips away, glancing at the girl that they’re balancing all their hopes on. Masuyo is twenty years old and unwilling to meet anyone’s eyes. She’s pretty – jiggling stomach, thick wrists, and all, but she doesn’t look like anyone Naruto would put in charge of a country. Too bad they don’t have a choice.

Getting past the guard is almost pathetically easy, she just has to push her cleavage together and imply she’s a gift from one of the nobles. Once she’s in his bedroom it’s just a waiting game until the tonic takes and he gets tired enough excuse himself to his bedroom – then it begins.

It hasn’t been nearly enough time when the door creeks open, and Naruto whirls around. The daiymo’s consort, Tatsu Suo, stands there glaring at her. She’s wrapped in expensive silk, and beautiful in a way Naruto never will be. She’s the perfect combination of petite and curvy, with thick curly hair and eyes so perfectly green it looks like some someone cut jade to size and set them in her face. Naruto lowers her eyes and curtsies demurely, “Miss Suo.” They were planning to kill the woman, but not yet.

“Why are you in my lord’s chambers?” she demands.

“I am a gift,” she says softly.

Tatsu stalks forward and jerks Naruto’s face up to hers. “You are a liar. This is a ball for my lord’s most trusted and staunch supporters – they know better to send some untrained child to my lord’s bed.” She squeezes Naruto’s jaw, “Who’s the traitor among them? Who sent you here to slit his throat in his sleep?”

“Miss, I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Naruto cries, pretending to struggle against the woman’s grip. Shit shit shit. “I’m only meant to pleasure the daimyo!”

“Child, I’m no ordinary courtesan,” she hisses, “I’m koi trained, and I suggest you stop lying to me before I become impatient and snap your neck. I threw out the concoction your partner gave my lord, so you might as well tell me who you are. Your plan is destroyed.”

Naruto almost wants to laugh. Destroyed? Not nearly. Although they’d underestimated Tatsu, and Naruto should have known better, being taught by a Madame Koi herself. This all does mean there’s no reason for subtly, so she has Tatsu on her knees and a kunai to her throat in between one breath and the next. “Funny story,” she says calmly, “I’m koi trained too.”

“You’re with those fools who took Kiri aren’t you?” Tatsu spits, seemingly unperturbed about the blade against her skin. “The people will never let you take all of Water Country! The royal family leads by divine right, we will follow no other!”

There’s something off about the way Tatsu’s talking about this, and Naruto’s just curious enough not to kill her long enough to figure it out. “How kind of you, to include all of the royal family in your defense. I would think you’d only care for your murderous lord.”

“The daimyo is a sadistic, pathetic fuck,” she says, and Naruto has to bite her lip to keep from laughing. “I know that, you know that, everyone knows that. But he’s heirless, and if you kill the royal family off then those morons in Kiri won’t be able to hold that village, never mind the nation.”

Okay, this is a surprise. Clearly everyone had been missing a very important piece of intel. “You want me to leave the sister alive?” Naruto asks, “She’s useless.”

Tatsu tenses, but she forces herself to relax. “She’s perfect,” the consort counters, “you leave her alive, and the people won’t revolt against you. She’s more useful as a political hostage than she is dead.”

Zabuza and Sasuke are going to kill her for changing the plan like this, but she’s curious. She lets got of Tatsu, and the woman steps away and turns to look at her, face pale and just pinched enough to hide how desperate she is. “Okay,” Naruto flips the kunai and hold it out to Tatsu handle first. “I’ll make you a deal. If you kill the daimyo yourself, in front of all those people, we’ll leave Masuyo alive.”

“We?” she repeats, and that intelligence in the woman’s gorgeous eyes isn’t enough to hide her fear. “How many of you are there?”

Naruto smiles, all teeth, “Enough.”

Tatsu swallows, “Do you swear on your honor, on your loyalty, and on the Madame Koi who inked you that Masuyo will live if I do this?”

She’s smart enough to cover all the bases. Naruto’s almost impressed. “I do swear.”

The older woman nods once, takes a deep breath, then grabs the kunai and tucks it up under her sleeve before marching out of the room. Naruto gives her a thirty second head start before creeping out to follow her.

~

“Down!” Sakura snaps, standing on Paru’s back as he runs towards the enemy ninja. Ino, Kiba, and Shikamaru all hit the ground. She unhooks her oversized shuriken from her back and flings it in a perfect arc.

It cuts off the heads of two of their enemies, which leaves five still standing. There’d been ten originally, so Sakura isn’t too concerned. “Since when do we get attacks at the border?” Ino demands. Shikamaru catches one of them with his shadows, and Ino gracefully leaps at the paralyzed woman and snaps her neck, just barely ducking out of the way of an enemy sword.

“This isn’t the border,” Kiba reminds, running counterpoint Akamaru to cage in another one of them. He uses a blinding jutsu that Sakura had taught him, so the man doesn’t even see Akamaru coming before the dog rips out his throat. “Technically.”

“It’s closer to my village than I like,” Shikamaru mutters. Sakura darts past, yanks him up by his collar, and throws him at one of their eerily silent enemies. He lands precisely where she intended, in a patch of shadow. He uses it to immobilize two more of them, then sends her an aggrieved look. She shrugs and flips off of Paru to stab another of them in the spine, then tosses the knife to Ino. The other girl snatches it out of midair and does an impressive low spin that ends with the knife in the back and through the chest of another unmarked shinobi.

They surround the last shinobi standing. She’s got a kunai in each hand, poised to defend herself. “You’re joking, right?” Sakura snorts. She pats Paru on the flank, “Go.” The spirit dog knocks the woman to the ground and in one smooth motion bites her head off. She doesn’t even have time to scream. Paru trots back over to Sakura, tail wagging, and drops the severed head at her feet. She beams and rubs him behind the ears, “Who’s a good boy? Is it you? Is it you? I think it is!”

Ino blinks. “That’s messed up.”

“Bite me,” Sakura says cheerfully.

Shikamaru sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “We need to search the bodies for village affiliation. It’s probably one that speaks with a heavy accent, since they wouldn’t talk.”

“My money’s on Kumo,” Kiba says, already patting down a corpse.

Ino scoffs, bending down to flip a body over. “Please, it’s probably Iwa. Kumo accents sound like ours.”

“You willing to put your money where your mouth is?” Sakura says immediately.

Shikamaru’s about to tell them to knock it off and focus when there’s a shift in the air. The dead ninja Ino had been checking apparently isn’t so dead, and she’s not paying attention. She’s not moving away, not fast enough, and Ino’s his sister in every way that matters so Shikamaru doesn’t hesitate to dart forward and plunge a kunai into the enemy ninja’s throat. The blood is hot and thick as it spills over his fingers, and he wrenches the blade out with enough strength that he takes out part of the neck so it hangs out as well. He’s watched his teammates do this a thousand times, so he swallows the bile rising at the back of the throat. “You should pay closer attention,” he says with all the calm that he doesn’t feel.

“Shika,” Ino says, pale. She takes a step towards him, hand outstretched, but he turns on his heel and walks away before she can touch him.

“Clean this up,” he says over his shoulder, not able to look at any of them.

“What’s his problem?” Kiba asks, and Shikamaru can feel the other boy’s glare on his skin.

He body flickers away after that, if only so he doesn’t have to hear Ino tell them that this was his first real kill, the first one he’d done up close with his bare hands. He’s killed before, of course he has, he’s a jounin. But that had been the first time it’d been so – personal.

There’s blood drying under his fingernails, and he doesn’t want to face either his mother or his teammates, so he goes the opposite way of the clan compounds, and keeps walking.

~

Zabuza was going to kill the brat. “This wasn’t the plan,” he says to Sasuke after beheading three nobles in one blow. That has been fun, at least.

The younger man rolls his eyes, “Well, it’s the three of us heading into a plan more specific than ‘fuck shit up’ so I don’t know what you were expecting.” He reaches out and stabs through two nobles that had been attempting to run away.

With the Last Uchiha and the Demon of the Mist running around killing nobles, it doesn’t even take another five minutes until every party guest is dead on the marble floor. Except for two.

Tatsu is covered in the blood of the Daimyo, his body cooling at her feet. She’s crouched protectively in front Masuyo, kunai gripped tight and what impresses Zabuza is that the girl is, rightly, fucking terrified and she’s still holding her ground. Battle hardened shinobi have fled from him, but she doesn’t. Nice.

“You said you’d let her live,” Tatsu says, voice shaking. “You swore.”

“Obviously,” he sighs. “Naruto, what the fuck?”

The woman laughs, and pushes herself off from the doorway to walk over to them, daintily stepping around the blood and bodies. “I wanted to see what she would do.”

“Thanks for the help,” he adds pointedly.

“As if I was going to ruin this dress with blood. Besides, like you two really needed my help to slaughter some civilians,” she stops next to them, beaming. “I’m impressed that you actually did it, Tatsu. I’m even more impressed that you managed to kill the guards that came for you too. Although, you are koi trained. I should know better.”

Masuyo steps forward, pale and nauseous at all the carnage. “Please,” she says softly, eyes the clearest pale blue that marks the Daimyo’s family line. “Let Tatsu go. I won’t resist, I promise.”

“No!” Tatsu doesn’t take her eyes off of them, but reaches back towards the younger girl. “No, you said you’d let her live. She’s more useful alive, you have to know that!”

Masuyo grabs her hand and squeezes, coming to stand next to Tatsu. She uses her other hand to push Tatsu’s arm down and take the kunai from her. It clatters to the floor, too loud in the cavernous ballroom. “I’m smart enough to know when I’m beaten,” she offers them a watery smile, “I hear you’ve done good things in Kiri, and I hope you will try to do good things with the rest of Water Country. Please, spare Tatsu. Her loyalty shouldn’t spell her death.”

“My loyalty is why I demand to die!” she spits, curling her fingers through Masuyo’s. “If you have no honor and go back on your word, then I demand to die too! In fact, I demand to be killed first!”

“Tatsu!” Masuyo snaps, “Stop this!”

The courtesan finally looks away from the shinobi to Masuyo, eyes sparking. “I refuse to live in this world without you in it! I have endured hunger, pain, the dangerous path of a koi, your murderous brother’s hands on me, the hands of every vile man he thought worthy of his favor, and I now stand with my lord’s blood soaking me. But I will not endure a life alone!”

“Tatsu,” Masuyo says, stepping closer until she can cup the older woman’s face.

“You are my only salvation,” she whispers, “I could not have survived at court without you.”

Zabuza can’t watch this anymore. It’s starting to remind him too much of Haku, and his lover is back holding his seat in Kiri. It’s the longest they’ve been apart since they’ve met. “Don’t you think you two are getting a bit ahead of yourselves?” he asks.

Masuyo turns to him, and she’s more beautiful than her brother ever could be, her double chin and stubby fingers are nothing to the well of kindness behind her eyes. “I don’t understand.”

He heaves the sword off his back and swings it down. Masuyo shoves herself in front of Tatsu to take a blow that will never fall. Instead he’s plunged the blade into the floor, the marble cracking outward. He falls to bended knee before the women. Naruto and Sasuke stay standing behind him, but he doesn’t expect anything else. Water Country isn’t their country, after all. “Masuyo of the Royal Line,” he intones, “Second child and first daughter of the late Daiymo Kyo, I am a loyal shinobi of the Mist, and a loyal citizen of Water Country. I would never raise my blade against a worthy ruler of my nation.”

Tatsu’s face is lit in delighted realization, but Masuyo’s is blank. “I don’t understand,” she repeats.

“With your brother gone, you’re the next in line,” he says, cracking a grin. “His staunchest supporters lay dead at your feet, my lady. As I would have any who would stand against you.”

She’s shaking her head, eyes wide. “No, you don’t – I can’t!”

“I have taken Kiri, and I can hold Kiri,” he says seriously, “But a ninja village cannot repair the wounds of a nation. That burden rests on the leader of our nation – on you, Lady Masuyo. You love your people, don’t you? Care for them?”

She looks away. “I – yes, of course I do.”

“They tell takes of your kindness,” Naruto adds. “Of the people you’ve pardoned and those you’ve spared the Daiymo’s wrath.”

“It wasn’t enough!” She glares, “It was never enough, I should do more. I want to do more, I just, my brother.” Her cheeks flush with shame.

“Your brother was a monster,” Sasuke says, “and now he’s dead. You finally have the opportunity to do more, to make the changed you’ve wanted to make.”

She’s even paler than when she thought they were here to kill her. “You will not be alone,” he says, “Allow Kiri to be what it was meant to – the shadow at your back. Point us to your enemies, your dissenters, your trouble makers. We will cut them down, and allow you to forge a clear path to peace.”

 “But you don’t understand,” she says urgently, “The only reason my brother never killed me was because he never considered me a threat – never considered me capable of leading. I was never meant to be Daimyo!”

Zabuza holds out his hand to her. She doesn’t hesitate to place her hand in his, even though he’s killed dozens of people in front of her, even though she knows he’s easily capable of killing her with his hands alone. He thinks he could grow to love this Masuyo in a way he had never loved his Mizukage or Daimyo. “Perhaps, my lady,” he says with all the gentleness that Haku has taught him, “who you are meant to be is less important than who you choose to be.”

He presses his forehead to the top of her hand, and to get the leader his people need he’s not above begging. Thankfully, she doesn’t make him. “Okay,” she says softly, “I’ll do it. I’ll – okay. Okay.”

When he looks up again he’s grinning, “Thank you, Daimyo Masuyo.”

She smiles then looks behind her, “Tatsu –”

“I will be what I’ve always been,” she says, grabbing for Masuyo’s other hand. “The beloved consort of the daimyo.”

When Tatsu sweeps Masuyo into a kiss, none of them are surprised.

“So should we start cleaning up all the corpses, or what?” Sasuke asks.

Naruto raises an eyebrow, “What part of I’m not ruining this dress with blood did you not understand?”

Zabuza rubs at his temple. It’s times like this that he really misses Haku.

~

Haku is, of course, eternally grateful for the Saanins’ aid in taking Kiri. That said, he’s also incredibly grateful to see them leave. “Be careful,” he warns them at the village’s border, “The Akatsuki are not foes to be trifled with.”

“Neither are we,” Tsunade says and thumps him on the back. He doesn’t stumble under the force of it, but only barely. “Don’t let your significant other mess it up.”

Jiraiya squints at the skyline, “Think we should go drag Orochimaru with us? He’s the one who gave us the information, it seems rude to exclude him.”

Haku stares. “The last time you went to Otogakure and dragged him away from his post into a battle he threatened to castrate you, since he’s a kage and can’t exactly abandon his duties whenever you have need of his aid.”

“So you’re saying we should definitely stop by Oto and kidnap him?” Tsunade asks, smirking.

He’s so happy to see them leave his village. “Just – don’t get killed. Tell Orochimaru that we’ll set up the trade routes as soon as the Daimyo gives us her blessing, as per our treaty.”

“Will do!” Jiraiya glances at his teammate, “Race you there?” She doesn’t answer, but in the next moment she’s cackling on top of a giant slug that’s going much faster than one would expect. “Cheater!” he howls, and a moment later he’s bouncing after her atop a huge toad.

“Stay strong and stay safe,” he says, amused in spite of himself. So, so grateful to see them leave.

~

“I hope you’re planning to pay for those, young man.”

Shikamaru blinks and looks up. He must have cleaned his hands at some point, and he’s in front of Kisa’s stall, two squished plums in his fists. He doesn’t even remember walking into the market. “Since when do you sell plums?”

“They’re good for marinating, if you’re patient and want something different,” she says. Shikamaru’s been coming to this stall since before he could stretch past his mother’s knees, so Kisa’s more concerned than irritated. “Are you well, Master Nara?”

“I don’t have any money on me,” he says instead of answering. “I can send it with the maid tomorrow.”

“Here,” a woman who’d been picking through the beef hands Kisa a few coins, far more than two plums could possibly cost. She’s beautiful, but in way that’s so typical she almost looks plain. Her dark hair falls down her back, and she’s wearing an orange kimono.

“Thank you, Miss,” Kisa says, though she looks like she’s ready to continue interrogating him regardless.

Another young woman in a white and orange spotted dress waves her hands, “Oh, Mistress Kisa, could you help me pick out a filet? I’m so bad at this!”

Kisa sighs before grudgingly going over to help her. “Thanks,” Shikamaru says to the woman.

She reaches out and plucks the plums from his hands, tossing one into the trash and casually taking a bite out of the other. “They’re my favorite,” she says, wiping the plum juice from her chin. “You should walk me home, it’s getting dark and a woman such as myself shouldn’t be on the dangerous streets of Konoha alone.”

He raises an eyebrow. It’s barely dusk, the streets of Konoha are hardly dangerous, and a woman such as herself has little to worry about. He recognizes her kimono. “Sure,” he says, because anything is better than going home and having to face his mother. 

“Excellent,” she stares at him expectantly, and after a moment the manners that someone – probably Ino – had drilled into him kick in and he offers her his arm. She delicately places her hand in the crook of his elbow and leads him away from the market. “So tell me, was today your first kill, your first fuck, or both?”

He stumbles, but she doesn’t, tugging him along with her down the street. “Excuse me?”

“My first time was when I was fourteen,” she continues as if he hadn’t said anything, “It wasn’t pleasant. The bandits who killed my father thought I was more useful alive than dead. I’m grateful for that now. I wasn’t then.” Shikamaru doesn’t know what to say to that, because exactly once someone hadn’t felt like taking Ino’s no for an answer, and she’d left him unable to walk. He forgets sometimes that not all women have the privilege of a shinobi’s upbringing. “My first kill wasn’t until much later, I was nineteen. I was a whore in the service of what some people might consider a Madame, and there was this girl – we weren’t friends, you didn’t really have friends in that house, but she smiled at me and helped me repair my kimonos when customers got too rough. I’m no good with needlework, you understand. And I could hear her screaming, begging someone to help her, yelling her safe word.”

Shikamaru’s staring at her, eyes wide, but she’s looking straight ahead and not at him as she continues her story, as relaxed as if she was telling him what she had for dinner.

“No one was doing anything, of course,” she continues, “He was a valued customer and she was just another washed up whore, easy to replace and not someone anyone would miss.”

“You would have missed her,” he says.

She almost smiles, but still doesn’t look at him. “Perhaps. I like to think so. I went to the kitchen, got a paring knife of all things, and walked into her room. He was so intent on her that he didn’t notice I was there until I’d slit his throat.”

“Then what?” he asks, only able to bear half of minute of her silence.

“Well, we ran,” she says, “It’s not impossible to work outside of a Madame, but it’s difficult. Not that that woman was anything close to a true Madame – none worth their obi would allow their girls to be abused in such a way. It’s bad for business, means the clients won’t respect you. It all worked out in the end – I was running my own brothel for a few years before I came to Konoha.”

It’s past dusk now, and in the light of the last remnants of the setting sun she’s striking. “Why are you telling me this?” he asks.

She finally looks at him and smiles. “To remind you that ninja are not the only people who bear your burdens, and make your choices. Your past does not define your future – what happened to me when I was fourteen was terrible, but it has nothing to do with who I am now. You’re not alone Shikamaru, even in this.”

They’ve stopped walking at some point, and he swallows, looking down at the older woman. “How do you know my name?”

“The son of Jounin Commander Shikaku, and the next to lead the Nara Clan,” she says wryly, “There are not many in this village who do not know you.”

“Then you have me at a disadvantage,” he takes a hesitant step closer, ready to back away if he’s read her wrong.

She matches him, and now there’s barely a half foot of space between them. “Ren,” she says, and deliberately looks him up and down. The glowing red lanterns around them tells them he’s in Flower District, and he hesitates.

Ren doesn’t. She pushes herself up to kiss him, and there’s the sweet-tart taste of plums between them. He can feel the whipcord strength of her body in his arms, and he’s been terrified of breaking every civilian woman he’s touched. There’s something comforting in the knowledge that she’s probably being just as gentle with him as he is with her. They move apart, but Shikamaru tips his forehead down to rest against hers. “I don’t have any money on me,” he echoes, and she might hit him for that but he wants to be sure.

She rolls her eyes and kisses him again, “If a chef can cook for his own pleasure, then I can fuck for mine.”

He’s sure there’s a snarky comment to that, but she’s leading him upstairs and he’s not thinking of ripping out a man’s jugular when he’s focused on the curve of her hip beneath his hand.

~

Hanabi can’t help but think that as Neji grows older he becomes more and more the spitting image of their fathers. “Again,” she says, face impassive as four dozen of her kin perfectly execute the katas she was taught as a little girl, but that their lines haven’t practiced in generations. Neji stands front and center, apart from the rest. He does each move with a power and grace that even her father can’t match, and one she won’t ever will.

Hinata stands at her shoulder, slightly behind her. Her sister dips her head closer and says quietly, “We have a meeting in five minutes. Should I stall Sensei?” 

“Hmm,” her eyes flicker over them, pausing over the ones that struggle with the move or falls a beat behind the others. They need more practice, but she can only supervise them in secret for so long. “Neji.”

He pauses and dips into a low bow, “Hanabi-hime?”

“Continue the drills. Report back to me on their progress tomorrow.” It’s not the first time she’s demonstrated her trust in her cousin, but it’s not normally in front of so many of their family. His eyes crinkle around the corners just slightly, and she inclines her head to him before body flickering away.

She’s not the strongest, or the oldest, or even the wisest. If she’s to command any respect from her clan and lead them, she can’t afford to show weakness or indecision.

Hinata looks from her to Shino and huffs before throwing her arms around them both, eyes sparkling. “We’re away from prying eyes, you can smile you know?” She flicks Shino’s glasses so they slide down to the end of his nose. He raises an eyebrow. “Oh come on!” The eldest Hyuuga sister reaches out and pokes Shino’s lips into a terrifying facsimile of a grin.

Hanabi’s the first to break. First it’s just a snort, but when she sneaks a glance and Hinata’s still pulling their teammate’s face into increasingly unlikely positions. She starts giggling and can’t make herself stop even when Kurenai walks into the clearing.

“You are seventeen years old,” she reminds them, more amused than exasperated.

“Hanabi is fourteen,” Shino corrects tonelessly. Hinata is in the process of pushing his eyebrows as high on his forehead as they’ll go.

Kurenai rolls her eyes and tosses a mission scroll at them. Shino catches it. “Assassination, Water Country. Get in, get out, and don’t get caught. But bring the head back.”

“How do you subtly cut off someone’s head?” Hinata asks, but their sensei is already walking away.

“You know who would know the answer to that question?” Hanabi grabs the scroll from Shino, lips still twitching as she scans the mission information. “Sakura.”

“Medic-nin are terrifying,” Shino mutters. As one, Team Eight shunsins away.

~

Inoichi looks down into his glass, chin resting on his hand. There’s the scrape of chairs being pulled out, and Shikaku and Chouza fall down on either side of him. “What could possibly be wrong now?” Shikaku asks.

Inoichi squints at him, “Are you having me stalked? It’s really the only reasonable explanation as to how you always know I’m here.”

“Please,” Chouza waves down the bartender, “You have a mini emotional break down once a week. You’re overdue for one, to be honest.”

