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Frayed Truths

Chapter Text

Itachi Uchiha exits the building without sparing his brother a glance, his partner following quickly behind him. Jiraiya pulls out a scroll from his pocket, kneeling down to seal away the strange black flames.

Naruto drops down next to Sasuke immediately. He’s so motionless slumped against the wall, so still, and Naruto’s heart jumps into his throat, because he remembers this scene, remembers this feeling. He remembers holding Sasuke’s lifeless body in his arms, tears hot on his cheeks and blood slippery on his hands. He remembers the anguish that spiked through his heart, at the realization that he lost something he hadn’t known he’d miss.

No, Naruto thinks, the same desperation rising in his chest. Sasuke looks the same now as he did then – bruised and battered and so very, very still. No.

Sasuke’s chest moves then, and Naruto’s breath escapes him in a rush. His relief is so palpable he can taste it.

“Sasuke?” Naruto says. His hands hover uncertainly over his friend’s body, shaking and afraid to touch. Sasuke looks so much more fragile than he’s ever been, not even during his battle with Haku. Naruto can’t stop seeing the way he was flung around, can’t stop hearing the sound of his bones breaking.

At least with Haku, it could be called a fight. But this – this was just a beatdown.

Itachi Uchiha. Naruto can’t stop seeing those cold eyes. Or the way Sasuke glared into them, with more hatred than Naruto thought a single person capable of feeling.

What horrible thing could that man have done, to put such an awful look in Sasuke’s eyes? And why were they after him?

Naruto’s head is spinning with questions, but his attention is refusing to focus on any of them. Instead, his mind keeps replaying the image of fingers wrapping around Sasuke’s throat, slamming him against the wall; the sound of his screams still echo in his ears.

Naruto has never heard anyone scream like that before. He never wants to again.

Jiraiya returns his sealing scroll to his waistband. He walks over to his pupil, and the look on his face is grave. “Naruto.”

Naruto ignores him. His eyes locked on Sasuke’s pale face, he grabs the boy by the shoulders and begins to shake him. “Sasuke! Sasuke, wake up!”

Sasuke’s eyes remain closed. Naruto shakes him harder.

“Naruto,” Jiraiya repeats, his voice firmer. He places a restraining hand on the jinchuuriki’s shoulder. “That’s enough. He could have a concussion.”

Naruto stops immediately, though he keeps his hands on Sasuke’s shoulders. Jiraiya crouches down next to him, and his heart sinks as he gets a closer look at the kid’s condition.

Naruto watches him closely, taking in his grim eyes and the thin line of his lips. “What is it? He’s gonna be okay, right?”

Jiraiya places his fingers against the boy’s neck; the pulse he finds there is weak and thready. He catalogs the injuries that are visible to him, aligning them with what he saw during the fight. The kid’s entire body looks beat to hell, so it’s hard to zero in on specific injuries. A broken wrist, perhaps even a few broken ribs; his neck will be rather bruised up in a few hours (along with the rest of him). The blood on his lips is worrying; it suggests he might have punctured a lung.

Jiraiya leans closer to listen to the boy’s breaths. They don’t seem to rattle, which is a good sign.

“He should be fine, physically,” he responds. “But he should still get medical attention as soon as possible. I can’t be sure if he has a head injury.”

The Sennin looks down on him with a frown. What was he thinking, coming after Itachi alone?

Though the worry still remains in his eyes, Jiraiya's words seem to appease Naruto slightly. He tears his gaze away to voice one of the many questions swirling around in his brain.

“Pervy Sage, why were those guys after me? How did they know about the Kyuubi?”

For once, Jiraiya doesn’t protest the nickname. He frowns, carefully considering his words before he speaks. “Naruto, those two ninja – ”

That’s when a blur of green crashes through the hole in the wall, a hard fist colliding with his face.

“Ha-ha! Victory is mine, you foul – ” Gai's booming voice halts mid-sentence, his eyes widening. The victorious grin slips from his face as he processes the scene before him. “Oh.”