“Our children are threatening to break even our records,” the Jounin Commander says, “there’s no clan issues, Hana and Kabuto are disgustingly happy and successful together, as you well know since you had dinner with them last week.”

Inoichi scowls. “Kabuto literally dragged me away in the middle of an interrogation! They took me to get dango, ate more than their combined weight in fried food, and then made me pay for it!”

“That’s what I said,” Shikaku says with a straight face.

“Seriously,” Chouza gratefully accepts his glass from the bartender, “What’s wrong? Things are going fine.”

“That’s just it, things are going fine. Sasuke is still out of the village,” Inoichi carefully doesn’t mention the other absence, “Kiri is barely stable, and the Land of Water could fall into a civil war at any second. Half this village is running around lying to the hokage and clan heads, and my daughter is dating that – that-”

“Clan head?” Shikaku asks, “Highly respected jounin? The last active ninja of a great family that founded this very village?”

Brat,” Inoichi spits. “He’s a brat and I’ll have him killed! I will!”

Chouza says, “A certain student of yours would be very upset with you. As would Ino.”

He looks remorsefully into his nearly empty drink, “I regret every agreeing to take on a genin team.”

Shikaku knocks their shoulders together, a smirk curling around the edge of his lips. “Liar.”

Inoichi lets his head smack onto the bar top. His teammates sigh and clink their glasses over his prostrate form.

Some things never change.

~

Chouji doesn’t think this is helping anyone. No one’s listening to him, of course, never mind that this is his house.

“Anybody could have made that mistake,” Sakura insists, trying to push the shot closer to Ino.

She shakes her head and takes another mournful bite of her the cake in front of her. It’s her third piece. Considering he made it, Chouji would be flattered if he didn’t know that she’s a stress eater. “It was stupid! I made a mistake, I was stupid –”

“Hey,” Sai says reproachfully. To anyone else his face probably looks blank, but Chouji can tell he’s concerned by the tension in his neck. “It’s reasonable to assume that when an enemy is speared through the heart that they are dead. There was no stupidity in your assumption.”

Ino almost smiles, and Sai isn’t his favorite person, but for how happy he makes Ino alone Chouji could learn to love him. “Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Kiba adds, “he had to do it sometime. Near the village walls with his friends is a lot nicer than most of us did our first up close and personal kills.”

Ino shrugs, and her eyes find his. Chouji has crushed a dozen men beneath his body and treated it like a particularly bloody version of bowling. Ino is especially fond of tearing the still beating heart out of their enemies’ chests when they’ve pissed her off, but Shikamaru isn’t like that. He’s never been like that. There’s an edge to all of them, a sharp point in them that civilians don’t have. Sakura does, even as a kid there was that same something about her that the other kids in their class lacked. It’s not maliciousness, more of a mix of determination and dissociation that makes it easy for them to shrug off the blood on their hands.

Shikamaru doesn’t have that. He never has. He’ll do his duty, protect his village with his life, but there’s no part of him that enjoys what he does. That doesn’t make the older boy any less of a loyal ninja. From all accounts, Itachi was the same way and he’d slaughtered his clan on orders.

“I guess,” Ino says softly, but Chouji knows that she’s thinking the same thing he is.

There’s a loud knock at his front door, then a moment later Team Eight body flickers inside.

“Hey, Sakura,” Hanabi says, “What’s the best way to rip someone’s head off without blood getting everywhere?”

“Is that cake?” Hinata asks while Sakura blinks. “Can I have a piece?”

Chouji hands the girl a piece of cake then offers one to Shino, who takes it with a nod of thanks.

“Killing them first is your best bet,” she says, “There’ll be less blood. If you can cauterize both ends fast enough you can probably get away almost clean, but there will be some odor if you do that.”

“We can just set something else on fire to cover it,” Hinata says around her cake.

Hanabi shrugs in agreement. “On that note, we’re leaving the village on a mission. We should be back in a week.”

“We’ll keep an eye on your secret army,” Kiba says. “Have fun cutting people’s heads off.”

Hanabi tilts her head at an arrogant angle, “We always do.”

A moment later they’re gone just as quickly as they’d came. Hinata and Shino had taken their pieces of cake with them.

“Do you ever think Hanabi will get bored one day and just take out Sarutobi for the hokage position?” Sakura asks.

Sai shakes his head, “Never. She hates bureaucracy. Hinata writes all their mission reports.”

Ino snorts, and it’s close enough to a laugh that everyone’s shoulders relax. “Here,” Sakura gives up on subtly and shoves the shot next to Ino’s plate.

She shakes her head, “No, it’s okay. I don’t like drinking when I’m upset.”

The remnants of Team Seven and Sai stare at her. Chouji bites his lip to keep from laughing. “Are you really sure you’re Inoichi’s kid?” Kiba asks.

Ino flings a glob of chocolate at him. He bounces up to catch it in his mouth instead of on his forehead, and Sakura and Sai applaud.

Ino actually does smile at that point, and Chouji can almost breath easily again.

~

Kakashi is not hiding from Iruka in the tree outside the apartment. Hiding would imply that Iruka didn’t know he was there, and the chunin knew perfectly well where his boyfriend was. That said, considering the medium sized fire and missing wall that had resulted from Kakashi trying to cook lunch, he wasn’t going to attempt going back inside until Iruka gave him very explicit instructions.

“Hello dear rival!” Gai booms, suddenly right next to him and yelling in his ear.

Ever since he unlocked his final gate even Kakashi hadn’t been able to sense his chakra. “Gai,” he manfully resists the urge to check if the green menace had ruptured an eardrum. “Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol?”

“About that,” he grins, sly, and Kakashi snaps his ever present orange book shut. “I’m off to tell the hokage after this, but I thought you should be the first to know. The Water Country’s Daiymo and his most loyal supporters have been massacred. His sister survived, and rumors are she’ll be taking the throne.”

The relief is so complete and overwhelming that Kakashi has to grab onto one of the branches to keep form swaying. “So that means –”

“I’m sure they’ll stick around a while to make sure everything’s stable,” Gai clasps his shoulder, “but our kids are coming home.”

“You talking like that is why people still think we’re dating,” he points out, but he’s far too giddy to even pretend to be irritated about it.

Gai shrugs before body flickering out of the tree. Kakashi follows him a second later, cautiously edging towards his kitchen. Maybe if he blurts out the good news fast enough, Iruka won’t drop kick him out of the house again.

~

“Are they gone yet?” Mei Terumi asks, reading through yet another terribly written patrol log. They really need to focus more on spelling and grammar in the Academy, and just a little less on the three hundred ways to kill someone with damp seaweed.

Haku collapses into the chair across from her desk. Gaara raises an eyebrow and surrenders the cup of tea he’d been drinking to him. “Yes, although it looks like they’ll be making a pit stop at Oto to drag Orochimaru along with them.”

“Whatever gets them out of our village works for me,” Mei says, digging into her precariously stacked tower of reports before tugging one out from the middle and handing it to him. “Look at this. Also, I could really use an assistant.”

“You’re the Jounin Commander,” Haku says absently, scanning the file. “Take your pick.”

“From what?” She throws her hands up and knock over a slightly smaller stack of files. Gaara’s sand catches it and puts it back in its place before it can fall everywhere. “All of our qualified jounins are stretched thin enough as it is with patrols and missions. I could take a chunin on and bump their clearance level, but we’ve put every halfway intelligent one at the Academy. This is the biggest class Kiri has had in years, and considering we don’t make them slaughter most of their classmates to get promoted anymore it’ll certainly help. The kids and the teachers are doing their best, training them up as fast as they can, but skill takes time! We have a few near-geniuses buried in there, but it’ll be another couple years until most are ready to even be called genin! And when that happens, we’ll need to recall nearly half our jounin to act as senseis, which means we’ll barely have enough for patrols, never mind missions –”

Haku abandons the report and settles his hands on Mei’s shoulders, “Stop. Breathe.”

She glares at him, “Haku, I’m serious! We fought the war, we won, but it wasn’t without cost! Half of Kiri’s ninja believed in our cause, were willing to fight and die and swear loyalty to Zabuza. But the other half we killed. It’s a fucking miracle the rivers aren’t still running red.”

Haku’s mouth tightens, but it’s Gaara that offers up, “Don’t worry about taking too many missions right now. Masuyo will likely agree to increase funding to Kiri until your numbers stabilize. It’s only sensible, since Zabuza and your village are not only the ones that put her on that throne but are also the ones that will keep her there unharmed.”

She slumps under Haku’s hands. “We don’t even have someone to head Torture and Investigation,” she says quietly, “We need people, Haku. Loyal, strong shinobi.”

Haku blinks, face relaxing. He pushes the neck of her robe over her shoulder and lightly traces the orange and white fish tattooed on her back. “How many girls from your old brothel would be interested in a change of career?”

He feels like an idiot he didn’t think of this earlier. Mei pauses, mouth parting in surprise for a moment before she pulls herself together. She warns, “Some, but they’ll need training. Most will only be at the level of genin or chunin, and Koi aren’t taught jutsu. That they will need to learn from scratch.”

“Recruit girls who aren’t Koi,” Gaara adds urgently, “Train them up enough so they don’t get themselves killed, then send them out on infiltration and information gathering missions. Once you get someone to head Torture and Investigation, they’ll already have agents out working for them.”

“Brilliant!” Mei grins and leaps up to give Gaara a noogie and a kiss on the forehead. “I knew there was reason I kept you around!”

Gaara turns the same shade as his hair, and Haku doesn’t even attempt to hide that he’s laughing at him.

~

The drills for the day are done, and his fellow branch members are slowly heading back to the Hyuuga compound, leaving in batches as not to arise suspicion. He could return, could catch up with Isamu and his family, or any of the branch families would welcome his company. But the compound doesn’t feel like home without Hanabi inside of it, so he turns around and heads in the opposite direction.

He doesn’t bother to knock before entering Lee and Tenten’s apartment. His teammates are in the middle of cooking dinner, bickering about Lee’s latest failed attempt to incorporate weapons into his taijutsu style. As he shuts the door they both turn to face him. “My eternal rival!” Lee greets with a blinding grin, “How fortuitous your arrival is! If you could please tell our sweet, gentle teammate how completely and totally wrong she is –”

Tenten smacks him with a spatula, but she’s bright and warm when she turns to face Neji. “Hey! How did the drills go? I heard Team Eight was sent out of the village on a mission.”

“Very well,” he answers, and it must be nearly time for her to do her laundry because she’s wearing one of her old pink tunics, and it fits her far differently at eighteen than it did at thirteen. He is eternally grateful that, unlike Hinata, he’s not prone to blushing. “They are the equal or superior to the main family shinobi. Hanabi is very much pleased with our progress.”

“Good,” she says, a personal sort of pride about her. She was the one that painstakingly removed the Curse Marks off of every one of them after all, the one that allowed his family to claim the strength and power that is their birthright.

Neji ducks his head and goes to cabinets containing the plates so he can start setting the table. Lee snorts in laughter, which he quickly turns into a cough.

Next time they spar, Neji is going to destroy him.

~

“For the record,” Orochimaru says, flipping out of the way of Deidara’s attack, “when I return, I’m going to tell my patrolmen from now on that they should attempt to kill you on sight.”

“What did your patrolmen ever do to you?” Tsunade asks before sending a burst of chakra to disrupt Nagato’s jutsu. “It’d be a shame when we had to kill them just to have a friendly chat.”

Jiraiya laughs, booming and idiotic just like when they were genin. God, there was a reason Orochimaru spent a significant part their childhood beating him up. “I’m a kage!” he reminds them, something he’s repeated at least two dozen times. “Take care of your own messes.”

“What the hell do you two want,” Deidara snarls, obviously rattled that he and Nagato hadn’t been able to land a hit, and Orochimaru has to smirk. Maybe these kids would be a problem if they were facing one of them alone, but together?

There’s no enemy the Saanin haven’t been able to defeat together.

“Information,” Tsunade cracks her knuckles, and both he and Jiraiya edge away from her. Danzo’s slavery seal provoked break in sanity aside, Tsunade was definitely the sadistic one of their team. He’d always blamed it on being a medic-nin, personally.

“You won’t get anything out of us,” Nagato says proudly.

Jiraiya and Orochimaru look at each other and grin.

Sounds a like a challenge, and they do so love challenges.

~

Masuyo looks in the mirror, smoothing out her ceremonial dress once again. The royal seamstress had worked tirelessly this past week to have it ready in time for the ceremony, and it truly was a thing of beauty. The dark blue of the ocean’s deep, with gorgeous stitching in a wave pattern in a delicate thread the same light blue as her eyes. The empire waist dress was much more flattering than the tight, uncomfortable robes her brother had always forced her to wear, and her hair was free and flowing down her back, two side pieces pulled together in the back to ensure it stayed out of her face.

She almost looked like their mother, and it hits her again that she’s the last of Water Country’s Royal Line. Her brother was a monster, but he was still her brother, and she thinks she would break down crying all over again if it wouldn’t ruin her makeup.

There’s two quick knock at her door. “Enter!” she calls out, and Tatsu steps inside.

She’s wearing the traditional robs of the daiymo’s consort, but they’re different than the ones she’d worn by Masuyo’s brother’s side. In addition to her own dress, she’d ordered new robes for her lover as well.

Tatsu had worn the royal blue as a sign of her status as property. Masuyo could do nothing against the traditionally revealing nature of a consort’s official dress, but she’d ordered the new robes made in a vibrant green with small koi fish swimming in the obi, as if through seaweed. She was the royal consort, and a Koi, but Masuyo wanted it to be clear that Tatsu belonged to herself first, and to Masuyo second. In the subtle, sharp eyed court the robes would make that point as clear as if she’d screamed it.

“My lady,” Tatsu murmurs, skipping the traditional bow and instead bringing Masuyo’s hand to her mouth and lightly pressing her lips to each knuckle.

Masuyo really doesn’t want to mess up her makeup, but she also really wants to kiss Tatsu. She settles for gently cupping the older woman’s face and saying softly, “You look beautiful.”

“As do you,” she smiles. “The first of your inauguration gifts have arrived. It’s from the Land of Wave, which according to Zabuza is where this whole plan was hatched. The bridge builder Tazuna sends his regards on behalf of his village.” Tatsu reaches inside her sleeve and pulls out a necklace before stepping behind her lover to clasp it around her neck.

Masuyo’s mouth parts in surprise, “How did a bridge builder from Wave afford this?” An unpolished emerald hangs from a string of saltwater pearls, and it lies perfectly center above her sternum.

“It’s been in his family for generations, apparently,” Tatsu trails her fingers over the pearls, “He sends it with his best wishes and hopes that you will return prosperity and peace to the land.”

“It will say something,” Masuyo leans back into Tatsu, “that instead of the royal jewels I wear a bridge builder’s gift.”

“Yes,” Tatsu says, dragging her lips down Masuyo’s ear and feeling her shiver in her arms, “It will say that you are of the people, and for the people. That you will not be bribed, that your people’s wellbeing comes before a noble’s fortune.”

She tilts head so Tatsu can trail kisses down her neck, “They might start a riot right there.”

“Your Mizukage and his allies will be there,” Tatsu murmurs, biting at her pounding pulse point, “let them.”

Masuyo ends up having to reapply her makeup for the ceremony but it is so, so worth it.

~

Sasuke has to admit, he’s impressed by the Water royal palace. Fire’s is all dark, gleaming wood and precious metals. It’s beautiful, but something inside of him is soothed by all the cool, smooth marble with towering columns.

That said, it’s also a maze. So it takes him while to find his way back to the room Masuyo has allowed them to use. Naruto is standing in the middle of the room and the buttons down the back of her dress only half undone, hungrily reading the paper clenched in her hands. “When did you have time to visit the brothel?” he asks, shutting the door behind him and cautiously walking over. He sweeps her hair to the side and presses a light kiss to her neck, deftly undoing the rest of her buttons so the dress fall to her feet.

“Tatsu went for me,” she says, “There are letters for you too, from your teammates and Sai. Kabuto said to tell you that they’re still maintaining the border patrol around the Uchiha compound.”

He slides his hand down her side and over her stomach. He’s got scars littered all over his body, but Naruto doesn’t have any thanks to the Kyuubi. Just soft, tan skin. “You know,” he mutters, dragging his lips up the shell of her ear in the way he know she likes – and sure enough, the letter falls to the side, “we’ve been waging war for over three years now.”

“I know,” she answers, pushing Sasuke’s hand lower. Her body count went to impressive to beyond her ability to count. She helped wipe out half a village, killed whole armies of mercenaries with her own two hands. She’s been hungry and hurt and spent more than one night sick with worry, not sure if one of their companions would make it through the night. Spent more than one of those nights by Sasuke’s side. Those were always the worst of all.

He smiles and leaves open mouthed kisses along her neck. “It’s over. We won.”

Naruto freezes in his arms, and it’s not until Sasuke does that thing she loves with his fingers that she shivers in his arms and says, breathless, “We can go home.” She beams and turns around to shove Sasuke on the bed, wasting no time on climbing on top of him. “Sasuke, we’re going home!”

He grins and lifts his hips so she can pull down his pants, “Yes, we are.”

~

Kabuto is a world class medic-nin, interim head of Konohagakure’s hospital, the student of Otokage Orochimaru and Inoichi Yamanaka, and a Snake Summons contract holder. People should really know better than trying to keep secrets from him by now.

He knocks on Hana’s office, and she’s in the middle treating a genin’s broken arm. “What’s up?” she asks, knowing he’s there without looking.

“Something’s happening,” he says, “Don’t bother filling out the paperwork for the kid, we have to go.”

Hana nods, the green chakra fading from her hands. “This one is a freebie,” she says sternly, “be more careful. If you get hurt training again, next time I’ll make the healing hurt more than the wound.”

The kid swallows and looks to Kabuto. He shifts his head just right so the light reflects menacingly off his glasses and gives a grin to match. The genin has barely ran around the corner before he starts laughing. Hana throws a roll of bandages at him. “Sorry,” he snorts, tossing the bandages back.

“What’s so important?” she asks, shuffling him out of her office so she can lock the door behind them.

“Sensei and the other adults are meeting without us,” he says, holding out his hand. “You’d think they’d know better by now.”

Hana bypasses his hand and instead throws her arms around his neck, “When do you think we’ll stop counting as the kids?”

“Probably never,” he admits before kissing her. They disappear in a near soundless wave of leaves and chakra. 

Because he’s kind of an asshole, he makes sure they appear directly in front of their sensei, still kissing.

“Gah!” Inoichi scrambles back and trips on his own feet, falling backwards. The couple bursts out laughing, and Kabuto glances around the room to see who’s there. Inoichi, Shikaku, Chouza, Tsume, Kakashi, Iruka, Gai, and Anko. He winks at Anko, who returns the gesture with a smirk. She’s the one who tipped him off.

“Hi Mom!” Hana says cheerfully. Tsume raises an eyebrow.

Shikaku sighs and rubs at his nose, “If you know we’re meeting, can I assume my son does as well?”

“I just tend to assume that Shikamaru knows everything,” he says, “It’s safer that way.”

“They’re not here,” Anko says, “You’d think that if they knew we were meeting they’d also crash.”

“Or,” Inoichi bites out, “they figure that someone who will fill them in on everything is already here.”

Kabuto shrugs, “Until Hana makes an honest man out of me, I’m living on Uchiha property rent free. It would be very rude of me not to answer the acting Uchiha head’s questions honestly.”

“I’m going to kill that kid,” he mutters dangerously, “I really will.”

“I think him and Ino are kind of cute actually,” Anko offers, “They’re a step away from wearing matching crop tops.” Kakashi shoves his book in front of his face to hide his smile and Iruka starts coughing in an attempt to mask his laughter.

Shikaku rubs at his forehead, “If we could please focus.” Hana and Kabuto squish themselves in on either side of their sensei, beaming. Inoichi huffs, but seems to relax when Hana loops her arm through his and Kabuto knocks their knees together. Shikaku pointedly ignores all of them. “Danzo is making a move.”

“Well that’s ominous and incredibly vague,” Tsume says.

Chouza shrugs, “So’s most of our information. About ninety eight percent of Root’s missions happen out of village, so at any given time over half of Root is out of village as well. Over the past couple weeks their missions have decreased to the point that about eighty percent of them are currently in village.”

“Additionally,” Shikaku continues, “Danzo has been nearly silent at the past four council meetings. They’ve been pretty pointless ever since he failed to get the Uchiha seat, since neither he nor the Hokage can get any motions passed, but he always gone to the effort to make his opinions heard.”

“You don’t think he’d attack Konoha do you?” Iruka frowns, “Danzo has always somehow justified his actions to himself, from Orochimaru to the Uchiha Massacre. He believed all these things were for the good of Konoha, but it’s hard to believe he could justify a full frontal assault against the village.”

“When exactly did the Root members start getting called back?” Hana asks, fingers tapping on nervous beat on her thigh.  

“Six weeks,” Inoichi answers, “why?”

Kabuto’s eyebrows raise to his forehead. “Six weeks ago the Kiri Civil War ended. Zabuza won, and he and his supporters executed the dissenters.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Anko dismisses, “The Kiri war had nothing to do with Konoha when it was happening, and it definitely won’t affect us now that it’s over. Well, we’ll have to draw up a new treaty, but considering who, exactly, Zabuza’s supporters were it shouldn’t be an issue.”

“With the war over, Naruto and Sasuke are going to be coming home,” Kabuto says suddenly, pale. “What if that’s what Danzo is waiting for? He already tried to wipe out the Uchiha once.”

“Sai is still alive,” Kakashi points out, “Besides, it’s not like anyone actually knows that the Saanin, Naruto, and Sasuke are involved in the war. It’d be a breach of treaty.”

Iruka blinks, “No it wouldn’t.”

Everyone in the room turns to look at him, and he flushes. “What do you mean?” Gai asks.

“Well, I mean – Sasuke and Orochimaru are missing-nin, even if Sasuke only has a C-rank. Jiraiya and Tsunade aren’t active ninja, technically. Which – I mean they’re not civilians, obviously, but legally speaking they’re not ninja either. And Naruto Uzumaki never even attended the Academy. Our treaties never address non-ninja. They guide and prohibit the actions of shinobi. The civilians, even the ones in our village, are usually only addressed in the treaties made by Daiymos. Which, of course, never mention ninja.” Iruka puts his hands on his hips, “This is definitely covered in the general history course at the Academy. Didn’t any of you pay attention?”

Everyone looks anywhere but the Academy teacher. Tsume’s the first to break the silence to say, “So obviously if it gets out it’s bad, because then they’ll be unable return until a treaty is worked out between our villages, but it’s not treason? It won’t affect Konoha?”

“Of course not!” Iruka throws his hands up, “That’s the whole reason Naruto and Sasuke did it this way in the first place. It was the only way to ensure Konoha didn’t get any backlash from their actions.” He glares at them all, “At least they paid attention to their lessons.”

“Itachi was always really into that sort of technical legality,” Inoichi sighs, “he almost certainly covered it more than once in his tutoring sessions. Naruto definitely would have known what she was doing.”

“Then why?” Kabuto asks, “That’s the only significant event that’s happened, it has to be something related.”

“Maybe we’re missing something,” Anko says, but it’s clear she doesn’t think that’s the case.

Kabuto rolls his eyes and lists off on his fingers, “Next in line to the Hokage position,” Kakashi glares and makes a threatening hand motion, “the Hokage’s assistant in all but name, Jounin Commander, Head of Torture and Investigation, the village’s taijutsu specialist, four clan heads, the Inuzuka heir, the interim head of the hospital, and two of Orochimaru’s students,” he finishes in exasperation, “if we are missing something, that’s pathetic.”

Kakashi sighs, “I suppose that’s fair.”

Two of Orochimaru’s students?” Inoichi asks, “Anko’s one, who’s the other?”

There’s a moment of really awkward silence. “How are you the head of Torture and Investigation?” Shikaku moans. Evan Chouza’s looking at Inoichi like he’s an idiot.

“I’m pretty sure I mentioned it,” Kabuto says hesitantly, looking to Hana.

She shrugs, “Well, you definitely told me.”

“Told you what?” Inoichi demands. There’s another beat of awkward silence before his eyes widen and his mouth drops open.

“The thing is,” Chouza says desperately, “that he really is very good at – at piecing things together and figuring them out when it doesn’t come to people he actually knows.”

“I honestly don’t know if that makes me feel better,” Iruka says.

Inoichi twists so he can grab Kabuto by the shoulders and shake him, “YOU WERE OROCHIMARU’S SPY?”

“Ow,” he says, wincing, “Sensei, I’m pretty sure I told you that. Right after I told Hana. Three years ago.”

“He did mention it,” Shikaku sighs, “Although now that I think of it, we were at the bar –”

“We did drink more than usual that night,” Chouza allows.

Inoichi gapes before whirling around to face Hana. “What about you? Natsu was Naruto, Kabuto was a spy, what are you hiding?”

She opens her mouth, closes it, then shrugs. “Uh – I’m lactose intolerant?”

Tsume smacks her fist against the wall, and they all look toward her. “Back to the issue at hand,” she says dryly. “Why would Danzo care about Sasuke and Natsu returning to the village?”

“Not Natsu,” Iruka says eagerly, jumping up so he can pace. “It’s not about Natsu. Natsu is dead!”

“I mean Naruto,” Tsume says, “Sorry, I still mix that up. In my defense, she did go by that name for eight years.”

Iruka shakes his head, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. Danzo doesn’t know that Naruto and Natsu are the same person. He hasn’t figured that out yet! All he knows is that Naruto was almost killed, missing for eight years, and then resurfaces to help Zabuza of the Seven Swordsman wage war against the Mist! Zabuza, who’s already well known for taking in Haku as an orphaned, shunned child –”

“He thinks Zabuza did the same with Naruto,” Gai breathes, “He thinks that Naruto is another of Zabuza’s tools, a mindless weapon.”

“A killer demon who’s only reason to return to Konoha is to destroy it,” Kakashi finishes. “This isn’t good. Naruto can mask his chakra signature, but not if Danzo already has a lock on it. The second Naruto steps foot back in this village, even if he’s under Oiroke, Danzo will know and he’ll attack. For the good of Konoha.”

“This man,” Tsume growls, “becomes more of a pain in my ass every day.”

Anko flips a kunai over and under her hand, thinking. “This might be a good thing.”

“How?” Iruka demands.

“Most of Root will be in one place,” Anko points out, “Taking out Danzo was always a dangerous play because of his pet assassins. We’ve never has the manpower, stealth, and time to not only quietly take out Danzo, but to track down and eliminate his Root members. But if they’re going to group themselves together all nice like this –”

“We might as well take advantage of it,” Hana finishes, grinning.

Their triumphant silence is broken by Inoichi saying, “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were taught by Orochimaru.”

“I did!” Kabuto protests, but Inoichi obviously isn’t listening. Unbelievable.

~

It doesn’t occur to Ren that this might be a mistake that first night they spend together. Not when he buys her breakfast the next morning, or she pays for dinner that night. Not when he shows up at her door in the grey light of dawn when her last client is long gone, and then does so for the next three days in a row. It’s not even the day after that, when they end up on the clan compound fucking in his bed for once.

It’s a little more than a week after the first time they’ve slept together. She slides out his bed, pulling on her kimono and looking around for her obi. “Here,” Shikamaru says, pulling himself up to sit on the edge of the bed and tying the strip of silk around her. After, he settles his hands on her hips and leans his forehead against her back.

“Shika?” she asks, and wishes she could see him.

“Do you have to go?” he asks, voice small in a way she’s never heard it before.

“I have to go to work,” she reminds him, “A girl’s got to make a living.” She can feel him nod against her, but he still doesn’t move to release her. She rolls her eyes, and it’s times like these she’s reminded that there’s seven years between them, but she quickly shoves that thought away. Whenever she remembers she’s sleeping with a teenager she wonders if she’s lost her mind.

Shikamaru sighs and turns her so she’s facing him, arms now loose around her waist. His hair’s a mess out its bun, and she pushes it out the way of his eyes so she can smile down at him. “My team and I are being sent on a mission tomorrow. I don’t know how long it’ll take, and I’d like to see you before I go.”

Her stomach flip flops and her smiles freezes, and it’s then that she realizes this has gone too far. She should refuse, should walk out that door and never speak to Shikamaru Nara again. It’s the right thing to do – the smart thing to do, and she didn’t make it this far by being an idiot.

“I’ll come by after my last client leaves,” she says, cupping his face. “It will be early, though. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather get some sleep before your mission?”

“We don’t have to have sex,” he says, nuzzling her palm. “Just – wake me up when you get here, and we can sleep for a bit. I’ll buy you breakfast.”

She kisses him because she’s terrified about what he’ll be able to see on her face. “Okay,” she whispers against his lips, and she’s such a fucking idiot.

~

“The infinite what?” Mei asks, leaning over Haku to read over his shoulder.

He glares at her, but she makes no move to give him any personal space. Typical. “Tsukuyomi. From what they got from the Akatsuki members before they killed them, this Tobi person has been muttering about it for months. They thought it was some sort of game plan for the end of the world.”

“And the Saanin don’t?” Gaara asks. He’s polite enough to not lean over his shoulder to read, but Haku doesn’t know if the floating sand eye next to his head is any better.

“Tsunade claims to have heard of it before, although she remembers it as some sort of technique,” he passes the scroll to Mei. “I don’t like it. The Akatsuki have been tolerable enough thus far, but I think it’s time we did something about them.”

“How?” Mei glares, “We can barely keep this village running! We just won a war, and now you want to start another?”

“War’s a pretty strong word, considering their organization consists of only nine members,” he says dryly.

She glances back at the letter and admits, “Well, now it’s seven. Shit, but the Saanin are scary when they’re all in the same place.”

“Six, really,” Gaara adds, “Considering.” The boys meet each other’s eyes and don’t look toward Mei. They haven’t shared Itachi’s innocence with her, if only because the less people know the truth the safer Itachi is.

“Six,” she repeats flatly, but doesn’t push it. “Fine. So we’ll leave Kiri unprotected and go attempt to assassinate six S-ranked missing-nin. Brilliant.”

“Who said we’re doing anything?” Haku walks over to the mizukage’s desk, opening the top drawer with a burst of chakra and pulling out a scroll of heavy cream paper. It’s already soaked in Zabuza’s chakra, and he wastes no time in scribbling his boyfriend’s name along the bottom. He seals it with the mizukage’s official seal, and holds it out to Gaara. “Your treaty, with very favorable trade terms. Go home.”

Gaara doesn’t move. “It was agreed I would leave after Zabuza returned.”

“Mei and I can hold Kiri,” Haku says patiently. “Go home, and give your kazekage the treaty that you’ve spent three years killing and bleeding for. Then impress upon her of the importance of taking out the Akatsuki.”

“He’s right,” Mei adds grudgingly. “Go home, talk to your sister. Get her to help us – if this Tsukuyomi is as bad as Tsunade seems to think it is, we can’t let village barriers get in the way of stopping it. The Akatsuki can’t be allowed to continue existing.”

Gaara rubs at the tattoo on his forehead, irritable, before seemingly giving in. He nods at Mei, then takes the treaty. He grabs Haku’s wrist, solemn, and says, “Stay strong, and stay safe,” before disappearing in a gust of sand.

“Zabuza’s going to be pissed,” Mei pointes out in the ensuing silence.

Haku shrugs, “He left me in charge. If he doesn’t like the calls I make, he should hurry up and come home.”

She laughs, bright and without that desperate edge she’d had during the war, and Haku has to smile. “Come on,” she giggles, “help me go through the reports. Then we can go down to the training ground and remind the chunins that pretty and terrifying aren’t mutually exclusive.”

~

Sasuke leans against the doorframe, arms crossed. Naruto is balancing his entire weight on a single finger, and for most ninja it’s something that’s extremely difficult and requires intense concentration. Naruto’s been able to do it since he was six, so Sasuke feels no guilt when he tosses a kunai in his boyfriend’s direction.

“Hey!” Naruto easily flips out of the way. The kunai embeds itself hallway into the floorboards. “What was that for?”

“I’ve been looking for you,” he says, holding out a scroll. “News from Haku. There’s been a complication.”

Naruto grabs the scroll and skims it, “Didn’t we just win a war? Now he wants to start a new one?”

“That’s what Mei said, apparently,” Sasuke reaches out and tugs Naruto closer by his shirt, “But hey, if we make a detour to attack the Akatsuki then you can avoid making a decision for a little longer.”

Naruto flinches and tries to step away, but Sasuke doesn’t let him, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“We could have left right after the crowning ceremony,” he places his fingers under Naruto’s chin, but doesn’t make him look at him just yet. “I understand why Zabuza stuck around, but even he’s leaving tomorrow. We could be back in Konoha by now, be home, but we’re not. We’re here.”

“Well I’m not stopping you,” Naruto snaps, “Leave if you want to.”

He tries to storm away, and Sasuke really doesn’t want start a fight in the Daiymo’s palace. Masuyo won’t be mad if they break something, but both Tatsu and Zabuza will be pissed. So when Naruto shifts into an opening stance, Sasuke flips them and shoves Naruto against the wall to kiss him. Naruto makes an irritated noise against his mouth, but kisses back none the less. Naruto relaxes by degrees underneath his hands, and Sasuke only breaks the kiss when it seems like Naruto isn’t about to run away again. He tilts their foreheads together, and makes sure to smile when Naruto finally looks up at him from under his lashes. “You’re a seal master, a war hero, a revolutionary,” Sasuke murmurs, “you’ve fought alongside missing nins and saanin and a demon container, you were taught by the Yamanaka clan head, and are the beloved sister of Kakashi Hatake. What are you so afraid of?”

Naruto swallows, “I – I’m not though. Natsu Nami is the chunin and seal master of Konoha, Inoichi’s student, Kakashi’s sister. And Natsu is dead.”

Sasuke stares. Of all the – “Come here,” he pulls him over to the window, and it’s dark enough that they can see their reflection into the glass. “Be a girl.”

“What?” He’s never asked Naruto to change genders before, so he doesn’t begrudge him the surprise.

“Please,” he squeezes his hand, “just for a moment. Trust me.” Naruto sighs, and with a gust of chakra he becomes a woman. She winces, because the pants that she’s taken to wearing don’t stretch like her leggings, and they dig into her hips when she’s a girl. “Who’s arms held me the night of the massacre?”

Sasuke almost never talks about that night, and Naruto’s so surprised that she answers without questioning him, “I did. Mine.”

He runs his hands down her arms and says into her ear, “Who did I break into Danzo’s office with?”

“Me,” she answers, clearly without a clue of where he’s going with this. Good.

“Who made a deal with Zabuza to start a war? Who did I become a missing nin for, all so I could follow you into a battlefield?”

“Me,” she repeats, and she’s pouting now. “I never asked you to do that.”

He ignores the last part and wraps an arm around her waist, “Who was my first kiss? Who’s the only person I’ve ever touched as a lover?”

“Sasuke,” she sighs, “What are you saying?”

“Look like you did when you were hiding,” he says, “Like when I first met you.”

She glares at him, but does as he says, and a moment later she’s got ash pale hair and dark eyes. “So I’m Natsu again,” she says, “What’s your point?”

Naruto,” he presses a kiss to her cheek, “Natsu, what does it matter? You were the one that told me that. You’re still you – who cares what you look like or what name you go by. You’re still you.”

Naruto softens and turns in his arms to face him. “I did say that, didn’t I? But Sasuke, I’m serious – how can I go home? Naruto Uzumaki died twelve years ago, Natsu Nami died four years ago, and now what? Do I put on a new face and a new name, start all over again?”

“If you want,” Sasuke says easily, “Or you go home as Natsu, explain to the hokage and be welcomed back from your deep undercover mission. Or you go home as Naruto, say that you ran away as a kid and now you’re back. It doesn’t matter.”

“Sasuke!” she glares, “How can you say that?”

“Because everyone who loves you knows the truth,” he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, “We know who you are and who you were, and whatever you choose no one will care. Because all anybody wants, all Kakashi and your sensei and your teammates and your friends want is for you to come home.”

“Us to come home,” she corrects, but that heavy weight that had been behind her eyes is gone, “Thank you.”

He kisses her instead of answering, and doesn’t even pause when she turns back into a man halfway through. “We have to delay it a bit more now,” he says dryly, “Since apparently Haku has decided that it’s time to fight the Akatsuki.”

Naruto lights up, “Actually, I have a plan for that. And it means someone else will finally be able to come home too.”

It only takes a second for Sasuke to catch on, and when he does his smile threatens to breaks his face in half.

It’s long past time for Itachi to come home.

And – the idea of him and his brother home again does make him happy. It’s all he’s wanted for so long, but.

But his beloved brother is his still clan’s murderer. And it’s been over ten years. Sasuke is so different from the little boy he used to be, and he likes the man he’s become, but he has to wonder.

How much more different must Itachi be, from the brother that Sasuke remembers?

~

It’s not the humidity that gets to her, it’s all the puddles. In Water Country it rains all the time, and the ground is almost always at least damp to the touch. Hanabi steps into yet another mud pit, and she is never taking another mission in Water again. She ignores her discomfort to elbow Shino in the side, “You’ve been quiet.” Both Shino and her sister give her incredulous looks, and she rolls her eyes. “More so than usual, if that’s possible.”

“Something about this mission seems off,” he says reluctantly, “I don’t like it.”

Shino’s been right about this kind of thing too often for her to dismiss him, but she has no idea where this is coming from. “Why?”

Shino adjusts the straps of his pack, and that tiny movement is more than enough to tell her that he’s more stressed than he’s letting on, and she almost turns them around right then. “Missions to Water Country have decreased seventy three percent since the war started, and most of those remaining have been to gather information, like the one we went on last year. And it would be one thing, to send us in to assassinate some noble in the middle of a war between ninja villages. But Water Country has a new Daiymo, one who our Daiymo hasn’t made a treaty with yet. It’s not illegal, per se, to send ninja into each other’s countries with a treaty between countries un-negotiated. But it is – unwise. It can be considered an act of war. And obviously we know that Daiymo Masuyo has a vested interest in making friends with Fire, considering who exactly aided in her taking the position. But the Fire Daiymo doesn’t know that and the Sandaime doesn’t know that.”

They’ve stopped walking now, and Hinata looks stricken. “This isn’t right,” the older girl says, and Shino’s lips thin but he nods.

“We’re going back,” Hanabi declares. “Screw the mission.”

“That’s dereliction of duty!” Shino says, “The mission, however ill given, was signed off on by the hokage. We can’t just not complete it.”

“I’m team leader,” Hanabi says, “I’ll take the blame. This is my call, and I’ll take responsibility for it. We’re turning back to Konoha immediately.”

She has her doubts, but the reluctant relief sweeping over Shino’s face is enough for her to push them aside. Shino has unquestioningly obeyed some truly moronic commands she’s given in the past. If he’s this uncomfortable with the mission she’ll gladly take her punishment for terminating it.

“Hanabi,” her sister says, hushed, and she and Shino are instantly on alert, “do you feel that?”

Her chakra sensitivity has never been as good as Hinata’s, and she shakes her head. “What –”

Hinata activates the Byakugan and whirls into a defensive attack, seamlessly stopping a dozen kunai that been heading straight for them. Hanabi activates hers as well, and Shino slides into an opening stance. What she sees causes her heart to leap to her throat. At least six chakra signatures surround them, strong enough that they have to be jounin. They fade out of the trees, and they’re all decked out in head to toe black. Even their faces are totally covered – Hanabi can’t even see their eyes.

“Smart kid,” one of them says, and the voice is familiar. “Too bad, if you’d just done your duty as ninja we wouldn’t have to kill you.”

“What does that mean?” Hanabi snaps, and these men are fast. Which isn’t a problem for her and Hinata, but puts Shino and his bugs at a disadvantage. But if they can slow them down then Shino can kill them, and with a quick glance to her teammates it’s clear they’ve all come to the same conclusion. Good. “Who are you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” another one says, and then they’re attacking. “You’re going to be dead soon anyway.”

They’re good, and fast enough that even with the Byakugan she’s struggling to land any hits. It’s infuriating, because a few touches to their chakra points and they’ll be incapacitated enough to kill, but until then they’re forced onto the defensive, standing back to back. They’re not using any jutsu, which is suspicious enough all on it’s own, never mind that they’re being attacked by unidentified ninja in the middle of nowhere.

“Too slow,” the first man who’d spoken says, and she knows that voice. She’s crossed blades with enough foreign ninja that it’s probably not important, but it’s bothering her. Of course, then there’s a kunai jabbing itself through her shoulder, so she has more important thing to worry about.

She surges forward, lets the kunai sink in deeper and snarls, “Fuck you,” right before she reaches out and snaps his neck. He dies instantly and falls to the ground. The kunai that’s buried in her shoulder was worth it to kill him, but its hindering her movements. Almost half the Hyuuga stances require arm movements, so that’s a good chunk of her arsenal gone unless she wants to make her injuries even worse.

Hinata takes out two more of them with a Dragon’s Leap that’s so fast Hanabi barely catches the movement. It’s not a move that Hanabi could pull off even with full use of her arms, and even as she punches another of them in the face and pinches a nerve in their neck to slow them down she feels a dark pride in how deadly her sister has become. A swarm of Shino’s kikai join the fray, and provide enough of a distraction to the enemy ninja that Hanabi’s fingers manage to glance the spine of another ninja, and with a brief flare of chakra the woman’s brain explodes inside her skull. Hanabi stumbles, because something about that felt – familiar, and she’s performed that move dozens of times, but it’s never felt quite like that.

Her moment of distraction costs her. Another of their silent enemies comes after her, a dense ball of destructive chakra held in his grasp. Hanabi tries to dodge, and she has only a second to understand that this will kill her, and fury at her failure and pointless death burns under her skin. But then there’s a tugging at her skin, and a chakra not her own wraps around her.

She only realizes it’s a replacement jutsu when she’s blinking at Shino’s side and sees Hinata take the blow meant for her, the jutsu releasing a dozen razor sharp chakra-knives that tear her sister’s torso apart.

“NO!” she howls, and losing her own life is bad enough, dying here in the Water Country was one thing when it was her, but they’ve dared touch her clan. No one harms her clan and lives. She shouldn’t do this, it tears at her chakra system, burns her out and leaves her useless for days afterward, but she doesn’t care. They’ve taken her sister from her, and their lives are forfeit. She gathers her chakra around her. “Jump,” she tells Shino, and he must know what she’s going to do because he hesitates. But he knows better than to argue with her now, so he scoops Hinata’s body into his arms and pushes chakra to his feet to run through the treetops. She steps back, trying to judge the perfect radius because she’s only going to get one shot at this, when she nearly trips on the body of the first man she’d killed. She looks down, and the man’s mask has shifted enough so she can see the bottom half of his face, just his jaw and his lips.

It’s enough.

She snarls and whips her arms around her. There are two more left, and this will kill them if she does it right, but now she needs one alive. Making this powerful enough to incapacitate but not kill is going to be so annoying. She breathes in deeply, and when the ninja jump forward to attack her, she breathes out. Her chakra booms outwards, bright and strong enough that she levels all the trees in a twelve foot radius. One of them is dead, impaled through the chest on a tree branch. The last one is limp and unresponsive, but there’s still a chakra signature so Hanabi knows she’s alive. She doesn’t have the energy for chakra restraints, so she flips the unconscious woman over and breaks both of her legs without flinching. She takes out two kunai and stabs one through each of her hands, and isn’t surprised when the woman doesn’t bleed. The others hadn’t bled either. She should have figured it out sooner.

Shino jumps down and lands besides her, her sister still in his arms. “Is she dead?” she asks.

“Not yet,” he gently lays Hinata on the ground, hands trembling. “Hanabi, I can’t – she’s going to die.”

Probably. But people aren’t dead until they’re dead, so she snaps, “Spider webs.” Shino stares at her, eyes so wide she can almost see them behind his glasses. Hinata has gashes like claw marks from shoulder to hip, and Shino can be described as terrible at healing at best. The bandages are almost entirely soaked through. “Some of your kikai are spiders aren’t they? Wrap her wounds in spider silk. It’s better than bandages.”

He swallows, and now the rest of him is shaking as well. Spiders crawl out of him to swarm over her sister, so she’ll deal with that later. Hinata is dying, and Hanabi feels like she’s dying right along with her but this is important. She pulls the mask off of the still mostly alive ninja and Shino whispers, “Dear god,” behind her.

The woman’s hair is a dark brown and on her forehead is the Curse Mark. She rests a hand on above it, and with a burst of chakra the woman’s eyes snap open. They’re the pale white of the Hyuuga. “Are you dead?” Hanabi snaps.

Shino is staring at her now. “Hanabi,” he says softly, “are you –”

“She’s not breathing,” she doesn’t take her eyes off of the Hyuuga woman, “Answer me.”

“Clever girl,” she says, a dark hatred twisting her once beautiful face, “What gave it away?”

“Hizashi Hyuuga was killed in-village, and then his body was taken to Kumo,” she presses a kunai to the woman’s throat, for all the good it will do. “My father witnessed the proceedings himself. Yet Hizashi Hyuuga’s body lies just over there, dead for a second time by my own hand. How?”

“Do you know who took his body away?” the woman asks bitterly, “Who took all our bodies away, in the end. The very man who enslaved us, who placed these seals on our bodies.”

She presses the kunai deeper, and the skin cuts but the woman wont bleed, “My father would never,” she hisses, because her farther is far from perfect but not even he would turn a human being into this abomination.

The woman sneers, “Hiashi is as much a pawn as we all were. It wasn’t he who designed these seal after all.”

“Danzo?” she asks, and the woman’s face flickers in surprise. “Danzo did this to you? How?”

“Clever girl,” she repeats, something almost like respect in her face, “By activating the Curse Mark, of course.”

“Activating the Curse Mark kills the person, it doesn’t bring them back to – life, for lack of a better term,” she’s been close to the woman long enough that the scent of decomposition and formaldehyde clogs her nose, and she just knows she’s going to have nightmares about this.