Oh!?” Jiraiya repeats, pushing himself off the ground. He presses his hand to his nose to staunch the flow of blood. “What the hell was that for!?”

Gai wipes his knuckles discreetly on his jumpsuit. “I apologize!” he professes, in a voice that might’ve been sheepish if it wasn’t so loud. “I was casing the hallway from outside and mistook you for the enemy!”

“The enemy is gone,” Jiraiya grumbles, pulling out a tissue and holding it against his nostrils. “You better hope you didn’t break my nose. How did you even know they were coming here?”

“I didn’t,” said Gai. “But they arrived in Konoha first, searching for Naruto. Kakashi saw through them immediately, of course! Nothing gets passed my Rival!” He grins briefly with pride, but then it quickly slips from his face. His demeanor at once becomes more subdued. “However, even his elite moves were no match for those of Itachi Uchiha.”

Still kneeling on the floor, Naruto straightened, eyes brightening with concern. “Kakashi-sensei!? Is he okay!?”

“He will be fine, don’t you worry. Nothing can keep him down long, that Kakashi.”

His voice is filled with his usual note of irritation mixed with admiration when he speaks his rival's name. Naruto calms some, though worry still squirms in his gut. Itachi taking Sasuke down so easily was scary enough, but to hear he took down Kakashi as well…

Naruto shivers at the thought of someone so powerful after the Kyuubi – after him. If Jiraiya hadn’t gotten here…

Gai has turned his attention toward Sasuke now. His face creases in worry as he looks at him. “What happened?”

“What do you think?” Jiraiya says harshly. Gai winces. “What even happened? If Itachi was in the village, then surely someone was keeping an eye on him.”

“Kakashi was meant to be training with him today. When he didn’t show up, Sasuke went looking for him. Then someone burst in and blurted out everything that happened.”

“And let me guess, he took off?” Jiraiya guesses. He doesn’t know Sasuke Uchiha – hasn’t ever even spoken to him – but he knows enough of his circumstances to guess what his response would be to hearing Itachi was in the village. He saw it on the kid's face, when he and his brother squared off.

Hatred. Betrayal. A desperate need to hurt.

“As soon as he heard he was after Naruto, he hightailed it out of there. I went right after him, but that kid is fast. It seems I arrived too late.”

Gai's face is regretful as he looks down at Sasuke, and he asks, “Will he be okay?”

“He’ll live. But he needs a hospital.”

“Of course. I’ll take him,” the man volunteers immediately. He bends down on one knee next to Naruto, and Naruto instinctively tenses, drawing closer to his friend.

“Naruto,” Gai says gently when he notices. The strange softness to his voice is odd from someone usually so loud. “I need you to let me pick him up. I promise to hurt him as little as possible.”

Naruto hesitates, but his hands slide from Sasuke’s shoulders and he scoots back a couple feet. Gai scoops Sasuke into his arms slowly, careful of his injuries, and though he knows Sasuke can’t feel it, Naruto still can’t help but wince.

Gai stands up, holding Sasuke close to his chest. He looks so small in the man’s arms, so breakable.

He doesn’t look like Sasuke, Naruto thinks. Sasuke isn’t breakable. He’s not supposed to be breakable.

But he is.

"What exactly happened?" Gai asks. "Besides him getting beaten up?"

Jiraiya frowns at the unconscious form in his arms. "I'm not too sure. Itachi used some form of genjutsu on him -- I've never seen anything like it. He just started screaming."

Horrified recognition flashes quickly over Gai's face. Jiraiya isn't looking at him, so he doesn't catch it, but Naruto does.

“You said the two of them left?” Gai confirms. Sasuke’s head rests just below his chin. “Do you think they’ll be back?”

Jiraiya shakes his head. “No, they know better. You get that kid back to Konoha. Naruto will be safe with me – ”

“Wait, what?” Naruto snaps his eyes from Sasuke’s unconscious form, his attention drawn back to the current conversation. He jumps to his feet. “What do you mean with you? I’m not leaving Sasuke!”