The woman shakes her head, unconcerned when the kunai bites even deeper into her skin. “When a main house Hyuuga activates the Curse Mark, the person dies. When the seal master who designed it activates it, we become this,” she nods to her hands. Black liquid has slowly begun to ooze from her cuts. “We must obey him. We have no choice.”

“Danzo is no seal master,” Hanabi says, Natsu at the front of her mind. “I’ll make him pay for this, I swear.”

“You don’t understand,” she says, “He has dozens of Hyuuga bodies piled in his labs, preserved and ready to fight. We don’t need to be dead, child, for him to activate the seal. He just didn’t want to attract attention to himself. He’s making his move, and when he does he’ll activate the Curse Marks of all the living Hyuuga branch members. Konoha will be caught unaware when their most respected clan family turns on them.”

Hanabi blinks, then a grin breaks out across her face. “There are no living Hyuuga that bear the Curse Mark,” she says smugly. “Let Danzo try. There are none left to answer his call.”

The woman goes blank. “None left,” she repeats, then her face twists and she surges up, trying to get at Hanabi, but she can’t rise up more than a couple inches off the ground. “WHAT DID YOU DO? WHERE’S MY SON?” It’s clear she isn’t capable of crying anymore, but her face scrunches up like she wants to, “What did you do to my son?!”

“Who’s your son?” Hanabi asks calmly. This woman, under Danzo’s control or not, has killed her sister. Let her suffer a few moments more.

“You don’t recognize your own aunt, girl?” she hisses, “What did you do to Neji? If you’ve killed him I’ll kill you, I swear!”

“You’re in no position to do anything, Aunt Hako,” she breathes. Hako had died when Neji was still a baby, long before Hanabi had been born. She pushes Hako back to the ground, “Neji is my beloved cousin, and I would never allow any harm to come to him. Three years ago, I had every branch member’s Curse Mark removed in secret. That’s why Danzo’s plan won’t work.”

“You what?” Hako stares into Hanabi’s eyes, and she does her best to smile.

“I love my family. I couldn’t stand by and let them be hurt anymore,” her hand hovers over a slice in Hako’s arm that’s leaking black pus. “If we bandage these, could you make it back to Konoha? You could see Neji.”

She laughs and it turns into a cough, “So he could talk to the corpse of the mother he doesn’t even remember?” She shakes her head, “Once the – whatever this is, leaks out I’ve only got so much time. It’s how you defeated the others.” Hanabi looks at the other bodies, and they’ve all got pools of the tar-like liquid under them. “Tell him we love him,” she says, and Hanabi looks back down at her. Some of the black liquid leaks out of the side of her mouth. “Hizashi and I, we loved him so much. Things were hard, but those few months we had together were the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Hanabi gently runs her hands through Hako’s hair, detangling it so it lies smooth over her shoulders. “I’m sorry I killed you and Hizashi.”

Hako turns her face into Hanabi’s hand, and her skin is cold and almost rubbery to the touch, probably due to the formaldehyde. “Don’t be silly, clever girl. We’re already dead.” Hako pulls her hand up, letting the kunai slice through it. She tugs the kunai from the ground and plunges it into her own heart.

Hanabi scrambles back, and the black liquid oozes from the wound. Hako’s face is slack, and whatever had granted her a facsimile of life is gone. “Hanabi,” Shino says, and she allows herself the moment it takes to close Hako’s eyes to pull herself together. She turns back to her teammates, and Shino is nearly as pale as Hinata. Her sister’s torso is wrapped in silvery spider silk, and her breaths are labored and short.

“She’s still alive,” he says, “But her heartbeat is slowing. She’s lost so much blood, and the cuts were so deep, there has to be organ damage. I can’t – I don’t know how to fix this.”

“You can’t,” she forces herself up to sit beside Shino. She takes her sister’s hand, and its cold with blood loss, “Hinata is going to die. We can’t save her.” Shino’s shoulders hunch up to around his ears, and Hanabi holds out her other hand so he can crush her hand in his. “It’s not your fault, you did everything you could. I’m proud of you.”

“If I had said something sooner this wouldn’t have happened,” he says.

Hanabi shakes her head, “They were following us this whole time. Either the mission was a trap and they would have killed us when we arrived at the palace, or there was something even more unpleasant waiting for us. You were smart, and made the right call. I’m proud of you.”

Shino nods, but doesn’t look like he completely believes her. That’s fine. She’ll spend the rest of her life repeating it if she has to. She refuses to let Hinata’s death become Shino’s burden to carry.

She’s team leader. The responsibility falls on her, and her alone.

They sit like that, waiting in vigil for Hinata to take her last breath. There’s no approaching chakra pattern, nothing to warn them for when another ninja body flickers into the clearing. Hanabi jumps to her feat, sliding into a defensive stance in front of her teammates.

When the wind dies down, Naruto Uzumaki stands there, kunai extended. “Hanabi?” he pockets the kunai and takes a look around the clearing and the half dozen Hyuuga bodies. “What the hell happened here? Was that chakra surge earlier yours? I thought it felt familiar.”

“How did you find us?” she asks, arms falling down at her sides. Her shoulder still hurts like a bitch.

He rolls his eyes, casually stepping over a body of a fallen Hyuuga to stand by her. “You’re only about ten miles from the palace, and whatever move you pulled is at least A rank. Of course I came to investigate.” He finally catches sight of Hinata, and his smile slips from his face, “Shit, what happened?”

“She’s dying,” Hinata says, because who cares how it happened, her sister is dying. “She doesn’t have long.”

Naruto squats down next to her sister, frowning. She hasn’t seen him since he left Konoha, and he looks more adult then even Neji does, something tempered and strong inside of him that wasn’t there before. She’s not surprised, exactly – it would be naïve to think he could spend three years waging war and return unchanged. He lightly runs a hand over Hinata’s stomach, “Bullshit.”

Shino and Hanabi share a startled glance, “Naruto?”

“I’m not much of a medic-nin,” he admits easily, and his chakra is moving differently, shifting the direction of circulation, which should be impossible. “But a foxy friend of mine is pretty great at healing.”

At that his chakra spikes and forms around him like cloak. His eyes slit, his nails lengthen into claws, and his chakra instead of the calm deep blue that Hanabi has known all her life is a roiling mass of barely tamed orange. The chakra spreads from where he’s touching Hinata’s stomach to all around her, becomes so thick and high that it almost looks like her sister is on fire.

“Her heartbeat is stabilizing,” Shino reports, a smile curling around the edge of his mouth, “He’s healing her.”

All the blood rushes to her head. She almost misses it when Naruto tosses a scroll at her. “What is this?” she croaks, unrolling it.

Naruto’s voice comes out low and rough in this form, “Portal seal. Draw it around us. As soon as I’m done, I’m sending you three home.”

“The bodies too,” she says, because the least she can do is bring these Hyuuga home and give them a proper burial. Neji’s parents can finally be put to rest on Hyuuga land, together.

Naruto’s eyebrows raise to his forehead, but he’s not thrown enough by it to look away from Hinata. “Okay,” he says agreeably, “the bodies too.”

Hanabi lets out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. Good. Fine. She can handle this.

She has to handle this.

~

“And where do you think you’re going?”

Ren whirls around. Everyone should already be in bed after a long night of work, but Madam Koi sits prim and proper on one of the couches in the middle of the living room. “I’m meeting someone,” she says, “My last guest is already gone.”

Madame Koi raises an eyebrow and sips at her tea, “It’s five in the morning. Who could you possibly be meeting?”

Ren’s cheeks flush and she looks at the ground, “No one.” The older woman stands and walks over to her. Ren still can’t make herself meet her eyes. Madame Koi smooths the lines of Ren’s kimono and flicks invisible dust off of her shoulder. “Madame?”

“Be careful, dear,” she murmurs.

“He won’t hurt me,” she says. Shikamaru certainly could hurt her. She’s koi, but he’s a jounin, and a talented one that. But he wouldn’t. “He’s a good man.”

She smiles at her, and she is every inch the woman Naruto had described her to be. “The Naras are good people,” she confirms, Ren doesn’t even question how the Madame knows who she’s been meeting. “But they are a shinobi clan – being the wife of a ninja is hard enough. But there are few men who can handle being the husband of a whore.” There’s something personal in that, and Madame Koi is old and wise and the most deadly and talented and beautiful woman Ren has ever met. She seems as if she was born into the life and this role, as opposed to Ren who clumsily stumbled into it before deciding to make it her own.

“We’re just sleeping together,” she says, but her voice sounds hollow to her own ears.

Madame Koi raises an eyebrow, “You are one of my most sought after Koi. When I was working the hours you worked, serving the number of clients you serve, you could not have pried me from my bed if there were enemy ninja at my doorstep. Certainly not across town to sneak into some boy’s bed just to do it all again.”

“Shikamaru is different,” she protests. The people she has sex with in this house while the red lantern glows on her windowsill are her job, and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s gross, but in between diplomats she has to tease secrets out of it’s mostly boring. Shikamaru’s not boring. He’s her – they’re – well, he’s not her nine to five, at least.

Madame Koi’s face has almost gone wistful, “I suppose he is.” She pats Ren on the shoulder before heading up the stairs, leaving her tea to cool on the table.

Ren pulls her kimono around herself and pretends that her sudden chill is from the early morning air.

~

They have a diplomatic mission to Suna, and they agreed to meet at Shikamaru’s house. Ino has never once knocked or needed permission to enter or go anywhere on either the Nara or Akimichi properties, just like Shikamaru and Chouji have never needed an invitation to the Yamanaka compound. So she’s having a hard time justifying to herself why she’s sitting on the ground next to Shikamaru’s front door instead of bursting inside and dragging him out of bed. She rests her chin on her knees, and convinces herself she’s just going to wait another minute before storming inside.

“Ino?” Chouji squats down in front of her, and she forces a smile for him. It must look as painful as it feels, because his eyebrows dip together in concern. “Why are you sitting out here?”

 “No reason.” Chouji raises an eyebrow, and this time when she smiles it doesn’t hurt as much. Shikamaru only caught her in her lies about half the time, but she’s never been able to fool Chouji. Not that it’s exactly hard to figure out that she’s not hiding from her teammate for no reason. She curls a lock of hair around her finger and admits, “I think Shikamaru is still mad at me.”

“Why would he be mad at you?”

“Because of the whole,” she mimes slashing her throat, “He doesn’t like that stuff, and my dumb mistake meant he had to. And I thought he’d get over it and everything would go back to normal, but I’ve barely seen him since it happened! Every time we invite him to go somewhere or do something he says no.”

“Not every time,” Chouji denies, but now even he looks concerned.

“And when he’s with us, he’s not really with us, his mind is someplace else, and,” her eyes are stinging and she scrubs her arm across them. “I just – I get it, if he’s mad. But I hate it when you guys are upset with me, it’s awful.” She sniffs and hopes that her eyes aren’t red, “You and Shikamaru are my best friends, my teammates, my brothers. I don’t know what I’d do without you, and if you were to hate me –”

“No one hates you,” Chouji says firmly. He pulls Ino into his arms, and Chouji always gives the best hugs, Shikamaru is too bony. “We love you, Ino. Something’s going on with Shika, but he doesn’t hate you, okay?”

Ino nods into Chouji’s shoulder, but she isn’t so sure. Before she can voice her doubts, Shikaku opens the door. “Hey kids,” he scratches the back of his head, “You weren’t waiting to be let in were you? You know that you’re always welcome here.”

“Thanks,” Chouji grins, “I don’t suppose Shikamaru is ready yet? We have a mission.”

Shikaku rubs a hand over his face, “No, he’s still in bed. I’ll go get him.” He disappears up the stairs, and Ino closes the door behind them. Chouji sits down on the edge of the couch, but Ino can’t help but pace. It’s just a diplomatic run, but she hates the thought of going on a mission with things strained between them. Teams have been killed by less than that, and if Shikamaru or Chouji were to get hurt just because she’d messed up a totally different mission –

“Here he is,” Shikaku comes down the stairs, dragging his son behind him by the neck of his shirt.

Shikamaru stumbles to a stop in front of her, yawning. She clenches her fists at her sides and blurts, “I’m sorry!”

He blinks at her, “Why? I’m the one who’s running late,” the second part comes out a bit muffled, since he’s got his hair tie in his mouth while he pulls his hair up into a ponytail. There’s a pressure behind her eyes, and she can just tell she’s going to start crying any second now, and she hates crying. Her face gets all splotchy. “Hey,” Shikamaru strides over to grab her shoulders, “what’s wrong? Are you hurt?” His face goes thunderous, “Is it Sai? I’ll fucking kill that kid.”

He lets go of her to storm away, apparently intent on killing her boyfriend, and she snags his arm before he can get too far. “It’s not Sai,” she says, rubbing at her eyes, “I just – I’m really sorry, okay? I know it was a dumb mistake, I let my guard down and I didn’t mean to, and you had to clean up after me. I didn’t mean to make you go through that, at the border, and it’s my fault so you totally have the right to be upset and angry and everything. But, but you’re not going to hate me forever, right?”

She stands there, a fucking mess in the Nara’s living room, because she’s a jounin and beautiful and deadly, but without her teammates she’s nothing. Shikamaru’s face is carefully blank when he asks, “Why would you think that I hate you?”

Ino wraps her arms around herself, “Because the thing at the border happened, and you had to kill that woman with your hands, and you hate doing that. And then you wouldn’t hang out with me, or talk to me, and – and that’s okay, really, just – you will again, right?” She’s definitely crying now, oh god, she’s totally getting her badass card revoked.

Shikamaru isn’t a tactile person, he usually just kind of stands there while Ino and Chouji drape themselves all over him, so she’s really not expecting it when he cups her face in his hands and raises it to meet her eyes. “You’re my teammate, my best friend, and my sister,” he says seriously, “I would rip out the throats of a thousand people with my bare hands if that’s what it took to keep you safe. Ino, you’ve had my back and saved my ass on more occasions than I can count – there will never be a time when I don’t gladly return the favor.”

She stares at him a moment more, just to make sure he means it, and then she throws her arms around his neck and holds on tight. The way he holds onto her just as tightly shows he’s sorry more than any apology ever could. “But then what was with all the,” she flaps her hands around behind his back, knowing that he’ll know what she means.

He sighs and pulls back, taking a moment to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “REN!” he calls, “Can you come down here?”

Shikaku had ducked away into the kitchen at the first hint of tears, but at that he pokes his head back out. “Who?”

A woman in a wrinkled white and orange kimono comes down the stairs, and Ino knows her, she’s gotten drinks with her. “Hi Ino,” she waves.

Ino smacks Shikamaru in the shoulder, and it’s clear he’s pulled between being irritated and relieved that at least she’s not crying anymore. “Naruto’s Ren?” she demands, “Really?”

“Nice,” Chouji holds up his hand, and Shikamaru sighs but high fives him anyway.

“You two know each other?” he asks.

“Naruto stayed at her brothel in Water Country when he first left,” Ino rubs at her forehead, “We go out sometimes.”

“How are Sakura and Hinata?” Ren asks, and Shikamaru gets this look on his face like he’s not sure whether to be pleased by this development or terrified. “We haven’t all gotten together in a while.”

“Something that clearly needs to change,” she mutters, “Shikamaru? Really? Did you hit your head recently?”

Shikamaru makes an offended noise at the back of his throat. Ren smirks, “He’s got one very … big thing on his side.”

Shikaku chooses this point to retreat back to the kitchen.

Ino rolls her eyes, because she grew up with Shikamaru, she knows that’s a slight exaggeration. Ren grins and adds, “It’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean.”

Ino snorts, and both Shikamaru and Chouji’s heads resemble tomatoes. “Please stop,” he begs them, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have hid things from Ino, I’m a terrible person, but please stop talking. I’ll do anything.”

Ren sashays over to Shikamaru and grins, “Anything, really? Well, I do believe I was promised breakfast.”

He bites his lip. They really should have left over an hour ago. But Ino likes Ren, and any sign that Shikamaru’s moved on from his crush on Kiba is something she wants to encourage. “We’ll make up the time later,” she says authoritatively, “let’s go get breakfast.”

Shikamaru doesn’t quite smile at her, but his eyes go soft and his lips almost turn up at the corners, so she beams back.

~

Orochimaru knocks twice before opening her door, “Mind if I come in?”

She’s slumped at her desk, a bottle of sake in her fist and her notes spread in front of her. She turns in her chair and sighs, “Did Shizune get you?” He shuts the door and walks over, glancing at her scattered notes before pushing himself up to sit on the edge of her desk. It’s strange to have a place and belongings to call her own, especially when she takes into account that it’s a room in the Otokage’s house. She’d gotten so used to not owning anything she couldn’t carry on her back, and now she and Jiraiya have their own rooms in Orochimaru’s home.

“Shizune?” he plucks the sake bottle from her grasp and drinks what’s left of it in one long pull. He wipes his mouth and places the empty bottle on top of a pile of her incomprehensible scribbles. “Why on earth would your assistant and dear friend feel the need to drag me from my very busy and important kage duties? It’s not like you’re in the middle of drinking yourself to death, or anything.”

Tsunade snorts and slumps down until her head is resting on his thigh. He undoes her pigtails and runs his hand through her hair, a gentle soothing motion. It’s not long until she can feel her eyelids beginning to close against her will. “I need to figure this out,” she yawns, “It’s important, this Infinite Tsukuyomi thing. I know I’ve heard of it before, I just can’t remember where.”

“Well if you die of alcohol poisoning you’ll never figure it out,” he murmurs, sliding to his feet. Tsunade whines at the loss of her pillow and attempts to curl up on the top of her desk instead. “Princess,” he sighs, “what am I going to do with you?”

She mumbles something rude back, and Orochimaru laughs, soft and kind and how she hasn’t heard him laugh in a very long time. She’s not expecting it when he bends at the knee and picks her up bridal style, but she’s tired enough that she just curls into the solid heat of his chest. “I missed you,” she whispers into his shoulder.

He pulls back the covers and places her in her bed, but before he can stand up she puts her arms around his neck and refuses to let go. He sighs as if he finds her very tiresome, but presses a kiss to her cheek and says, “And I you, Princess.”

She smiles and lets him go after that. She feels him pulling the blanket up around her shoulders right as she drifts off to sleep.

~

Sakura, Kiba, and Hana are running through drills with their ninken when Kabuto body flickers right in the middle of it, nearly getting run over by Paru. “Be careful!” Sakura snaps. Paru’s bark echoes her sentiments.

He ignores her and grabs Hana’s hand. “The sensors for Natsu’s apartment just went off,” he informs them before disappearing in a swirl of leaves.

She and Kiba share a grin before following them. When they appear it’s not to Naruto and Sasuke like they’d expected, but a weary and bloody Hanabi and Shino. That would be one thing, but the six bodies stacked on Natsu’s living room floor are another entirely. Hinata’s laid out her couch, and Sakura’s heart jumps to her throat. “Is she – ”

“Alive,” Kabuto reports, grim. “But her chakra’s low, like she recently went through an intense healing.”

“Naruto,” Hanabi says, and Sakura doesn’t know what could have happened to put that look on her face. Whenever her blank mask slips for a moment the girl looks destroyed. “He found us and used demon chakra to heal her, then sent us through using the portal seal.”

“What happened?” Hana demands, face pale. Shino puts his hand on Hanabi’s shoulder, and the fact that she doesn’t immediately brush it off tells them she’s even more rattled than she looks.

By the time Hanabi finishes, her voice is hoarse and they’re all horrified. “Naruto didn’t want to seal the bodies away, just in case something went wrong when I tried to unseal them, considering they’re not – purely organic matter.”

“That’s terrible,” Kiba whispers.

Kabuto and Hana share a grim look. “Hanabi, you should really let us run a couple experiments on the bodies before you put them to rest. Figuring out what Danzo did to them is important.”

She puffs up to protest, but reconsiders it halfway through and her shoulders slump. “Could you,” she swallows, “could you not, not – do anything, to Neji’s parents? Please.”

“Oh, Neji,” Sakura breathes, and this is all terrible enough without the added bonus of having to tell Neji what Hizashi and Hako had endured after their death.

“Okay, yes,” Hana agrees instantly. Sakura knows that from a medical and scientific standpoint not examining a third of available specimens is a bad call, but she can’t honestly say that she’d make a different one.

Hanabi nods her thanks, then takes a steadying breath. “Shino, I want you to stay with Hinata. Come get me when she wakes up.” The boy nods. “Kabuto, Hana, if you could store all the bodies until I can – figure something out.”

“I’ll keep them in one of the empty Uchiha houses,” Kabuto says, “A few of the larger ones have walk in freezers.”

“Okay,” Hanabi says, and she never talks this much and doesn’t explain herself and every inch of Sakura knows that the medically right thing to do is to force Hanabi to get some sleep and some food and surround her with her living family, but Sakura also knows that as the next clan head and the only high ranking Hyuuga that knows about this Hanabi doesn’t get that luxury. “I’m going to go get Neji.”

She shunshins away before anybody can say anything to that. Shino locks his hands together behind his back, then release them to cross his arms, and this is too much. This is it, the last straw, the absolute last thing that Sakura can take.

She knows that the adults have some sort of grand, complicated plan in play, but they’ve had their whole lives to take care of this problem. Instead they just keep waiting, and in the meantime her friends keep getting more and more hurt. Enough is enough.

Danzo has to die, and she’s going to kill him herself.

~

Masuyo has approximately one thousand things that require her immediate attention, considering her sudden and violent ascension as the Daiymo of Water Country. Tatsu is currently working on tracking down every terribly treaty and shady deal her brother made so they can undo them, and Masuyo should be helping her, or going over rice distribution to the poverty stricken villages in her domain, or – well, the point is that she has a lot to do. But that doesn’t mean she can’t make time for one of her foreign saviors.

“Sasuke,” she says, stepping out into the garden. Sasuke is standing, cross armed, looking into the koi pond. It’s a very nice koi pond. Masuyo had it specially made when she was fifteen, feigning a sudden interest in fish and gardening. It was actually a gift for Tatsu, a place for them to meet from her brother’s prying eyes. But however pretty the fish are, she doubts that’s what he’s staring at so intently. “Is everything alright?”

He slides his gaze over to her, and his mouth tugs down at the corners. It’s a very pretty mouth, and although men are not her preference, she has no problem admitting the shinobi is a fine one. “Yes, thank you,” he says shortly. He is not a very fine liar. She almost leaves him to his solitude, but – this is her garden, her palace. Her country. She may go wherever she pleases, whenever she pleases. She walks over and lowers herself to the edge of the koi pond, seated so she’s looking up at him while she skims the tips of her fingers over the water’s surface.

It is tradition that she not put herself lower than anyone. She’s not much for tradition.

He huffs out an irritated breath and won’t look at her. She’s content to wait, and she won’t follow him if he walks away, but he doesn’t. “Your brother,” he says, shoulders too straight to be comfortable. “He was a terrible man.”

“Yes,” she says immediately, because he was. Greedy and cruel, violent not in his actions but in the way his inaction allowed violence to spread across their land.

“Did you love him?”

She doesn’t know what she was expecting, but it wasn’t this. “Yes,” she says, because it’s the truth. He spilled blood for her, and he’s earned her honesty. He doesn’t ask her to explain, but she does anyway. “I am the last of the royal line. My brother had no children. He was manipulative and terrible and made me hate myself – but he did still raise me. He didn’t kill me, which doesn’t sound like much, but – I know his advisors told him to. My very existence is a threat – a not unfounded fear, apparently. But he didn’t. He hurt me and tore me down, but he didn’t kill me. There was something, some part of him, that did love me. He did give me things I desired – this koi pond, a larger library, food for the orphans I visited.” She’s struggling, because her relationship with her brother was contradictory and complicated and unhealthy. He hurt her but he loved her, and she was under no obligation to love him in return, knew that Tatsu did not love him nor think him worthy of it, and he wasn’t – but not all love had to be earned. Sometimes love is a gift, given to people who don’t deserve it. That is how she loved her brother, in a way he could not have loved her – completely, unselfishly, in spite of everything he had become. But she doesn’t know how to articulate that, how to say that his death was both a relief and a tragedy.

“My brother killed my clan,” he says, and Masuyo’s mouth parts in surprise. He’s looking at her now, eyes liquid dark like a still river at midnight. “He did it on orders. He spared my life. He was trying to keep me safe. But my life came at such a high cost. Sometimes, I wish he hadn’t done it, had risked my life and tried to save our clan instead.”

Oh, and she thought her relationship with her brother was a complicated thing. “I think,” she says slowly, “that it’s okay to wish that. You do not have to forgive him for what he did to you. But – my brother didn’t hurt me to keep my safe. He hurt me to keep himself safe. What did your brother gain by his actions?”

“Nothing,” he says, “He had to hide. He was sent into a deep undercover mission with our enemies. I haven’t seen him since.”

Masuyo taps a pattern into the water’s surface, and the koi come up to nibble at her fingers. “Then it sounds like, however terrible his actions, however ill-thought out they might have been, he did it at least in part for you. Intent can matter more than the outcome, if you want it to.” She repeats herself, “You do not have to forgive him for what he did to you. But you can.”

The tension leaves Sasuke’s shoulders by degrees, and he bends down so they’re eye to eye, not smiling but looking like he could. “I think you’re going to make a great Daiymo, Masuyo.”

She hopes so.

Her people are depending on her.

~

Tatsu should be going blind trying to decipher stupidly complicated treaties. That’s what she’d told her lover she’d be doing. But a servant finds her and tells her to go the ballroom. She’s expecting more blood, nobles turned against her lady, nothing short of a full scale disaster.

Instead there’s Naruto standing in the center, looking perfectly, pointedly relaxed. Her shoulders are low and there’s a determined easiness to the cant of her hips.

Tatsu has to wonder how often she’s been this close to breaking if the palace’s servants can read the koi’s moods so easily on so little.

She steps into the ballroom. Naruto doesn’t look at her, but she knows that the other women knows she’s there. “I am afraid,” she says, and Tatsu winces. She can’t imagine Naruto’s Madame Koi was any more lax about admitting uncertainty than her own was.

Tatsu is well trained in the art of conversation, but none of the tricks she knows will work on Naruto. They were taught he same ones, after all. So instead she slides her shoes from her feet and pulls a kunai from her sleeve. She doesn’t insult Naruto by giving her any warning, and instead the next moment the two of them are fighting, clashing steel against steel.

Tatsu is under no illusions. Naruto could defeat her within three moves. But the point of this isn’t to win, and so they come together and break apart in a deadly, beautiful dance that all koi know the steps to.

~

Neji hadn’t been angry with her. He’d been upset, of course, furious and hurt and a deep well of sadness and grief. But none of that had been directed at her. She’d been prepared for it. Neji was a far better shinobi than she ever would be, but she’d already decided that when he attacked she wasn’t going to fight back, letting him land a few good hits was the least she could do. But he’d thanked her. Already dead or not, she’d taken his parents away from him a second time. He should hate her, but instead he’d thanked her and squeezed her hands and told her that he was honored that she held his loyalty.

Now she’s on a training field, a log splintering under her fists. Neji was stuck mourning his parents all over again and Hinata had avoided a painful death only by the mercy of Naruto’s presence. Every time the wood bit deeper into her skin and left her knuckled bloody she felt that much more anchored.

“Hey.” Hanabi whirls around, chest heaving. Lee stands there in an opening stance, and she can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s spoken to Neji and that her cousin had told him everything. Good. That means that Tenten is probably with him, and she doesn’t want Neji to be alone right now

“What do you want?” She glares. Lee is Neji’s best friend, he should be with him too.

He jerks his chin over at the log, “I bet I’ll give you a better work out than that thing. Come on.”

“Why?” she snaps, “What do you care?”

A normal person would snap right back at her, but Lee only smiles and says, “I care, Hanabi. Isn’t that enough?”

Oh god, he needs to stop talking right now. She swings into an offensive move that’s even taken Hinata down a time or two, but Lee easily dances out of the way. Chakra or no chakra, Lee has spent six years of his life training against Neji, the most talented ninja since Itachi Uchiha. If there’s anyone she can go all out on without worrying about accidentally maiming them, it’s Lee.

Hanabi attacks again, and he jumps around it, this time getting close enough that he nearly succeeds in kicking her in the ribs.

She will never be able to bring herself to thank him for this. The worst part is that she knows he doesn’t expect her to.

 

 

Chapter Text

Zabuza had left a few days ago, and was likely already back in Kiri, so Sasuke is on his own as he watches his girlfriend pace back and forth in front him. “Naruto,” he sighs twenty minutes in when she shows no signs of stopping. “I think you need to put this aside for a moment, and focus.”

“Put it aside?” she snaps, “Weren’t you listening to me? What Danzo is doing to the Hyuuga is depraved, and disgusting, and unnatural.”

“Must be a Wednesday,” he says dryly. “Naruto, thanks to Hanabi he isn’t getting his hands on any more Hyuuga.”

“I should have known that Danzo wouldn’t put those seals on the Hyuuga just to test himself,” she mutters, “Nothing is ever that straight forward with that bastard.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes and moves himself into her path. Naruto, still muttering to herself, walks smack into him, bouncing off of his chest. He holds her still by her upper arms and says, “One problem at a time. Let Hanabi and everyone deal with this in Konoha. We need to focus on the Akatsuki and, you know, their potentially world ending plan.”

She steps out of his hands and crosses her arms. “Sasuke! This is important! Danzo just keeps getting worse, we can’t leave everyone to deal with him on their own, that’s not fair.”

 “Somehow, I’m sure someone in the entirely of Konoha will figure something out,” he says. “Do you really think I wouldn’t love to go and do something about Danzo personally? He gave the orders to exterminate my clan and exiled my brother. I would love nothing more than an excuse to deal out some revenge with my own hands. But we have to prioritize. Akatsuki first. Then we return to Konoha.”

She flinches away from him, and something curdles in his stomach. She’s never done that before. “Naruto?” She rubs her hands up and down her arms like she’s cold, and he cautiously takes her hands in his own, lacing their fingers together. Her skin is unnaturally soft for a kunoichi thanks to the kyuubi’s healing.

She sighs and lets her arms drop down at her sides, “You’re right. I’m sorry, I just hate that man so much.” That’s not the problem and he knows it. She’s still worried about returning to Konoha, and he can’t think of a way to tell her that she doesn’t have to worry without being patronizing. He has to say something, thought, can’t let her just get lost in her own head. But she raises their tangled hands to press a kiss to his knuckles, so he decides to let it go. For now. “We still need to find a way to get in contact with Itachi without blowing his cover. I can get a message to him easily enough, but it will only take one pair of loose lips and he’s dead. Or well, it’s Senpai, so he probably won’t die, but still. ”

“Actually,” Sasuke’s eyes flare red, and the Mangekyo Sharingan spins to life, “I have an idea for that one. I’m pissed I didn’t think of it sooner.”

~

Itachi knows the instant the pretty young woman starts following him, but she’s obviously not a shinobi so he doubts it’s anything sinister. He doesn’t move out of the way when she bumps into his shoulder and mutters a low, “Sorry, sir,” as she hurries past him, her orange kimono glinting in the setting sun. He blinks down at the folded piece of paper she’d shoved into his palm.

Naruto hasn’t tried to contact him once. Of course he’d heard the rumors of what she and his brother have been up to the past couple of years, but apart from Naruto sending Kabuto to heal him neither of them had made any attempt to contact him or find him. He still wasn’t sure how to feel about the healing, there had been some poetic justice in the fact that using his Sharingan was slowly killing him, some sort of balance in that the more he used his clan’s techniques the closer he got to death.

But now he’s got a note in his hand from Naruto, who hasn’t made any effort to contact him in years. As far as he’s heard, his little brother hasn’t even asked about him. Although, even if Sasuke now considered himself strong enough to avenge their clan and kill Itachi, they had spent the past three years fighting a war. However, setting up a death match between them doesn’t exactly seem Naruto’s style. He’s far too controlled to show his nerves, so he opens the note with steady hands.

It’s blank.                                                                             

He turns the note over in his hands, and he’s baffled as to why Naruto would risk sending him a blank piece of paper. Is this her way of telling him to go find her? Which is ludicrous, it’s not like he’ll be able to abandon Kisame to hop over to Water Country without the older ninja asking any questions. He runs his hands over it, and in the corner is a small indent in the shape of the Uchiha crest.

Itachi activates his Sharingan. Naruto’s boxy penmanship is now clearly written across it.

Senpai,                                                                 

There are moves in play that you’re probably not fully aware of, so I need you to trust me.

Kill the Akatsuki.

Hidan and Deidara are already dead by the Saanin’s hand. Don’t leave Earth Country, I’m sending you help.

Natsu-chan

P.S. Sasuke says hi!

Itachi absently burns the note, flicking the ashes into the street. He’s spent the better part of ten years undercover, and Naruto is asking him to throw that all away on nothing more than her word. She’s also clearly lost her mind if she thinks Sasuke has anything to say to him but a string of expletives. He should ignore her note, and continue his work undercover until he receives word from the Hokage.

He sighs and turns back around to head to the hotel he and Kisame are staying in. Kisame is the one person in Akatsuki he actually likes, and the one person he’d consider his friend. Killing him won’t hurt nearly as much as killing as his parents and clan, but it will still hurt. This is what he gets for growing attached to the giant idiot in the first place.

Naruto better have a good reason for this, otherwise he’s going to be pissed that he’s killed his only friend for nothing. 

The rest of Akatsuki however? Killing them will be his pleasure.

He’s already decided that drawing Kisame away from the center of town first is his best bet to avoid civilian casualties when he enters their room. Usually when left to his own devices Kisame reads those truly horribly trashy romance novels that he thinks Itachi doesn’t know about it. Instead he’s hurriedly shoving his belongings into a pack. “Are we going somewhere?” he asks, but something is off. In the past when they’ve gotten sudden orders to move Kisame has always packed both of their things, but Itachi’s clothes lay untouched. Kisame whirls around, and he can’t move his sword around too much in the small room but in an instant he has a short wakizashi pointed at him. It’s then that he notices that Kisame isn’t wearing the Akasuki robe, which maybe wouldn’t be worth note if not for the new scrap of metal and cloth tied around his forehead. “Your headband.”

Itachi doesn’t know where he got it, or maybe he’s just been carrying it around all this time, which is actually such a sad thought that he hopes it isn’t true. The Kiri hitai-ate is polished and unblemished – there’s no strike through the village symbol. “He won,” Kisame says, something almost like joy buried in his voice. “I didn’t think that bastard would actually win, you know? Figured any day I would hear about his head on a pike. But it’s official. The new Water Daiymo, Masuyo, she’s confirmed it.”

“The new mizukage?” he asks, still not reacting to the sword in his face. Of course he’d been following the war, his little brother and best friend were on the frontlines.

“I never thought Zabuza would succeed,” he admits, “he was always an idealistic little shit.”

Zabuza of the Seven Swordsman. Just like Kisame. Itachi was an idiot. “Kisame, what are you doing?”

He swallows, “I’m going home, Itachi. Zabuza’s a good man, he’ll be a good kage, but the war had a lot of casualties. He won’t turn me away when I show up at the border.” He spins his sword in his hand, “If you try to stop me, I’ll kill you.”

Itachi doesn’t move. “The Akatsuki –”

“Fuck the Akatsuki,” he snarls, and Itachi almost wants to laugh. “These people crazy. You’re the only decent one of the lot.” He scowls, “I am and always have been a loyal ninja of my village.”

Itachi does smile then. Naruto had told him to kill the Akatsuki. Kisame apparently no longer had any interest in being part of the Akatsuki. He holds ups his hands and steps away from the door and says with complete honesty, “Good luck.”

Kisame pulls his pack shut and seals it away, the massive sword across his back leaving no room for it. After a moment of deliberation he puts his wakizashi in the sheath at his hip and strides across the room. He stops right in front of Itachi, glaring down at him. Itachi raises an eyebrow, and is completely unprepared for when Kisame settles a massive arm over his shoulder and gives him the closes thing he’s had to a hug in a decade. “Stay strong, and stay safe,” the former missing-nin whispers in his ear. Before Itachi has a chance to react to that one way or another, Kisame is gone.

~

Ren sits in front of her mirror, absently running a brush through her hair. Seeing Ino again had been nice, but it had also been surreal to be out having breakfast with them all, Shikamaru a mostly silent presence at her side but his hands a comforting weight on her thigh. She’d kissed him goodbye and watched him walk away, and this isn’t what she’d wanted for herself. She wasn’t the type to sit worrying at home, but by dating a shinobi that’s what she’s basically resigned herself too.

God, why did she have to like that kid so much? It makes everything so complicated.

There’s a knock at her door, and she’s only turned around when Madame Koi opens it and leans against her doorframe, a folded piece of paper in her hand. “There’s a message from Natsu to Hanabi,” she hold it out to her, “Deliver it for me?”

“Of course,” Ren stands to accept it, and she doesn’t know if this is a test or a game, but there’s a reason Madame Koi is asking her to deliver this instead of doing it herself. Considering what she knows of Madame Koi, it’s probably some sort of lesson. She just hopes it isn’t a painful one.

~

Hinata wakes up slowly. First she’s aware that she’s not in pain, and she wasn’t honestly expecting to wake up at all but she definitely thought that it would hurt if she did. But she’s on something soft and she’s warm and actually on second thought maybe she is dead.

“Your chakra levels have returned to normal,” her sister’s voice says, and Hinata snaps upright. She’s in Natsu’s apartment and Hanabi sits cross legged on the coffee table, reading a scroll that she recognizes from the Hyuuga libraries. “You should be back to normal, according to Sakura. It’s normal to sleep for a day or so after a difficult healing, according to her.”

“Are you hurt?” Hinata asks urgently, and everything about her sister’s body language is telling her to back off, but she so desperately wants to look her over for wounds herself. “How did we get back home?”

Hanabi doesn’t look away from the scroll. “Hinata, did you mean it when you swore your loyalty to me? When you promised to stand down as your position of heir so I could become clan head?”

“Of course I did!” she says, and curls her hands into fists to keep from grabbing at Hanabi.

“Are you sure?” she asks, voice as disinterested as if she was asking about the weather, “How can I be expected to lead our family if my own sister won’t obey me?”

“I’ve always obeyed you!” Hinata argues, “I would never stand against you!”

Hanabi finally drops the scroll. “That’s funny,” she says, voice dripping acid, “because I don’t remember ordering you to die for me, Hinata. I’m pretty fucking sure I would have remembered telling you to take a blow meant for me, almost certain I would have remembered asking you to bleed out in front of me!”

She doesn’t give an inch. “You’re my future clan head. It’s my duty to die for you.”

“You’re my sister!” Hanabi hisses, standing so she can tower over Hinata. “You’re not allowed to die.”

She’s trembling, and Hinata holds out her hand, because she can’t take, with Hanabi she can never take. “I understand. I’ll do my best to not die.”

Hanabi almost laughs and grabs Hinata’s hand, squeezing too tight. “Good. Because if you think you’re up to it, I’m sending you on a mission.”

Her sister is sending her on a mission, not that they’ve been assigned one. “What?”

“Naruto sent a message asking for my two best warriors,” she says, “You and Neji leave at sunset.”

~

Sakura feels bad about lying to Kiba about working extra shifts at the hospital, but considering Kabuto and Hana’s standing dinner date he’ll have found out she’s lying by dusk. Of course, by then it will be too late to stop her.

She’s riding Paru, using chakra to ensure they smoothly bound from rooftop to rooftop. “There,” she whispers when she catches sight of a familiar woman walking down the street. She’d planned on asking Madame Koi for help, but this is probably better. Although she has no idea what Ren is doing on this side of the village.

“Hey,” she says cheerfully when Paru lands in the middle of Ren’s path. The older woman jumps nearly a foot in the air and then gives her a look that could curdle milk, so they’re off to an excellent start. “I need a favor.”

~

Kabuto isn’t even surprised when Kakashi slides into their makeshift morgue through a loose window. Hana just sighs and continues the delicate process of extracting the black liquid from one of the nameless Hyuuga’s bodies. “Sai?” she asks.

“Sai,” he agrees, keeping a careful distance from them. For an S ranked former Anbu, he can be surprisingly squeamish at times.  “Figure out anything?”

“Basically nothing,” he mutters irritably, “The liquid is imbibed with chakra, and somehow connects to the brain. There’s a seal on all their chests which seems to have been added post humorously, and it connected to the Curse Mark but I don’t really understand how.”

“What we need is a seal master,” Hana adds, “but unfortunately I only know one, and she’s a little busy right now.”

“They won the war,” Kabuto says, “They have to come back eventually.”

“Hopefully soon,” Kakashi rubs the back of his neck, “Things have started piling up around here. I feel like something big is happening.”

“Even if we can figure out the how, I don’t get the why,” Hana says, “What’s the point of sending Team Eight on a fake mission? What was so important that he sent a team of undead slave assassins to prevent them from coming back?”

Kakashi shrugs, “No clue, but until we figure it out Team Eight is laying low. They haven’t officially returned from the mission yet, so hopefully Danzo is none the wiser.”

“Screw this,” Kabuto takes a vial of the black liquid and summons a snake. “Take this to Orochimaru,” he tells the snake, who hisses at him but accepts the vial gently enough before dismissing itself. “We’ll see what he makes of it,” he adds to them both, “I may be the superior medic-nin, but when it comes to strange unidentifiable potions there’s really no one better.”

Kakashi twitches, and Kabuto knows the older man still hasn’t gotten used to the idea of Orochimaru as one of the good guys. “Did Sai tell you guys where he was going? That’s what I originally came here for. He’s not at the main house.”

“Sakura came by earlier,” Hana lifts up petri dish of skin cells and squints at it disapprovingly, “Did you check our place?”

“First place I looked,” he says slowly, “Your brother was there, but not Sakura.”

They freeze. There’s no reason to be concerned, really. Sakura and Sai were teammates and friends and the fact that they’d excluded Kiba, someone who Sakura is usually attached at the hip with and the only one with a sense of reason on their team, isn’t necessarily cause for concern.

“She’s doing something idiotic,” Hana declares, putting the petri dish down so hard that it clatters dangerously.

Kakashi sighs, “Probably.”

Kabuto rubs at the spot between his eyebrows. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate.

~

There’s a rustle of movement outside of her window, and she has her fan out before she’s even turned around. Useless guards, what was the point of them if assassins could just swing through her window –

Her youngest brother stands there, now a man when he’d left a child. He’s taller and broader, and his dark red hair could almost be described as shaggy. “Kazekage,” he greets warmly.

“Gaara,” she breathes, darting across the room to pull him into her arms, and the brat is taller than her now, it’s so unfair.

He presses a kiss to her forehead, and when they break apart his eyes are watery. He pulls out a scroll and hands it to her, “Our official treaty with Kiri, signed and sealed.”

She tosses it on her desk, and Gaara’s eyebrows dip together. “We’ve missed you,” she says, capturing his hands in hers. After three years away her brother is home.

“I’ve missed you too,” he smiles, “every day.”

“Come on,” she drags him out of her office, “Kankuro is in-village right now, he’ll be so happy to see you!”

Gaara lets her pull him away. He looks like he wants to say something, but whatever news he’s brought can wait until she finally has what’s left of her family all in the same place.

~

Orochimaru is seated at his desk, reading through another mission report. If he’d known how much paperwork was involved in being a kage, maybe he wouldn’t have been so eager. There’s a knock on his door, and he doesn’t look up as he calls out, “Come in.”

“You wanted to speak with me, Orochimaru-sama?” Suigetsu says, closing the door behind him.

Orochimaru looks up, and the boy has a wary look in his purple eyes. “Yes,” he sets his pen down and opens the top drawer of his desk, “I’m going to have to ask you turn in your headband immediately.”

“Otokage!” he steps forward, “What have I done?”

“Why, nothing at all,” he tosses the object from his draw at Suigetsu, and when the boy catches it his face goes slack with surprise, “It’s only that it will be difficult for you to fulfill your dream of being one of the Seven Swordsman if you are to remain in Oto.”

“Sir?” he whispers, running his fingers over the Kiri symbol etched into the headband.

Orochimaru softens, “The war is over, and my allies have won. I could not allow you to go there before, but Kiri is in need of strong, competent ninja. They will take you gladly.” He’s completely unprepared for when Suigetsu vaults over his desk to hug him, and he doesn’t have the chance to react at all before the boy is running out of his office. “Huh,” he says, and he really does wish that Anko could come visit, and he it’s been months since he’s seen Kankuro.

This thoughtful musing is broken by Tsunade slamming his door open, ink stains on her face and her hair a disaster. “I figured it out!” she declares, “They’re going to attack Konoha, we have to hurry.”

~

Shikamaru doesn’t know why Hanabi is so insistent that they don’t go on the Suna mission, but it doesn’t take much to convince him to listen. Considering the attacks on the village, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was a trap just like she seemed to think it was. Besides, Temari would forgive them. If there was one ally they could afford to offend, it was Suna.

“Cards?” Ino sighs, morosely shuffling a deck.

That said, spending the next couple weeks hiding in Natsu’s apartment was going to drive all three of them nuts.

~

Naruto and Sasuke run through the trees, pushing themselves to go harder and faster. “You’re sure you can’t use the Portal Seal?” Sasuke asks, flinging his body through a gap in the branches rather than going above it.

“Danzo would know the second I did it,” he says, “It was a big enough risk sending Team Eight back using it, but I couldn’t take them back to the palace and I couldn’t just leave them there.”

“Did you ever find out what the deal was with the Hyuuga bodies?” Sasuke does a cartwheel off of another branch.

Naruto glares and does a backflip off the next one. “Absolutely no clue. I didn’t want to risk asking about it in the message I sent Hanabi, and I figure at this pace we’ll be in Konoha by morning. We can ask her then.”

“I really wish we knew what we were getting ourselves into,” he grumbles, “Orochimaru’s note was completely useless.”