Jiraiya sighs, but he looks like he was expecting this. “Naruto, we need to find Tsunade. The village is weak so long as it is without a Hokage. It’s important one be instated as soon as possible – ”

“Then you go!” Naruto yells. He looks at his friend held in Gai's arms, and he shakes, remembering his screams. “I’m going with Bushy Brow sensei!”

“I can’t go myself, that’s why I brought you with me. You’re the only one she’ll listen to.”

Naruto shakes his head. His blue eyes are fierce as he meets Jiraiya's gaze.

“I won’t leave Sasuke,” he declares.

Jiraiya fights to match the boy’s stare. In that moment, Naruto’s resemblance to Minato is so intense that it hurts to look at him.

“Yes,” he forces himself to say. “You will.”

Naruto’s blue eyes cut through him, hurt and betrayed, and Jiraiya feels himself softening. “Naruto, there’s nothing you can do for him,” he says. “Come with me. Sasuke will be fine when you return.”

Naruto wavers. He looks uncertainly at Sasuke, then at Gai.

“I’ll take care of him, Naruto,” Gai says. “I promise.”

Naruto bites his lip, but he nods reluctantly. He walks forward a few steps, staring into his friend’s pale face. His eyes catch on the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, the bruise forming on his cheekbone.

“I’ll return soon, Sasuke,” he swears. “And when I do, I’ll have an awesome new jutsu to show off. And we can finally have that fight you promised me.”

Naruto steps back. Gai nods to Jiraiya, before exiting the building the same way he came in.

Jiraiya places a comforting hand on his shoulder. Naruto watches the two of them go, his heart only growing heavier as they disappear from his sight.

Chapter Text

In the time it takes Gai to return to Konoha and reach its hospital, Sasuke Uchiha still has not stirred.

It’s worrying, considering the time it took for them to reach the village. He should have woken by now, especially with all of the jostling his injuries are receiving. The longer he doesn’t, the greater Gai's worry grows.

He thinks about what Jiraiya said about Itachi placing the boy under a genjutsu. If it's the same genjutsu Kakashi endured - and from the sounds of it, it was - then after seeing what it did to Kakashi, Gai dreads the effect it could have on a child.

He stares down at the child in his arms, so pale and small and still, and a pit forms in his stomach. What is he going to tell Kakashi?

The intern at the front desk directs him to a room up the stairs where two medical ninjas immediately intercept him. They take one glance at the body cradled in his arms and gesture for him to lay him on the bed.

Gai hunches down, careful to jostle the weight in his arms as little as possible as he places him on the cot. Sasuke’s breath escapes him in small puffs against his neck, proof that he’s alive, and Gai draws away from him reluctantly, uneasy to no longer have that reassurance. He watches the slight movement of the boy’s chest, praying he won’t have to deliver his rival bad news.

“What happened?” the female med-nin asks, while her partner leans over Sasuke to assess the damage. Gai opens his mouth before he knows what he’s going to tell her – what he’s allowed to tell her – but she cuts across him. “Nevermind that. What can you tell us about his injuries?”

“Not much,” Gai admits. “I wasn’t present during the fight. But he hasn’t woken up since.”

Her lips press into a thin line. “Have his parents been notified?”

Oyome,” the other med-nin says, his tone firm.

She turns to look at him. He shakes his head at her, looking down pointedly at the clan crest embroidered on the collar of Sasuke’s shirt. Oyome looks at it and understanding passes through her eyes, followed by pity.

“Are you his teacher, then?” she asks.

Gai shakes his head, and for a moment his heart aches for this boy – this boy whose family should be here with him, and whose family is the reason he’s in this state. “His teacher is Kakashi Hatake. He’s currently out of commission.”

Oyome sighs at this information, grim resignation settling over her features. Gai looks past her, to the unconscious child on the bed. He’s so still and pale, his dark hair a sharp contrast against the white sheets. Looking down at him, Gai is reminded horribly of Lee after his fight with Gaara; how broken and bruised he looked as he was carried from the stadium.