 “One way to find out,” Naruto grins before putting on a burst of speed that leaves his boyfriend scrambling to keep up.

Sasuke can’t help but be grateful for that playfulness. There are still problems they’re avoiding facing – how Naruto will return to Konoha and what Sasuke is supposed to do with Itachi once he gets him back. Never mind that they’re one their way to face some of the most annoyingly powerful shinobi in existence.

Somehow, in spite of the looming threat of death and awkward family reunions, Sasuke is actually most worried about facing Aunt Kiyomi. He doesn’t know what her opinion is on violent revolution, and he’s just hoping she isn’t angry at him. He’s pretty sure he’s a better swordsman than her now, but he’s not exactly eager to test that theory.

~

Itachi remembers Hinata as a small, scared little girl and Neji as an angry, bitter brat. The two nearly adult warriors in front of him are very different than the children he last knew, and something in him aches to see his brother, to see the changes time has wrought.

Hinata beams and grabs him in a hug strong enough to strain his ribcage, and he’s so surprised he lets her. “That’s from Naruto,” she says cheerfully, “He says hi.”

“Ah,” he says, “Right.” He swallows, “How’s – are they, uh.”

“Naruto and Sasuke are fine,” Neji reports, “There are two of the Akatsuki sixty miles west of here. We should hurry.”

“What’s the rush?” Hinata complains, but nudges Itachi into walking between them. “It’s not like there’s random attacks against Konoha that are probably linked to Danzo and there’s some sort of giant plan to kill us all.”

Itachi side eyes her. What the hell has been going on in Konoha?

“Just the one random attack,” Neji corrects, and the concerned once over he gives his cousin tells Itachi more than anything that the relationship between them has changed. “Which I’m still not convinced you’re completely recovered from. You almost died.”

She raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. “We’re shinobi, we almost die every day. And it’s two attacks. There was that attack at the border, with Sakura and Kiba and Ino and Shikamaru? That was Danzo’s handiwork too.”

Neji stops walking, and it takes a moment for them to notice and turn around. There’s a strange look on his face. “Why do you say that?” 

“Unmarked ninja with no apparent village affiliation and who don’t show up in any databases?” Hinata rolls her eyes, “That’s got Root written all over it. It was same deal with the ninja who attacked Sakura a few years ago, remember?”

“You’re being targeted,” he says, and Itachi really does not have the context to follow this conversation. “Danzo is targeting everyone in your graduation year. Why?”

“You’re a threat,” Itachi says, and the two Hyuuga blink at him like they’d forgotten he was there. “Everyone in your year is a clan heir, except Sakura. He knows that he can’t count on your support, or even that you’ll mirror your parents’ compliance. So he’s attempting to take you all out.”

“So he’s trying to kill everyone but Sakura,” Hinata snorts, “That’s ironic.”

Two sets of too-smart eyes are instantly fastened onto her. “Why?” Neji asks dangerously.

Hinata curls her hair around her finger and gives a weak smile, “Oh, we should really go kill those dangerous Akatsuki members. Who’s eager to face some S ranked missing-nin?”

Neji takes a threatening step forward, “Hinata –”

She body flickers to a nearby roof then calls out “Priorities, boys!” She runs across the roofs, using chakra to propel her forward. Neji curses under his breath before going after her.

Itachi tries to hide his smile, but can’t. Everywhere across the nations there are strong, loyal shinobi who bleed and die for their villages. But he’s found it’s only the Konoha ninja who laugh and smile so freely.

He’s missed it.

~

“This is a terrible idea,” Sai hisses, crouched besides her in the bushes outside Danzo’s house.

Sakura slaps his shoulder, “Be quiet! It will work. Make sure your chakra stays cloaked.”

“There’s no way he’ll fall for it,” he insists stubbornly. “He hasn’t survived this long by not being smart, Sakura. It’ll never work!”

She turns to glare at him, but a candle appears in the window of a room at the back of the house, the small flickering flame the best thing she’s seen in weeks.

“Holy shit,” he breathes, “it worked.”

“Come on,” she tugs him up, “the clock’s ticking.”

He follows her to the entrance, body flickering in and out of the shadows. “I’d feel a lot better if Paru was here.”

“You and me both,” she mutters, “He’ll come when it’s time.”

“What does that even mean?” Sai demands, but instead of answering she presses her hand to one of the guard’s neck and severs her spine. She catches her and slowly lowers her body to the ground.

She catches his surprise and grins, “Hinata taught me that trick. A bit harder to pull off without the Byakugan, but advanced anatomical knowledge doesn’t hurt.”

“You terrify me,” he says, impressed.

They make their way through the house, silently killing the stationed Root members as they go. “Are you sure this is going to work?” she whispers once they’re right outside Danzo’s bedroom door. She’s pretty sure knowing what Danzo’s moans sounded like was going to haunt her more than any kill she’d ever made.

“No,” he says, “be prepared for dozens of Root members to come raining down on us, intent to kill.”

She rolls her eyes and gives two soft taps against the door. A moment later there’s a strangled yelp and they burst in. Sakura lets loose a barrage of kunai before the doors even fully open, trusting Ren to get out of the way in time.

They step inside. Ren is naked and pressed against the wall, a scattering of hickeys around her breasts that Sakura really hopes are from Shikamaru. Sai stands tense besides her, all his senses on high alert.

Danzo lies equally naked and pinned to the bed by Sakura’s dozen kunai. The kunai are impaled from his spleen to his brain, and he’s covered in blood from his wounds.

His remaining eye is sightless and open. Danzo is dead.

“That’s disgusting,” Ren sniffs, grabbing her robe from the floor and shaking it out before putting it back on.

Sakura winces, “Sorry about that, the whole – sex thing.”

“Oh, that was fine,” she pulls her hair up into a ponytail. “He bathes and didn’t call me any names, a fairly pleasant client all things considered.”

“Right,” Sakura rubs the back of her neck, “Really though, thank you.”

“Happy to help,” she smooths the lines of her kimono, “We should probably leave soon.”

“Sai?” Sakura asks.

His shoulders loosen and he almost smiles, “If they were coming, they’d be here by now.”

“Thank god,” she says, “Collecting the bodies is going to be a bitch though.”

“Share with the class?” Ren asks, coming to stand beside them.

“Root members all of have this seal that connects us to Danzo,” he explains, “I figured there was a good chance that the chakra surge caused by his death would activate the kill switch, as long as they were close enough to Danzo when it happened. Most of Root is in-village right now. I was going to tell Kakashi about it and let them handle it, but Sakura threatened to have me castrated.”

She smirks and spreads out her hands, “Letting the adults handle it never ends well.” 

Ren pokes his shoulder, “You’re still alive.”

He shrugs, “Naruto removed my seal years ago. I was never in any danger.”

Without warning, high vicious howling pierces the air. All three of them jump. “That sounds close,” Ren whispers, eyes wide.

“Sakura?” Sai asks, hushed.

She shakes her head, “Those aren’t Inuzuka dogs.” She takes a shuriken and after a moment of consideration stabs herself in the upper arm.

“Sakura!” Sai hastily takes out a roll of cloth and quickly bandages the wound.

“Paru will come now,” she says grimly, and she thinks she knows what those howls are coming from. She remembers the stories of their clan that Tsume had told her the night she’d tattooed her clan markings into her skin. “Ren, this is way above your paygrade. Hide, and don’t come out until I come for you, okay? Go to the basement.”

Ren nods and darts away, her sandals clutched in her fist.

Sai squeezes her shoulder, “What’s going on?”

“I should have known,” she says, pulling the kunai from Danzo’s body and wiping them clean before putting them back on her belt. “There’s clearly not one despicable thing this asshole hasn’t dug his hands into.”

“I don’t get it,” Sai says, “What are those? What are you talking about?”

“The bastard summoned inugami,” she says, “evil dog spirits he’s enslaved to do his bidding. And we’ve just killed their master, freeing them.”

“I don’t suppose they’re coming to say thank you?” Sai sighs, taking out his brush.

She shakes her head, “Oh no. They’re coming to kill him, and when they find out he’s already dead they’ll turn that rage onto anyone who gets in their way.” Her voice goes flat and hard, “They can’t be allowed to get into the main part of the village. If we die stopping them, so be it.”

Sai knocks their shoulders together, “Sounds like fun.”

She smiles at him, grateful. Every once in a while she gets what Ino sees in him.

Then the door busts down, a snarling, red eyed inugami growling at them, and they really don’t have the time for anything but surviving after that.

~

Temari and her brothers are all geared up to help defend Konoha when a hawk circles twice above her and lands on her shoulder. She undoes the scroll, and adds the required burst of chakra and drop of blood. She has to read through it twice to be sure, but looks up and says, “Naruto says not to go to Konoha.”

“What?” Kankuro rips the letter from her hands, “Is she insane? The Akatsuki are attacking! If they were coming to Suna I would stake our treaty on Konoha sending aid.”

“She must have already divided them,” Gaara says, “If they’ve divided their forces there’s a chance Suna could be the focus of a direct attack. It would be irresponsible of us to leave Suna unprotected.”

“Sasori is our missing-nin,” Temari glares, “He’s ours to kill!”

“We’ll kill one of their missing-nin for free to make up for it,” Kankuro says dryly. “Come on, if we’re not charging off to a deadly battle, we should show Gaara the garden Baki designed.”

Gaara blinks. “Baki designed a garden? Baki-sensei?”

“He gets bored in times of peace,” Temari smirks, “Very, very bored.”

~

Kiba’s reading through a taijutsu scroll when Akamaru starts barking. “Buddy?” he looks up, “What’s wrong?”

Then Paru howls, and the spirit touched dog only does that when Sakura is in danger. He’s already thrown his scroll to the side and is out of the house when the other Inuzuka dogs join in, barking and snarling. The rest of the clan is pouring out of their homes, trying to calm their ninken and failing.

Neither his mom nor Hana are here, so this falls on him. “Ken,” he snaps at a boy who’s barely even a genin, “Go to Natsu’s old apartment. Team Ten is there, tell them we need help.” The boy nods and shunshins away. He faces the rest of his clan. “Follow Paru,” he orders them, swinging onto Akamaru’s back. “Be ready to fight. We don’t know what we’re going into.”

He’s only seventeen and not even the clan heir, but he’s Tsume’s son so his clan doesn’t hesitate, men and women climbing onto their dogs and following him as he chases after Paru.

The spirit wolf leads them to Danzo’s home at the edge of the village, where Sai and Sakura are in the middle battling close to two dozen inugami.

If they survive this, he’s going to kill her.

None of the Inuzuka or their ninken hesitate, launching themselves into the fray. It may have been hundreds of years, but they’ve never forgotten their history. All around him his family is using techniques and moves that haven’t been needed in generations, jutsu meant to subdue and wound inugami. They’re not truly alive, and therefore can’t be truly killed. But they can be driven back, hurt badly enough that they fade to the shadows to lick their wounds and wait to strike another day.

Kiba makes it to Sakura’s side eventually. Her legs are trembling and she has a head wound that’s dripping blood into her eyes. Paru’s muzzle is dripping with black inugami blood, growling and snapping at any that come close to his reach. But his clansmen are doing a decent job of fighting them back, and Kiba throws a lazy salute to Chouji when Team Ten body flickers into the mess and instantly joins the fighting. “What the hell did you do?” he asks, trying to come off as stern but honestly he’s so relieved that she’s alive that he almost wants to cry. He’s not sure he could have survived two dozen inugami long enough for help to come. She must have lost more blood than he thought, because she whirls around to face him and nearly falls over. “Woah there!” he grabs her upper arms to steady her, “You okay?”

“Kiba?” she blinks some of the blood from her eyes, and then throws her arms around his neck, “Oh my god, I’m so happy to see you!”

“I can see that,” he says dryly, “Mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Danzo was summoning inugami,” she says into his shoulder, “I didn’t know, I swear, otherwise I would have taken care of them before I killed him.”

Kiba freezes. “Before you what now?”

She pulls back enough to look him in eye, but leaves her hands clasped around his neck. “Danzo is dead. I killed him.”

Kiba has a lot to say about that, mostly asking if she’s lost her mind, but they’re interrupted by a chunin body flickering besides them. She takes one look at the battle taking place and then clearly decides it’s not her concern. “Attacks at the border,” she tells Kiba, “It’s the Akatsuki. All jounin are being ordered to the frontlines.” The chunin leaves, ducking under Ino’s kick to tell her the same news.

“What the fuck,” he says blankly. He glances over the battlefield, and most of the inugami are retreating into what’s left of the shadows. He’d missed it, but the sun was already rising over the horizon. “Okay, I’m going to report to the border,” he tells Sakura, “send the rest of the jounin there when they’ve finished.”

“No way!” she glares. “I’m coming with you!”

He stares, “You can barely stand.”

“Then give me one of those soldier pills that you always have on you,” she says, “and let’s go.”

He could argue. He should. He’s team leader, her superior in clan matters, and the one that hasn’t already bled half to death. “Please be careful,” he says instead, because there’s basically nothing he can do to stop Sakura once she’s gotten an idea into her head. He reaches into his pouch and hands her the soldier pill.

“You too,” she says before pulling him closer and kissing him. For a moment there’s only the salty bitter tang of her blood between them, but then it’s perfect, Sakura strong in his arms and her lips soft and insistent on his. She breaks away, swallows the soldier pill, and kisses him on the cheek before swinging onto Paru and body flickering away.

He touches his lips, and the Akatsuki are here, so they’re almost certainly headed into certain death, but – Sakura kissed him.

That’s pretty great.

~

“You have no right to stop me from going out there!” Iruka glares.

Kakashi stands in front of their front door, arms crossed. “You’re not a jounin.”

“I’m A ranked,” he hisses, “and this is my village, my friends and my comrades, and if you think I’m going to stand here waiting around for everyone I love to die you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Please don’t go,” Kakashi says, his voice cracking in the middle, “I might die, and my friends might die, my students and – most of everyone I care about. And I just – just want one person to be safe, Iruka. Just the man I love, the reason I get up in the morning, please. Please.”

All of the anger drains out of him, and Iruka reaches forward to wrap his arms around his boyfriend. “I love you,” he says seriously, “I never knew I could love someone as much as I love you. But I can’t stay behind. This is my village, Kakashi, and I’m an A ranked shinobi. It’s my duty and my honor to die for Konoha.”

Kakashi swallows and lowers his head to Iruka’s shoulder. “Okay,” he whispers, “I understand, just – don’t, okay? Don’t die for Konoha. Live for me instead.”

That’s not a promise any ninja can keep, and they both know it. “Of course,” Iruka murmurs, “Always.”

~

Kisame doesn’t actually kill any of the patrolman, because assuming this works they’ll be his comrades soon, but he does leave a trail of unconscious bodies all the way to the mizukage. “Hey,” he says, swinging his sword over his shoulder.

Zabuza raises an eyebrow, arms crossed. “Hey.”

A pretty woman who he thinks is Mei Terumi pokes Zabuza in the arm, “Hey? Really? That’s all you’ve got?”

Kisame grins, “Aw, has seeing me after all these years left you speechless?”

The very pretty young man on Zabuza’s other side slowly looks in between them. “Zabuza,” he says with such scary amount of measured calm that even Kisame feels the urge to step back, “what was the exact nature of your relationship?”

Zabuza rubs the back of his head, “Ah, we uh, you know.” The young man scowls, and Mei does a very poor attempt at turning a laugh into a cough. “Kisame, this is Haku, my – uh,” his face scrunches up and Kisame is very tempted to laugh in relief. It’s been nearly fifteen years, and Zabuza is exactly the same.

“They’re basically married,” Mei offers, “It’s adorable and disgusting.”

“Right,” Zabuza nods, “And he won’t hesitate to rip your head off, something I promise you he’s fully capable of doing, if he considers you to be moving in on his territory.”

“Uh huh,” he tilts his head to the side, “His territory being you?”

Haku smiles, and it’s not friendly at all. “Yes.”

Kisame nods seriously, “Well, he’s vicious and pretty. Just your type.”

“No wonder you and I didn’t work out,” he shoots back instantly, “considering your ugly mug.”

“Vicious and pretty?” Haku echoes, turning towards Zabuza.

He shrugs, stepping close enough to tip Haku’s face up and rub his thumb over his bottom lip, “You are very much both those things.” Haku’s face softens, and he’s even prettier when he’s not trying to kill someone with his eyes.

A teenager walks in, head in a file, “Hey Zabuza, it looks like Itachi Uchiha is in Water Country. Should we do something about that, or?” He looks up, and blinks. “Did I miss something?”

“Suigetsu?” Kisame blinks, “Aren’t you one of Orochimaru’s?”

He snaps the file shut and gives him a look so prissy he had to have learned it from the Saanin. “Kisame of the Seven Swordsman. Aren’t you part of the Akatsuki?”

“I retired,” he shrugs, sliding his gaze back to his old friend. “I was hoping you’d have some use for me.”

Zabuza cracks a grin, “How about head of Torture and Investigation? Right now your entire department consists of Suigetsu and thirty eight prostitutes.”

Kisame barks out a laugh, “Perfect. Just like home.”

“Yes,” Haku says, and this time his smile is warm. “It is.”

He could definitely get used to this.

~

The weird ass dog spirit things have been more or less taken care of, so he really needs to do his duty and report to the frontlines. Chouji and Ino are already there, and the thought of them fighting for even a second without him by their side makes him sick, but there’s something he needs to take care of first.

Shikamaru knocks on the basement door, “Ren? It’s me. You can come out now.”

The door slams open and Ren throws herself into his arms, “Thank god,” she chokes out, and she’s shaking.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he holds her tight enough that it’s probably uncomfortable, and he’s bewildered. The dog spirits were weird, but Ren has seen combat before, participated in it even, and she’d spent the battle safely locked away. “It’s okay, everything’s fine.”

“Everything is not fine,” she spits, furious, but she doesn’t let go of him. “Look!”

He looks. The basement door is wide open, and it’s easy to see the large, illuminated tanks that line walls. Inside each one floats a Hyuuga corpse, and the smell of formaldehyde hits him so suddenly and completely that he nearly chokes on it. “Fuck,” he breathes, and presses a kiss to the side of her head.

“They keep looking at me,” she whispers, and Shikamaru wants to tell her she’s being ridiculous, but there is something almost-alive in these bodies, enough that Danzo had been able to animate and control them. Besides, the Hyuuga’s pupiless, thousand yard stare was creepy enough when they were alive. Those pale eyes looking at them from the tanks were terrifying, and Ren had been in there for almost two hours.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, reaching out to shut the door. “Babe, I’m so sorry. But enemies are approaching and all the jounin are being called to defend the border.”

“I understand,” she says, and pulls back. Her eyes are red and wet, and Shikamaru is not a violent person but everything inside of him wants to find the source of her pain and destroy it.

But Danzo is already dead and Sakura had only been trying to keep her safe, so he grabs her shoulders and kisses her forehead. “Go to the center of the city, the chunin are set up inside the wall if they get through, and the genin are moving civilians into their homes. Please stay safe.”

She nods, and Shikamaru forces out a smile for her before heading to the border. He’s standing with his friends and family to die, and somehow he’s most worried about the one person he cares about who will actually be safest.

Love is terrifying.

~

Hidan and Kakuzu are dead on the ground, and Itachi can only feel satisfaction. He undoes his cloak and drops it on top of their cooling bodies.

“We need to leave. Now.” Neji scowls, “What’s left of Akatsuki is headed to Konoha, and I doubt Suna will get there in time to be of any use.”

“We won’t get there much sooner,” Itachi feels compelled to point out, even though the thought of his village facing Tobi, Nagato, and Sasori makes his stomach churn.

“Better late than never,” Hinata says cheerfully. “Itachi, close your eyes.”

Both he and Neji stare are her. “Why?”

“Trust me,” she says. Itachi closes his eyes. There’s a rustle of cloth, then Hinata steps closer and undoes his headband. He grabs her wrist tight enough to break it, and he can sense Neji tense. “Trust me,” she repeats, and he forces himself to let go and relax.

She wraps another around his forehead, double checking it’s snug before she steps back. He opens his eyes, and her long hair tumbles around her face with nothing to hold it back.

She’d given him her headband.

“I think you’ve worn this one long enough,” she says gently, tossing his old headband on top of the bodies with his cloak.

“I’m not,” he reaches up a hand to trace the leaf symbol, whole and uncut. “I’m still a missing-nin.”

“You are what you’ve always been,” she says, “a loyal and honorable shinobi of Konohagakure.”

Itachi looks to Neji, and he smiles and nods, “I agree with Hinata.”

He traces the symbol one more time before saying, “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she says seriously before breaking out in a grin. “Back to Konoha it is!”

She turns and starts running, her hair whipping around her. Neji rolls his eyes, and as one they move to catch up with her.

~

When Naruto and Sasuke finally make it to the border, it’s already lined with jounin. “Kakashi-niichan!” Naruto launches himself at Kakashi, who doesn’t hesitate to swing him around and grab him in a fierce hug. All the jounin not in the know have started whispering and staring, and there’s one very confused “Natsu?” that no one’s going to address.

Kiba and Sakura are quick to swarm Sasuke, tugging him into the middle of group hug. “We’ve missed you,” Kiba says, rubbing his face along the Uchiha’s just to watch him squirm.

“I’ve missed you too, for some inexplicable reason,” he says, but he’s smiling. Then he gets a better look at Sakura, “How are you already covered in blood!?”

She and Kiba share a look. “It’s a long story,” she says, “I’ll tell it to you if we make it out of this alive.”

He grins, “Fair.”

Naruto’s doing a handstand with a hand on each of Kakashi and Iruka’s shoulders, which is extra impressive considering Iruka is a few inches shorter than Kakashi. “Naruto,” Inoichi says firmly.

He flips off their shoulders to land neatly in front of the clan head. “Yes Sensei?”

“I’m glad you’re back,” he tugs on the end of his ponytail, and Naruto beams.

“Took you long enough,” Chouji calls out, grinning. The rest of Team Eight waves at him.

It’s at this point that the Hokage finally joins them, bodyflickering directly in front of Sasuke. “According to Tsunade’s info and Jiraiya’s scouts they’re only about five minutes away,” he says briskly, “we should be prepared for a full force attack.” He then blinks, “Sasuke, when did you get here?”

“Just now,” Naruto pipes up, and everyone watches in interest Sarutobi pales and slowly turns around. Naruto waves, “Hey Old Man. How have things been?”

“You’re dead,” he says blankly. Gai and Anko very carefully don’t look at each other from fear of bursting out laughing.

“Not yet,” he says. Sasuke rolls his eyes.

Hana and Kabuto choose that moment to shunshin in. “Sorry we’re late,” Hana says, “We just had to finish up a procedure, you understand –”

“Naruto!” Kabuto beams, and in the next moment both he and Hana are fussing over him and checking his resting heartbeat and asking him about his eating habits.

“Guys,” he says, trying to escape their probing hands, “I’m a jinnchuriki! If it doesn’t kill me I’m fine!”

Sarutobi opens his mouth, hesitates, then says, “Natsu?”

“Wow,” Ino mutters, “he figured that out a lot faster than I expected.” She tries to subtly hand Shikamaru the money she owes him from losing that bet, but her dad catches them and glares. Shikaku just looks resigned.

“It’s a long story,” Naruto pats the hokage’s arm, “If we survive this I’ll tell it to you.” Sakura snorts.

Sarutobi glares, obviously struggling between wanting answers and the fact that Akatsuki are minutes away. “Fine,” he says finally, “I’m assuming you and Sasuke are jounin level?”

He gets two very offended stares in response.

“Great,” he mutters, and he can tell that most of his jounin want to laugh at him now, which is just great. “Everyone – try not to die.”

“Troublesome,” Shikaku and Shikamaru mutter at the same time. Before any of their teammates get a chance to mock them for it, three S ranked shinobi in red and black cloaks come barreling towards them.

~

Hanabi is a jounin, the youngest active jounin since Itachi Uchiha, and she has a duty. Her father is exempt from the frontline orders because he’s expected to organize the Hyuuga into scouts along the border’s edge and disperse them throughout the village in case the Akatsuki get through the jounin.

But he doesn’t know the true strength of the branch family. Most of the active ninja are A rank, but Neji is the only branch member that’s officially a jounin, and she’s sent him out of the village with Hinata. She has a duty to her father, to her clan, to the branch family to keep their secret and keep her head down until she’s clan head and can officially combine the two families But she also has a duty to her village, to protect it and its people to the best of their ability. Her father hasn’t dispersed the branch family yet, always the last to be sent anywhere, and she still has time to do the right thing.

They keep watching her, waiting, because they are Hyuuga, the strongest clan in Konoha, and they know they’re not fulfilling their duty by hiding. Her village is the one thing that’s more important to her than her family, her honor, and her pride. She meets their gazes and raises an eyebrow.

As one, all of the branch family ninja nod at her.

“Hanabi,” Hiashi snaps, “What are you doing here? Go to the frontlines.”

“Right,” she says, and her mouth is dry enough that she has to swallow twice before she can continue. “I just need a few people first.”

“What are you talking about? All the jounin Hyuuga are already there!”

She’s been disobeying her father for years, destroying facets of their family traditions, but standing against him to his face is so much harder. “Branch family!” she calls out “All those that are A ranked, follow me.”

“Hanabi, don’t be ridiculous,” he says, “The branch family isn’t strong enough to produce jounin, your cousin being the obvious exception.”

Around twenty jounin step forward. They slide their headbands off of themselves; some leave them to dangle around their neck while others tie it around their arm or leg. All of them proudly display their clear, Curse Mark free foreheads. “I’m sorry,” she whispers to her father’s shocked gaze.

She pumps chakra into her legs and runs to the border, and those Hyuuga fall into formation, following her blindly into who knows what. She’s only fourteen, but she’s kept all her promises and honored all her oaths, so these Hyuuga who’ve never trusted a main family member in their lives follow her to battle.

If this is how she dies, there are worst ways to go.

~

Naruto’s going to be totally honest, he hadn’t expected Konan to be this much of bitch to kill. The woman had always seemed to be so quiet and almost meek that Naruto hadn’t thought she’d be hard to kill. He was wrong.

“This is dragging on too long,” Sasuke says, easily stepping into position as Naruto somersaults forward so he can use Sasuke as a springboard as he tries, and fails, to kick Konan in the face. Both iterations of Ino-Shika-Cho fight around them, trying and failing to get in any hits. Shikaku and Ino are both bleeding heavily, and Chouza is more focused on making sure Shikaku doesn’t fall over than the fight. They’ve pushed her on the defensive, but they can’t seem to get a single hit in.

“I wish Haku was here,” Naruto sighs, “We could really use his ice mirrors.”

“Hey,” Sasuke beams, “Haku. Ice mirrors.”

Naruto digs out a couple kunai and uses his nails to carve a seal that they perfected years ago. “CHOUJI! Shadows!”

“The battle field is too small,” he grunts, “I’ll just get in the way.”

“Then get out of the battlefield,” Sasuke says, and Chouji must know what he means because he shunshins away. “Shikaku, report to medical. You are just getting in the way.”

The older man bares his teeth and looks like he’s about to argue, but Shikamaru shakes his head. “Dad, they’re right. Go.”

He scowls, but begins a careful retreat to where Hana is manning the emergency medical tent. Almost a dozen jounin have already been sent there. The Akatsuki are annoyingly strong, and Naruto really wishes Itachi was here.

Chouji balloons up from his place in the trees, and briefly covers their corner of the battlefield in shadows. Shikamaru doesn’t hesitate, using those shadows to swarm Konan. She’s draining his chakra almost as fast as he can feed it into the jutsu, and Shikamaru has to grit his teeth to keep from passing out right then. It only holds her for a moment, but a moment is all Sasuke needs. He throws the sealed kunai at her, hitting her with one each in the thigh, and Naruto yells, “Get down!”

Ino and Inoichi pull up a wall of earth around them, and the fire element chakra Sasuke had fed into the kunai reacts. Naruto throws his body over Sasuke’s. The explosion is large enough to shake the ground, and hot enough that Naruto’s skin blisters and cracks. He’s already healing by the time it dies down, but Sasuke gives him an irritated look anyway. “I hate when you do that,” he grumbles, but uses gentle hands to pull them both to their feet.

Konan is now nothing more than a smoking pile of charred flesh. The earth walls come down, and Shikamaru sways on his feet, and would have fallen over without Ino to steady him. “Get to medical, the both of you,” Inoichi says, “We’ll go help the others.”

Ino nods and hauls Shikamaru into her arms, bridal style, before running towards the border. Naruto squints towards the border. “Is that who I think it is?”

Everyone else turns to see Hanabi jumping over the wall and leading almost two dozen Hyuuga into a perfect choreographed attack against Sasori. It doesn’t quite kill him, but even Sasuke winces. Kakashi, Iruka, Asuma, and Kurenai are all wounded and panting, and they take a moment to back off Sasori and let Hanabi and her clan handle him. Lee and Tenten are fairing a bit better, and maintain a perimeter around the area for when Sasori attempts to retreat. “Holy shit,” Naruto says, “she’s grown into such a badass.”

Inoichi glares down at him, “She’s a rule breaking, tradition destroying, secret keeping menace.”

“I’m so proud,” Naruto says seriously, “I might cry.”

Sasuke snorts and Chouza rolls his eyes. “OI!” Kiba shouts from where almost a dozen jounin, the Hokage, Anko, Kabuto, and Sakura included, are doing their best to subdue an increasingly furious Tobi. “A LITTLE HELP OVER HERE, IF YOU’RE NOT TOO BUSY!”

Naruto and Sasuke don’t waste any time in body flickering over. This close Naruto’s almost immediately struck that there’s something eerily familiar in the way Tobi movies. He only has to share a quick glance with Sasuke to know that his feelings are shared. Tobi isn’t saying anything, and Konan hadn’t either, but Sasori is cursing up a storm, and there is something very wrong about this situation.

Sasuke takes his sword out of its sheath, and Naruto gives everyone a signal to back up. Sasuke has been personally tutored by both Orochimaru and Zabuza, and he’s not quite able to beat Zabuza in a fair swordfight yet, but he left the Saanin in the dust years ago. Sasuke gets close, dancing and twisting out of the way of every attack but never quite managing to land a hit. Naruto nods at Anko and Kabuto, and with a pop of chakra several long, thin mambas enter the fight, doing their best to trip Tobi up and distract him.

Seeing Tobi and Sasuke fighting each other, that’s when it clicks. Tobi moves like Sasuke, like Itachi. Like an Uchiha. “The fuck,” Naruto mutters, and says to the others, “Watch my back,” before jumping into the fight. He lands with a hand on Sasuke’s head and jumps onto Tobi. He only manages a moment balanced on his shoulder before he has to flip away to avoid getting his arm cut off, but that moment of contact was all he needed. Dark, oily chakra tangled and knotted in his chest, and Naruto has only felt that once before. “Sakura, Kabuto,” he snaps, “how much chakra do you have left?”

She winces, “Not a lot. I can siphon some off of Paru and take another soldier pill if you really need me to though.” Kiba scowls, but doesn’t argue against it.

“Enough,” Kabuto answers, raising an eyebrow, “What do you have in mind?”

“I’m going to do something really stupid,” he says, “and I need you to trust me.”

“Always,” Kabuto answers instantly, and Kiba and Sakura nod.

Naruto allows himself a brief smile. “Okay, good. I’m going to remove a seal Tobi has on him, and then I want you to heal him.”

This actually isn’t even close to the strangest thing he’s asked them to do, so they all give him a sharp nod of agreement. “What are you talking about?” Sarutobi demands, and Naruto has the thought that Hokage or not he’s way too old to be on the battlefield. In his prime Sarutobi could have handled Tobi on his own, never mind with help. “That’s ludicrous.”

“Trust me,” he says, “Now if you don’t want to die, you have to all clear the field until I give the signal.”

Sarutobi would probably have stayed and argued against it, but Anko chooses that moment to shout, “NARUTO IS DOING SOMETHING INSANE AND SAID EVERYONE NEEDS TO GET OFF THE BATTLEFIELD.”

The alarming quickness that everyone who knows Naruto retreats to the border convinces everyone who might have disobeyed to follow. Naruto makes a note to be offended about that later.

For now though he allows Kurama’s chakra to leak into his own because he’s going to need all the help he can get, “Sasuke? Susanoo.”

Tobi stutters over his movements, which only cements Naruto’s theory in his mind. Sasuke’s Mangekyo Sharingan flares to life, and in the next moment Susanoo’s form erupts around him, and its massive hand pins Tobi to the ground. Sasuke can only maintain Susanoo for a handful of minutes, so that’s how long Naruto has to undo the slavery seal carved into Tobi’s chest.

It had taken him weeks to untangle Orochimaru’s. But hey – he’d been younger then, less experienced, and they didn’t call him a seal master for nothing. So he brings the chakra matrix to life, and lets Kurama’s chakra burn away the seal as he unravels it.

~

Sarutobi had known that there were things his ninja were keeping from him, but the orange demon chakra swirling around Naruto coupled with the giant form of Susanoo that he’s only read about shows him that he was clearly underestimating the amount. He slowly turns to Kakashi, who rubs the back of his head and says, “Huh, who would have known?”

Iruka elbows him and Gai turns away to hide that he’s smiling. Sarutobi would love to take that moment to start yelling at them, but Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru jump up and land besides them on the wall’s edge.

“Sorry we’re late!” Jiraiya says cheerfully.

Tsunade cracks her neck on either side, “We had to fight our way through the chunin, who for some reason were surprised to see us. Can’t imagine why.”

“Surprised to see me,” Orochimaru corrects tiredly, “I told you I should have just worn a genjutsu. There will be panic now and people will scream. I hate screaming.”

“Does the snakey wakey have delicate ears?” Jiraiya teases, and Orochimaru sends him a flat glance which promises pain.

Tsunade smacks them both upside the head, “Boys, focus.” She points to the swirl of multi-colored chakra, “I’d ask if we missed anything, but I think that’s fairly obvious.”

“What on earth are those brats doing?” Jiraiya squints, even though it’s impossible to make anything out through the thick haze of chakra.

None of the jounin around them seem surprised at the most recent arrivals, but Sarutobi thinks he’s about to have a heart attack. A teacher isn’t supposed to have favorites, but Orochimaru had always been dear to him in a way that the others hadn’t been. The boy’s betrayal and madness had torn at him, and now he stands in front of him without any hint of the monster he’d been, and instead is the man Sarutobi had always hoped he’d be. “Orochimaru?” he whispers.

Curious yellow eyes land on him, and Orochimaru gives him a soft smile that he hasn’t seen since his student was little more than a child. “Hello Sensei.”

They are still in the middle of a major battle, even if the fighting part of it seems to have miraculously ended with minimal casualties and no deaths. So it would be completely inappropriate for Sarutobi to take his student in his arms and weep, but it is honestly the only thing he wants to do.

“Orochimaru-sama!” Kabuto and Anko shunshin next the man, beaming. Orochimaru raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t hesitate to draw Anko in for a hug. One of his most sadistic ninja snuggles close and lets out a happy sigh.

“Kabuto,” he says, “I analyzed the sample you sent me. Do I want to know how you got your hands on inugami blood?”

“That explains so much,” he says, stepping close enough that he’s an inch away from draping himself all over the man, “and probably not.”

“Holy shit,” Jiraiya blinks and turns to Tsunade, “How did Orochimaru end up being the one with kids?”

“Maybe because I’m the only one who’s not an alcoholic or a pervert?” he says dryly.

Jiraiya taps his chin, “You’d think the pervert thing would have helped in that area, actually.”

Susanoo flickers and disappears. Kabuto taps Tsunade on the shoulder, “Come on, we could use the help,” Sakura nods in agreement and all three of them run back onto the battlefield.

Sarutobi would like to take this moment to ask what the fuck is going on, but then Neji, Hinata, and Itachi body flicker next to them. Hinata and Neji immediately crowd around a bloody and exhausted Hanabi, who glares but seems almost happy to see them.

Itachi raises an eyebrow. Sarutobi waits for someone to scream or attack the younger man, but the only thing that happens is Kakashi waves and Gai claps him on the back in greeting.

He officially gives up. Clearly nothing is going to make sense ever again.

~

The Saanin, Kakashi, Obito, Sai, and Sasuke are taken straight to the hospital. As for everyone else, news of their victory has spread, so when the jounin return to the village the civilians have gathered at the city center awaiting their return. When Naruto sees the crowd he panics and tries to leave, but Itachi grabs his wrist. “Senpai?” Naruto whispers, eyes wide.

“Maybe,” Itachi says gently, “We’ve both been hiding long enough.”

Naruto looks behind him, and both Inoichi and Gai point ahead, urging him forward. He swallows before stepping to meet the crowd, and people are already whispering and craning forward to seem him, whispers of his father’s name reaching his ears.

“I am not my father,” he says and the crowd goes dead silent. “I am Naruto Uzumaki, the orphan who had the demon fox sealed inside of him, and I am Naruto Namikaze, the son of the Yondaime. But that is not all I am.” He swallows and shifts so Natsu stares out at them. “I didn’t die,” she says clearly, “not as a five year old Naruto, nor as a sixteen year old Natsu Nami. I’ve spent the past four years fighting the Kiri civil war in order to solidify an alliance between our villages.” She shifts back to Naruto, but stays a woman, because that’s who she is too. “I’m sorry I lied to you,” she says, and nobody is saying anything, none of the civilians and none of the ninja, and this is killing her. “I didn’t want to deceive you, or hurt you, at first I just wanted a chance to be a ninja and protect this village, and then the only way I could protect you all from leaving, and,” she licks her lips, “and if you don’t want me to stay I understand. I have other places I can go, other – friends. But I love Konoha.” She bites her lips to keep from crying, and she’s bloody and exhausted, her boyfriend and teammates and brother are all at the hospital, and if wasn’t for Itachi-senpai and Inoichi-sensei at her back she’d be running back to Kiri by now.

Still no one says anything, but then finally, finally old lady Kisa steps forward. Kisa who’d driven Naruto away from her meat stall, and Kisa who’d patiently taught Natsu how to judge a cut of meat, how to mix marinades and given her some of her best recipes. She keeps walking until she’s right in front of Naruto, and lifts Naruto’s wobbling chin to look her in the eyes. “Konoha is your home, Naruto,” she says firmly, “This is where you belong.”

Naruto lets out a laugh that’s almost a sob, and the rest of the villagers press closer. There’s a couple wary looks at Itachi, but they seem to understand that he’s with them, so they all stand there while the villagers touch them and thank them, and at some point Naruto starts crying, because nothing in her life is ever this easy, this good.

~

Tsunade and Kabuto are still working to stabilize Obito, and Kakashi can’t help but pace in front of his room. “It won’t be easy,” Orochimaru says quietly. “Danzo hadn’t left me with a purpose, or any directions, and I was able to leave my physical body. Madara left much worse scars on Obito.”

“He’s still an Uchiha,” Sasuke says stubbornly, “We’ll take care of him.”

“I wish I could kill the bastard all over again for this,” Kakashi spits, “If he hadn’t taught Madara the seal in the first place –”

“Obito would be dead,” Sai interrupts. “If Madara hadn’t had a use for him, he would have left Obito to die.”

Iruka enters the hallway, freshly showered and bandaged. Sai and Sasuke make the decision to make themselves scarce after that.

~

Ren should have listened to Shikamaru and returned home, she was terrified and shaky and there was some sort of major battle happening outside the village walls. But she’s never wanted to be the type of woman that just sits home and worries, so she reminds herself that she’s twenty four years old, koi trained, and a reasonable adult before entering the basement again. She’d been too scared to do much more than huddle against the door before, but this time she goes over to the file cabinets bolted into wall. This is where Danzo kept all his worst secrets, and she intends to unearth as many of them as possible.

She doesn’t know how many hours it’s been since she started reading, but her legs have fallen asleep and she has stacks of files spread around here when she hears the front door bang open and Shikamaru shout, “REN! Ren!”

“In here!” she calls out, and Shikamaru turns the corner and runs to her. “Stop!” she says, and points to the stacks of files, “Don’t mess these up, I’ll never get them back into the right order.”

“I went to Madame Koi’s and you weren’t there,” he says tersely, carefully moving around the files. “You scared me.”

She holds out her hand, and he squeezes it. “Sorry,” she kisses the back of his hand, “but this is important.”

“Danzo is dead,” he says tiredly, “What could be so important that you had to give me a heart attack?”

She hands him a stack of files, “Danzo knew about the Infinite Tsukuyomi, and he knew that the Akatsuki would be attacking Konoha.”

Shikamaru sits down besides her and flips through them, “How?”

“Because he knew that they’d need Uchiha eyes to activate it,” she swallows, “Hyuuga bodies aren’t the only things he’s been stock piling. He has Shisui’s eye, and he has about a dozen sets of Sharingan eyes down here.”

“How – never mind, the Massacre,” he shakes his head, “Don’t tell me he orchestrated the whole Uchiha Massacre just to get some eyes.”

“Well, not just,” Ren hands him another file, “but it was certainly a motivator. But no, he’d already had an eye before that. He had one of Madara’s eyes.”

Shikamaru’s head snaps up, “You’re shitting me.”

She shakes her head, “He always knew that Madara would come back for it, or at least one of the others. That’s why he created Root, and the Hyuuga Curse seal, and enslaved the Inugami. Because he knew that Madara would be coming, and he wanted Konoha to be protected.”

“Talk about doing the batshit insane wrong thing for the right reason,” Shikamaru mutters. He stands and holds out a hand to pull Ren to her feet, “Come on, we have to take this to the hokage.”

~

Hanabi walks with her head held high to her father’s office. Neji and Hanabi had argued over their right to go with her, to take their share of the blame, but she hadn’t allowed it. It was all her decision, and she’ll take responsibility for it. Besides, she’s almost certain that her father won’t behead her in his office. Tradition dictates that level of shameful punishment has to be public.

She takes a deep breath and pushes the door open. Hiashi sits behind his desk, reading over reports. The door swings shut with an ominous thud. He slowly puts the report down and meets her eyes. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I’m not sorry,” she says immediately, and both of his eyebrows lift in surprise. “Everything I did was the right thing to do. I’d do it all again.”

“Is that what you think?” he asks acidly, “I knew about your deals with Neji, and that was one thing –”

“You knew?”

“Be quiet,” he snaps, thunderous, and Hanabi is an accomplished jounin and leader, but she’s also fourteen years old and all she’s ever wanted was her father to be proud of her. She knew he wouldn’t be, knew what she was sacrificing when she chose the wellbeing of her clansmen over her own goals. But like many other necessary things, it is painful. “That was one thing, but this? You’ve completely betrayed this family. Tradition is important, it’s vital, and you’ve stomped on it like it means nothing to you. Like our clan means nothing to you. You are a disgrace to the name Hyuuga.”

Tears well in her eyes, but she doesn’t back down. She won’t back down. “Our clan means everything to me! It is you who are the disgrace, treating our blood as if they are our slaves!”

“Insolent child,” he hisses, towering above her, “Do you not have it in you to show any remorse? By clan laws I should kill you for your betrayals!”

“So kill me,” she bites out, “Cut off my head, inject me with poison, burn me on a pyre. It doesn’t matter,” as she says it she realizes it’s true, and it helps her stop crying. “It doesn’t matter what you do to me, my actions are done. Killing me won’t change what I’ve done.”

He’s staring at her like he doesn’t recognize her, and Hanabi supposes that’s only fair. Compared to the girl she used to be, she doesn’t recognize herself either. “What have you done?”

“Our family is free,” she says, “There are no more Curse Marks, and Hinata isn’t the core anymore. There’s only two seal masters who can undo what I’ve done, and neither of them will follow you. None of them follow you,” she straightens her shoulders and meets her father’s incredulous gaze, “Kill me. It doesn’t matter. Let Hinata be the heir, she will continue the work I’ve started, and I dare you to try and kill Neji, he’s the best of us all.”

He’s still staring at her, not saying anything at all. “Come with me,” he orders finally, stalking outside. Maybe he really is planning to kill her.

Well, if she’s to die, she won’t do it a coward. She follows at her father’s heels, but nearly bumps into him as they walk into the courtyard. She looks around him, and the whole branch family is standing there, with Hinata and Neji front and center. “If you’ve come out planning to kill her,” Neji says firmly, “we won’t let you.”

“Hanabi is the rightful heir to our clan,” Hinata says, standing tall and strong just like Hanabi taught her to, “She is the leader we choose.” She slides into an opening stance, “I will not fight for my right to lead this clan, but I will fight for the right to follow my sister.”

“We demand trial by combat,” Neji says, moving to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hinata. “If you wish to punish Hanabi for her actions, you must fight all of us,” he gestures to the accumulated branch family, who stare back with fierce glares, “She committed her actions in service of us, and we won’t allow harm to come to her. She is the clan heir we wish to follow.”

“All of you stop it!” she demands, pushing herself in front her father, placing herself between him and the rest of her family. “I made my own choices! You are all mine to protect, you will not stand and die for me. That is my duty as your leader!”

“You’re wrong,” Isamu says, standing with them even though he barely knows how to throw a kunai. “You are our future clan head. It is our honor and duty to die for you.”

“Enough!” Hiashi roars, raising a hand to rub at his temples. “Everyone, be silent.” He looks to Hinata, “Do you officially refuse your position as clan heir and swear to follow your sister?”

“Every day of my life,” Hinata promises.

He looks to Neji, “Hanabi says you’re stronger than her. If the branch family is dissolved, what’s to stop you from challenging her to be made clan head?”

“Hanabi is stronger than me,” he answers without hesitation, “It’s just not all strength has to do with who comes out the victor on a battlefield.”

Hiashi looks at all of them, and sighs out once in a harsh breath. Because of the way they’re standing, Hanabi is the only one that can see he’s smiling. “Father?”

He glances at her quickly. He doesn’t look angry anymore. “Fine,” he says.

Everyone blinks. “What?” Isamu asks.