Lee, who at this very moment is in one of these hospital rooms, fighting to stand on shaky legs that may never support him again.

He remembers the fear he felt for his adorable student then – the paralyzing terror. He does not wish that feeling on Kakashi.

“You realize,” Oyome says, turning back to face him, “that with his sensei out of commission, we won’t be able to release any information on his condition to you once he’s stabilized.”

Gai frowns. “I’m a registered jounin sensei. Surely you could – “

“I’m sorry.” To her credit, she does sound genuinely apologetic. “But unless you’re his sensei, I’m legally not allowed to tell you anything. Does he have an emergency contact?”

Gai only sighs and shakes his head. He’s fairly certain Kakashi is Sasuke’s emergency contact.

She sighs, casting the child a sympathetic look before returning her gaze forward. “Normally, I would say go to the Hokage, but considering we currently don’t have one…”

Gai bows his head, a familiar grief passing over him. Every citizen of the village held some sort of connection to the Third, and Gai is no exception. His loss is felt very keenly.

“May I remain here, at least?” Gai asks. “I understand you cannot tell me anything, but until Kakashi wakes, it is the least I can do.”

“Of course,” she says.

Gai bows his head, and with a last lingering glance at the boy on the bed, he exits the room and retreats to the hallway. His heart is heavy with a feeling of inadequacy – a need to be doing more – but with no options presenting themselves, he returns to the lobby and takes up vigil against the wall.

There isn’t anything he can do. Nothing that will help. But he can be here, at least, since Kakashi can’t.



When word gets back to them that Gai has returned, Kurenai leaves Asuma with Kakashi to go and meet up with him. Upon arriving at the hospital, she finds him leaning against the wall of the lobby.

“Gai,” she calls as she walks over to him. “What happened? Did you catch up to Itachi?”

He turns to her, and she knows by the unusually grave set to his face that something is wrong. “Kurenai,” he says. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be with Kakashi.”

“Asuma is with him,” she replies. “What happened with Sasuke? Did you reach him in time?”

Gai's shoulders slump, and Kurenai's heart drops.

“No,” she whispers, and her hand comes up to cover her mouth. She remembers the strength of Itachi’s kick, the power behind it vibrating through her bones. She imagines the damage that type of brute force could inflict on a child, and she flinches.

“Is he…”

“He’s alive,” says Gai. “He and Itachi got into it before I got there. It looks like he’ll live, but… it’s bad, Kurenai.”

She shakes her head in disbelief at the situation. She’s an only child, so she’s never had the bond of a brother or sister. But she can imagine, and what Itachi Uchiha has done is unthinkable to her.

“I don’t understand how someone could do such a thing… to hurt his own brother…”

Gai shakes his head. “Don’t bother trying to find reason behind his actions,” he says, and his tone is heavy with disgust. It’s written clearly across his face. “Itachi Uchiha slaughtered his own kin when he was no older than Sasuke is now. His actions are those of a monster. There is no sense in them.”

Kurenai knows he is right; she remembers the deadness to those eyes, as if there wasn’t even a person living behind them, and she shudders. But still, a small part of her can’t keep from wondering: why? For what reason?

She banishes the thoughts. They are useless to dwell on. “So you didn’t engage them?”

“Itachi had already fled by the time I arrived. And I confess it likely for the best, no matter how much my heart yearned to fight him. I would not have survived against him alone.”

Kurenai nods, remembering her and Asuma's own battle with the two missing-nin. “And with Kisame Hoshigaki there as well…”

Gai frowns. “Who?”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Kisame?” she prompts. “One of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist? Wanted in several countries?”

A furrow appears between Gai’s bushy eyebrows. He thinks hard, but the words fail to jog his memory. “Sorry. I don’t recall him.”

“You literally just fought him!”

“You know I’m not good with faces.”

Kurenai stares at him for a long moment, before shaking her head. Unbelievable. With such a distinctive appearance and sword, Kisame certainly made an impression on her. Not on Gai, apparently.