“Fine,” he repeats once. He turns on his heal and walks back into the compound. “Hanabi, with me. You get to explain your actions to the elders.”

Hanabi exchanges a wide eyed glance with her sister and cousin before darting back inside. “Father?” she asks hesitantly.

He doesn’t pause or look down at her. “I never could have united the branch family. Half of them would have slit my throat without the threat of the Curse Mark hanging over them.”

“Well, clearly not,” she says hotly, “Since they’ve all been without the Curse Mark for almost four years.”

“That,” he says, “has nothing to do with my incorrect judgement of character, and everything with them finding something to live for besides revenge.”

She pauses, “What?”

He finally looks back at her, and she hasn’t seen that look on his face since she was a little girl. “No one else could do what you’ve done. If I had simply removed the Curse Marks, it would have been a disaster. But you – you united this family in a way that I never could have. You’ve more than earned the title of clan heir.” He hesitates, but adds, “I’m proud of you. I know that doesn’t mean much, compared to what you’ve done, but.”

Hanabi allows herself to do something that she hasn’t don’t since she was a small child, and runs over to her father and throws her arms around his waist. “I love you! I am proud to be your daughter!”

He doesn’t say anything, but he does hug her back, and it’s enough.

It’s more than enough.

~

Itachi is standing in front of the entrance to the Uchiha compound, and news of his loyalty has spread with alarming quickness. On his way here he’d been stopped by no less than five civilians and eight shinobi who’d thanked him for his sacrifice and apologized for doubting him, even though that was the whole point. Honestly he thinks the worst was Kurenai grabbing his shoulder and telling him seriously, “Natsu never gave up on you, you know. She never doubted you for a moment.”

He doesn’t know if he should go inside, or even if wants to. He doesn’t think he can ever look at his home again without seeing the bodies of everyone he killed across every surface.

“Itachi-senpai!” He sighs and turns towards the sound of Naruto’s voice, but he’s not expecting Sasuke to be at her side.

He feels like he’s been punches when he sees his brother, and he opens mouth to say something, anything, but there’s not enough air in his lungs for anything to come on. There’s a moment of hesitation and wariness from Sasuke, but there’s no screaming, no hatred, no kunai in his back like he deserves. Instead, there’s solid, adult arms are around his neck and a mature and yet achingly familiar voice mutters, “Aniki”

He’s thought about seeing his brother again a thousand times, but he’s never imagined this. He hesitantly returns the embrace and whispers, “Outoto?”

“You’re staying right?” Sasuke pulls back just far enough to glare at him, but it’s not enough to hide the fear in his eyes. Itachi had thought that killing their entire family would be his worst sin against his brother, but it’s possible that it was killing their entire family and then leaving. He thinks this might officially make him the worst person, but at least this is something he can hope to fix. “The Akatsuki are gone and everyone knows you’re not a traitor, so you have no reason to leave.”

Naruto jumps up and lands feet first on his head, thankfully cushioning the impact with chakra. “You better not go anywhere Senpai! I’ve got friends all across the nations, so you wouldn’t get very far anyway.”

Itachi tries to speak, but his throat is tight and he knows the second he starts crying. He hasn’t cried in ten years. Sasuke doesn’t say anything, just wraps him up in another strong hug. Naruto flips off of his shoulders and wraps her arms around the both of them.

Naruto and Sasuke are two of the only people who have ever really mattered to him, his brother and his best friend, and they don’t hate him.

He’s finally home.

~

Neji bursts into his teammates’ apartment. Lee isn’t there but Tenten is, and she’s the one he was looking for. “Neji,” she says, startled.

He strides forward and grabs her hands in his, and her cheeks flush. “Hanabi has officially been named clan heir, and the practice of the Curse Marks is being abolished and the knowledge of how they’re made removed from the Hyuuga library and transferred to the hokage’s library.”

“That’s amazing!” Tenten beams, “We should find Lee and celebrate, go out to –”

“Marry me.” Tenten’s mouth drops open, and Neji gets on one knee and doesn’t let go of her hands. “Tenten, I love you. I have loved you. But I could not ask you to be with me when Hiashi could reapply the Curse Mark any day, when any children we have could one day be made slaves. But now I’m a free man, and the only thing I truly want to be is your husband.”

Tenten is grinning so wide her cheeks hurt, “Don’t you think we should go on a date first?”

“No,” he squeezes her hands, “Marry me.”

She throws herself into his arms, laughing, “Yes! You’re insane, but yes, absolutely!”

~

Sakura had passed out at some point during healing Obito, and when she wakes up she’s in the bed in her room with Tsume and Kiba on either side of her. “You kissed me,” Kiba says, and Tsume hits him upside the head.

“I did,” Sakura agrees, pushing herself up so she’s sitting upright.

Kiba rubs the back of his head, and glances at his mom before hesitantly asking, “Do you plan on doing it again?”

“Lots,” she says seriously, and bites her lip to keep from laughing when Kiba beams at her. She then sobers and addresses Tsume, “I’m really sorry about letting the Inugami loose. I had no idea that Danzo was controlling them.”

“What’s to be sorry for?” she tucks Sakura’s hair behind her ear, “You did exactly as the spirits intended.”

“Tsume?” she frowns.

The older woman jerks her head to the open window. Paru has his massive head resting on the windowsill since he’s long past the point of being able to fit in her room. “Paru was the spirits way of reminding us of our bargain. Inugami are active once more, and it’s our duty to weaken and eventually destroy them. Paru chose you as his partner and companion, so of course it was you who struck the first blow.”

“Oh,” Sakura says, and the deeply relived look that comes over her face betrays how worried she was, “That’s good, right?”

“Right,” Tsume says warmly, and flicks Kiba in the nose before standing to leave, “Don’t do anything too strenuous. She’s still recovering.”

“Mom!” Kiba howls, beet red, and Sakura giggles until her aching ribs force her to stop.

~

Naruto has opened up all the windows in her old apartment and is in the middle of trying to make a grocery list that doesn’t just of consist of the word ‘everything’ and calling it a day when there’s a hesitant knock at her door. There’s a very limited number of people who would knock, and an even smaller number who would use her door, so she’s only a little surprised when she opens it to reveal Ren. “Hi!” she beams, stepping aside to let her in, “It’s so good to see you! How have you been?”

“I want to call in my favor,” she says, twisting the material of her dress in her hands.

Naruto blinks, because she owes Ren a lot, so there’s not really a reason to be anxious about it. It’s not like she’s going to say no. “Shoot.”

“So, I don’t know if you know, but I – Shikamaru and I, I mean,” she licks her lips.

Naruto decides to put her out of her misery, “You guys are dating,” she says. It was the first thing Ino had told her once the world wasn’t threatening to crash around them anymore.

“Right,” she says, “and I love my job, Naruto, I do. I like my friends and my coworkers and being a Koi is just everything I hoped for, but I,” she swallows, “I love Shikamaru too. And he’s going to be the Nara Clan Head, and the Nara aren’t very traditional, but they won’t allow him to be with a whore, Naruto, they just won’t, the risk to the line of succession is too great, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Actually,” Naruto says, “I know just the solution to your problem.”

“You do?” she blinks.

She puts her arms around Ren’s shoulders and leads her out, “I do. Come with me.”

~

Madame Koi looks from her nephew to Naruto. “You can’t be serious,” she says finally.

“Who else will take it?” Sasuke asks, “I’m not going to, I’m not even close to being ready to retire. Itachi would be great at it, but he won’t do it either. Obito has months if not years of recovery ahead him, emotionally if not physically, and politically speaking having him do it would be a hilariously bad move. I’d put money on Sai being a Yamanaka within the year. Aunt Kiyomi, it has to be you.”

“You seriously can’t tell me you wouldn’t get a kick out of it?” Naruto says, “Being a councilmember along the men and women who’ve sneered at you and mocked you.”

“You are an Uchiha,” Sasuke says, “and I think it’s time you reminded everyone of that fact.”

She rubs at her temples, “I can’t just leave! I’d have to train someone to take my place as Madame Koi, and that usually at least a year long process.”

“Unless there’s a Koi who used to be a successful Madame,” Naruto adds, “then that would be a very short training period, wouldn’t it?”

Kiyomi narrows her eyes, “And if that certain Koi was also in love with a clan heir, she’d stand a much better chance of their relationship being approved of if she was no longer engaging in activities which threatened the line of succession.”

Neither of them even have the decency to look abashed. “You like Ren, don’t you?” Naruto cajoles, “Besides, the Uchiha council seat can’t stay empty forever.”

A gleam enters her dark eyes. “Fine,” she says, “I’ll do it. On one condition.”

“Name it,” Sasuke says without hesitation.

“Who’s currently living in the Uchiha District?”

He blinks, “A few of us, but not for long. Itachi hasn’t said anything, but I know he doesn’t like living there. I’m moving in to Naruto’s place, and there’s an apartment below hers that’s going on the market at the end of the month that Itachi’s going to move in to. Obito doesn’t want to live there for obvious reasons, I think he might be spending part of his recovery in Oto, actually. Kabuto’s going to end up moving into the Inuzuka compound eventually, and I’m sure Sai will do the same to with the Yamanaka.” He raises an eyebrow, “Why?”

“Give it to the Koi,” she says, “It’s safer and larger than the buildings we’re in now, and nothing will give me more satisfaction than seeing my Koi in the houses my father built.”

“That’ll depreciate the value of that entire side of town,” he grins, “Good. Done. If you take up the council seat as Kiyomi Uchiha and name Ren as the next Madame Koi, I’ll sign over the deeds to the Uchiha properties for use of the Koi.”

They shake on it. “My darling nephew, I do believe you have yourself a deal.”

Naruto’s so happy she does a backflip to show it.

~

It’s three in morning, and Iruka has class in the morning, but Kakashi’s been staring at the ceiling for hours. “Iruka?” he whispers, poking his boyfriend in the shoulder, “Iruka, are you awake?”

Iruka sighs and slowly opens his eyes, “Well, I am now.” He shifts on the bed until he can lay his head on Kakashi’s chest, and Kakashi feels himself relaxing as he puts his arms around him, which he’s sure is the entire reason Iruka did it in the first place. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m doing the right thing by letting Obito go back with Orochimaru, right?” he says, still not able to bring himself to speak above a whisper.

Iruka doesn’t answer right away, instead tracing the leaf symbol above Kakashi’s heart before replying, “I think there’s only one person in the whole world who even has an inkling of what Obito went through, and that’s Orochimaru. In Oto, he won’t be surrounded by the reminders of who he used to be, and instead he can figure out who he is. And when he’s ready to come home, there’ll be a place and people waiting for him.”

Kakashi nods and runs his hand through Iruka’s hair, “Do you think he’ll come home?”

Iruka pushes himself up enough to kiss him and says, “I think that if he doesn’t want to return to Konoha, we can always go to Otogakure, and that will have to be enough.”

“I love you,” he says seriously.

Iruka sighs, but he’s still smiling. “I love you too. Can we please go to sleep now?”

“Absolutely not,” he reaches down to grab Iruka’s ass. He gives a put upon sigh that’s very at odds with the way his hand is moving in between Kakashi’s thighs.

~

This time Inoichi watches the clock. It takes exactly seventeen minute of him drinking alone before his teammates settle in on his left side. “Truly,” Chouza says, “what could you possibly have to complain about now?”

“We’re all alive,” Shikaku says, accepting the drinks the bartender sends their way, “Danzo is dead, the Akatsuki are gone, your students are finally all in-village again, and it looks like Ino intends to make an honest man out of Sai.”

“Ino and Sai are getting married?”  Hana gasps in delight, sliding into the seat next to Inoichi with Kabuto and Naruto following her.

Naruto waves down the bartender, “She hasn’t asked his clan head’s permission yet! She’s living on the edge.”

“I though Sai was the clan head?” Kabuto asks, accepting his drink and passing Naruto hers.

She shakes her head, “That was only until Sasuke got back. Now that the hokage has officially taken him off the missing-nin list, he’s clan head again. I mean, technically it should go to Itachi, but he didn’t want it.”

“Can’t say I blame him,” Hana says sympathetically, “It must be hard for him to get used to being back in Konoha again.”

“He’s quiet,” Naruto says, “But he and Sasuke spend a lot of time together, and he’s moving into our building next week.”

“Something I’m sure you’re grateful for,” Shikaku says, “Since rumor has it that he’s been sleeping on your couch.”

“I love having Senpai around always,” Naruto declares, “That said, his extra sensitive hearing is definitely putting a dent in our sex life.”

Inoichi winces, “Please don’t talk about your sex life.”

“The point being,” Chouza gestures at Inoichi with his beer bottle, “What could you possibly be moping about now?”

Inoichi takes a slow sip of his drink. “Nothing.”

They all blink. “Nothing?” Kabuto echoes.

“Nothing,” he leans his chin on his hand and grins, “In fact, things are pretty great right now.”

Hana laughs, “Well, I’ll drink to that!”

As one, all six of them clink their glasses together and drink.

~

Lee is in the middle of doing ten thousand pushups when Hanabi walks into the training ground. She’s got her hair down and her hitai-ate tied around her thigh, and Lee stops and jumps to his feet. “My sweet Konoha blossom!” he shouts, “How lovely you appear on this fine day!” She glares at him, then looks to the ground. Her avoiding his gaze is so unexpected that the smile slips right off his face. “Hanabi?”

“I’m going to the river,” she says, too loud and still not looking at him. “Do you – do you want to walk with me?”

“Yes,” he scrambles over to her side, and she nods shortly before turning and going in the direction of the river. They walk in silence for a bit, which would be fine but she’s still not looking at him. “Is something wrong?”

She stops walking, and it takes him a moment to realize it and double back. She licks her lips, “Neji and Tenten’s wedding is next month. I’m the maid of honor, and you’re the best man, so we should go. To the wedding. Together, if you – you know, want.”

A slow smile spreads over his face, “I would like that very much.”

She lets out a breath he hadn’t noticed she was holding, and finally looks at him. “Good,” she says, and starts walking again. She doesn’t say anything else, but a few minutes later she slips her hand into Lee’s, and he beams and threads their fingers together.

They walk the rest of the way to the river holding hands.

~

Sarutobi leans his elbows on his desk and rubs at his temples. “Kakashi, I’m almost eighty years old. It’s time for us to stop putting this off.”

Kakashi snorts and crosses his arms, “We’ve been over this. I’m not going to be hokage.”

“You are the strongest ninja in the village,” he says with forced calm, “it is your duty to take up the mantle of hokage.”

“I’m almost certain that Itachi is the strongest ninja in the village, actually. Why don’t you go ask him?” Sarutobi glares, and he sighs. “I’m not right for the position, and you know it.”

“Then who would you suggest?” he demands, “I’m old Kakashi. I can’t do this much longer. The fact that all of you have managed to keep so many secrets from me is proof that I’ve worn this hat too long.”

Kakashi slumps back in the chair and raises an eyebrow, “If only we had an S ranked, loyal shinobi in the village who was willing to die for its people. Someone with strong ties to all the major clans, and even better than that close personal ties to almost half of the major ninja villages. Someone who’s on a first name basis with the Daiymo of our neighboring country, even.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snaps, “he’s eighteen years old.”

“Consider this, then,” Kakashi stands, “He’s the only one in this village who would do it out of love for the people rather than duty to his village.”

He gives a short bow and leaves using the door for once. Sarutobi scowls at the empty seat for a long time before giving in and rising to his feet. It wouldn’t kill him to talk to the kid.

He finds him on training ground four with the Uchiha brothers. “Naruto,” he calls out, “Could I speak to you a moment?”

“Sure thing, old man!” he waves at Sasuke and Itachi before cartwheeling in front of him. “Do you have a mission for me?”

“No,” he says, and Naruto really is the spitting image of his father, even though he’s about the same height as Kushina. “Just – walk with me.”

“Sure,” he says agreeably, tucking his hands behind his head. “Something on your mind?”

Sarutobi lights his pipe, “You and the villagers seem to be getting along well.”

He beams, “Yeah, everyone’s being really nice! A couple of the merchants said they were really happy to have Natsu back, and the weapons shop is commissioning my sealing work again. I kind of missed that cranky old man.”

“Naruto,” he takes a deep puff from his pipe, “Aren’t you – I mean, isn’t it difficult for you? Considering how they treated you as a child.”

The smile slides off his face and he bites his bottom lip. They walk in silence for a few minutes, and Sarutobi doesn’t push him, gives him his time. “I think,” Naruto says, wetting his lips, “that I would hate to be judged by my worst moments. Those times that I’m scared and angry, or exhausted and terrified. I don’t think that’s who I really am. I don’t think I’m who I am in my best moments either, when everything’s going right. It’s easy to be kind when nothing’s wrong, and – and the thing is, as Natsu they were kind to me.”

“Five years is a long time to be experiencing their worst moments,” he says mildly.

Naruto shakes his head, “No, it’s not that. I know you were trying to protect me old man, but the villagers were scared. They were hurting and scared, and then you didn’t tell them anything. Their home had just been torn apart, and all they had to blame it on was a kid. If – if you’d told them the truth, I think that would have been better.”

Sarutobi freezes. “Naruto?”

“People are wary around jinchuuriki,” he says, twisting the material of his shirt in his hands, “they don’t usually have a lot friends. But they’re not hated. Once Gaara stopped killing everyone, people in Suna were quick to forget that they used to be scared of him. But they didn’t know I was a demon container, they just knew I was connected to the demon, they thought I was what was left of the demon, old man. Of course they hated me. But – but as Natsu, I was still a war orphan, and I was of Flower District, so people still had plenty of reasons to hate me, and they didn’t. They were kind. When given the chance to better people usually take it.” He meets Sarutobi’s wide eyes and shrugs, “I don’t think it’s fair to judge people by their worst moments. This village took care of an orphan raised by prostitutes, and welcomed home a child they’d despised when that child turned out to be person, not a demon. They even accepted Itachi and Orochimaru, people who’ve committed terrible acts against them. Konoha is full of good, kind people who just – need opportunities to be their best selves.”

Sarutobi stares at him for a long moment before sighing, “Damnit. Kakashi was right.”

“Old man?” He asks, head tilted to the side in confusion.

“Come back to my office, Naruto,” he places a hand on his back to push him forward, “We need to have a discussion about your future.”

~

Five Years Later

~

“NARUTO!”

She startles awake, papers still clinging to her face. “I’m up, I’m up! What’s wrong?”

Sasuke licks his thumb and attempts to clean the ink off of her face, “The first stage of the chunin exams are about to start, and since you had the bright idea to put group combat first –”

“I’m going to be late!” She bolts away, but Sasuke grabs her arm and points to her tunic. It’s got a large ink stain along the bottom. “No, Sasuke I can’t go like this!”

“I know,” he goes over to her desk and takes a fresh lilac tunic out of the bottom drawer, “Here.” She quickly gets changed, shaking out her hair because her bun has gone lopsided and loose. Sasuke helps her into her robe, and flips the hat onto her head. “They’re waiting, Hokage-sama.”

She pulls him in for a quick kiss, then leaves in a swirl of leaves. Sasuke sticks his head out of the office and asks the guard, “Are you coming? I think your boyfriend is going to be there.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow, “I have no idea who you’re talking about it.”

Sasuke shrugs, “Suit yourself.”

Itachi manages to restrain himself for a whole twenty seconds before body flickering after his brother.

~

“You fell asleep, didn’t you?” Temari mocks even as she pulls Naruto in for a hug.

She waves at Gaara over Temari’s shoulder, “Who me? No, definitely not.”

“Liar,” Orochimaru says lazily, Kimimaro at his side. “You almost missed your own chunin opening.”

“What, did you bring your Jounin Commander because you couldn’t decide between the husband or the wife?” Naruto shoots back.

“We’re not married,” he glares.

Kimimaro frowns, “The three of you are a little married, Otokage-sama.” Orochimaru snarls at him, but doesn’t attempt to further deny it.

“I want you to know I don’t show up to the exams even when they’re held in Kiri,” Zabuza adds, “You should feel honored.”

“Always,” she says, and gives herself a gold star for not laughing when Itachi and Kisame wave at each other.

She turns to face the genin and their sensei. She leans out of the kage box to yell, “Sorry about the delay! Get to it, and don’t kill each other!”

A bitchy chunin gives her look, but when she makes it clear that’s really all she’s going to say on the matter he gives a large sigh and obligingly rings the gong.

The chunin exams have begun.

~

Shikamaru would hide his face in his hands if he wasn’t holding his son, and Ren can clearly tell because she’s laughing at him. “Why did we elect her as hokage?”

“Could be worse,” Ino says, leaning against Sai, “It could be Kakashi.”

“Oi,” Kakashi flicks the back of her head, “it could never have been Kakashi, thank you.”

“I don’t know,” Obito says, “Hokage Kakashi Hatake has a nice ring to it, don’t think so Iruka?”

The Academy teacher raises an eyebrow, “I refuse to get involved in any of your strange arguments. You guys have been keeping score, and I’ve been given strict orders not to interfere.”

Sakura knocks her shoulder into Kakashi’s , “Personally, I’m still of the opinion that if Kakashi becomes hokage we should all just defect to Kiri.” Kiba snorts.

Hanabi, Hinata, and Shino all glare at her. “No Water country,” Hanabi declares, “I can’t stand the mud.”

“Well you won’t be doing any traveling for a while,” Sakura pats Hanabi’s stomach that’s just begun to swell, and Hanabi glares. Lee beams and puts an arm around his wife’s shoulders, which is really at that’s saving Sakura from losing that hand.

“Can I pat?” Hako asks, the spitting image of Tenten at three years old. Neji raises an eyebrow at his cousin, who sighs and holds out her hands to settle her niece on her lap. Tenten passes their son to Neji, who’s still so achingly small that Neji gets a faintly panicked look whenever he holds him.

“Chouji’s team is up!” Ino says, excitedly slapping Shikamaru. They all settle down to watch, and then collectively wince when they get paired with Haku’s team from Kiri.  

Kiba jerks his head up to kage box, “How much money do you think they have riding on this?”

“Half a million ryo, three priceless tomes on sealing, a sword that Zabuza’s been drooling after from Suna, and twenty three embarrassing childhood photos,” Kabuto answers promptly. Hana slaps a hand over her face as everyone slowly turns to face the man. “What? Everyone needs a hobby.”

~

Sarutobi picks his way alone the top of the seats, and there’s an empty one on either side of a familiar face. “Lady Uchiha,” he murmurs, “Is this seat empty?”

She glances at him from below her lashes, “Oh, for you Hiruzen? Of course.”

“You did a very fine job with her,” he says, and both their eyes settle on Naruto.

Kiyomi almost smiles, “I didn’t do much.”asuyo

“You did more than I ever could,” he says.

She pats the back of his hands and smirks, “Don’t beat yourself up over it too much. It does take a village, after all.”

~

Naruto resigns herself to not making fun of Itachi for making googly eyes at Kisame considering Sasuke spends the entire match with his hand on the back of her neck. Orochimaru and Zabuza, however, are smirking at her and are definitely planning to mock her forever.

She loves Haku, but Chouji’s team better win. She has to get her hands on those baby pictures!