She changes track, asking, “So, how’s the kid? Is he going to be alright?”

“His life isn’t in danger.” Gai sighs, and there’s frustration written on his face. “But beyond that, they refuse to tell me anything. I’m not his parent or his teacher.”

Kurenai scowls, a spark of irritation going through her. “That's such bullshit. The kid has no parents. You told them about Kakashi, right?”

Gai nods. Kurenai's scowl deepens, her ire increasing.

“Their actions are valid,” Gai says. “I find them most frustrating, but they are right.”

Kurenai knows he speaks truth. It’s basic hospital procedure to keep a patient’s confidentiality. Still, in this situation, it really bites.

“What about Kakashi?” Gai asks. “How does he fair?”

“Same as before. Asuma thinks he should be waking up soon, though.”

Gai’s face lightens, the shadows hanging over his face all but disappearing. “That is joyous news! Though not surprising. Someone as Hip and Youthful as Kakashi will not stay down for long!”

Kurenai smiles. She usually finds Gai’s constant enthusiasm overwhelming; his mannerisms are much too bold, his voice much too loud, and Kurenai has always been one who felt more at home in silence. Now, however, it brings her comfort. She feels the weight on her heart lessen, just the smallest fraction.

Their village is weakened and leaderless, its citizens still deeply affected by their numerous losses; a child has been brutalized by someone meant to care for him, and Kakashi still hasn’t woken. Yet still, Gai holds onto hope.

In such dire times, such unwavering faith is inspiring.

“Are you staying here?” she asks.

Gai nods. “Kakashi can’t be here, so this is the least I can do. Besides, I was going to go visit Lee-kun, anyway.”

Kurenai smiles. “Give him my regards. And promise you won’t stay all night, okay? You need your rest, too.”

Gai assures her he won’t. He thinks of his other two students, Neji and Tenten, and it occurs to him that they are most likely worried for him. He hasn’t checked in on them since before Itachi’s reappearance in the village. And they’ve probably heard that Kakashi was injured.

“Do you think you could check up on Neji and Tenten for me? I don’t want them to be concerned over me.”

“Sure,” Kurenai agrees. “What should I tell them?”

“Not about Itachi Uchiha, obviously. If people knew an S-class missing-nin showed up, especially now of all times, they’ll just panic needlessly. But you can tell them Sasuke was attacked.”

Kurenai nods. She understands certain things are classified. Gai’s students won’t be happy at only getting a partial part of the story – Neji in particular – but they’ll have to deal.

“I’ll see you later, then. Asuma’s agreed to keep watch over Kakashi, he’ll contact you if something changes."

Gai nods, and Kurenai turns her back. When she reaches the door, she turns her head to look at him one last time. His eyes are distant and troubled, staring off in the distance at something only he can see.

She sighs quietly at the sight and slips quickly from the building.

Chapter Text

When he wakes, the first thing that hits him is his utter exhaustion. His own limbs feel like lead weights holding him down; it’s an effort to even open his eyes.

Light assaults him immediately. With a groan, he slams them closed again, his head reeling. Ugh.

The sound of surprised fumbling reaches his ears, and Kakashi is immediately alert. The floorboard creaks as the person kneels next to him, and Kakashi’s hand tenses around a weapon he doesn’t have.

“Kakashi? You awake?”

Kakashi relaxes at the voice—a voice that means safety. He cracks his eyes open more slowly this time, squinting against the sunlight spilling in from the window.

“Asuma,” he greets. The words grate against his dry throat. “What horrible thing have I done to deserve waking up to your mug?”

The corner of Asuma’s mouth twitches. He reaches over to grab the glass of water on the bedside table as Kakashi struggles to push himself up.

“Here. Drink slowly.”

Kakashi grabs the glass, Asuma steadying his shaking hand, and reacclimates himself. He’s in his apartment, in his bedroom. The last thing he remembers is—

Kakashi’s eyes widen as the memory hits him; Itachi’s calm voice, dismissing the mention of his brother so easily as he divulged his true purpose for being there. The legacy of the Fourth Hokage.

“Naruto—” he says desperately, imploring. “Is Naruto alright—”

“He’s fine,” Asuma assures him quickly. “Itachi and his partner tracked him down, but Jiraiya headed them off. He wasn’t harmed.”

The tension leaks out of him, and his body goes slack with relief. Thank god. After the horrible pain Itachi inflicted on him, the thought of that man getting his hands on his student absolutely terrifies him.

It’s strange, thinking that someone so powerful and merciless is still only a teenager. Kakashi thinks about the child who used to train under him, and he aches in a way that has nothing to do with their battle.

“So,” Kakashi says. He pushes himself up farther on the bed. “Naruto’s with Jiraiya, so that explains why he isn’t here. Why aren’t my other two adorable students hovering around my sickbed?”

He meant it as a joke, but when he sees the tight expression that passes over Asuma’s face, his levity is quickly replaced by dread.

“It’s been less than a day,” Asuma says. “We thought it best not to disclose your condition to anyone until we knew the threat had been dealt with.”

The explanation makes sense. Had it not been for the anxious look in his friend’s eyes, he would have let it go at that.

“You’ve always been lousy at hiding things,” he accuses. He narrows his eyes. “Tell me what happened.”

Asuma presses his lips together tightly. Then he sighs, dropping his eyes.

“It was careless of us. It shouldn’t have happened like it did. It shouldn’t have happened at all.”

What shouldn’t have happened?”

“Sasuke came looking for you,” Asuma says. The words escape him in a rush, as if he thinks they will be less painful if he says them quickly. “And some—some idiot busted in and started yelling about Itachi, and he just…”

Asuma makes a gesture with his hand in the air. Kakashi stares at him, the words slowly sinking into his brain, and he doesn’t breathe.

He doesn’t need Asuma to tell him what Sasuke did next. He knows exactly how his student would have responded.

“Just tell me he’s alive,” he begs. He closes his eyes tightly, his hands fisting against the sheets, and he prays. “Just, please. Tell me he’s alive.”

“He’s alive,” Asuma says. Kakashi’s breath escapes him in a rush; the force of his own relief makes him dizzy. “But it’s… it’s not good, Kakashi, it’s…”

The relief – he’s alive – is processed quickly, and the fear returns. Dozens of scenarios pass through his mind in an instant, each one worse than the last. Dread halts his tongue, but a desperation to know forces the words from his mouth.

“What happened.”

It’s not a request asked by a friend. It’s a tone cultivated during years as a captain of the ANBU – it’s a command.

Asuma recognizes it immediately – that hard, steely tone that sometimes breaks through his friend’s easygoing persona. He’s never had it directed at him before, but now that it is he doesn't hesitate to obey it.

“I don’t know much. Sasuke went after Itachi when he heard he was after Naruto. A fight went down between them that left him in pretty bad shape, and he had to be taken to the hospital. That was about five hours ago now.”

Kakashi presses his lips together. The information isn’t anything he hadn’t managed to conclude by himself, and it isn’t enough to settle the fear in his chest. In the moment it takes him to process the words, he’s throwing back the bed covers and pushing himself up.

“Whoa, hey!” Alarmed, Asuma rushes to his side as he sways on his feet. “What are doing? Kakashi!”

He stood up too fast. The world spins. Asuma’s hands are warm and firm on his shoulders, and Kakashi stands still until the floor stops tilting and he stops feeling like he wants to throw up.

“I’m going to the hospital.” He brushes away Asuma’s hands as the man tries to hold him in place, struggles not to stumble on his way to the door. “I have to see him.”

“No way.” Asuma intercepts him, putting himself between Kakashi and the door. “Gai is with him at the hospital, there’s no need for you to go rushing off just to end up collapsing in the street. Lay back down. You just woke up, you’re still weak – ”

“I'm fine—”

“Kakashi, you can barely stand!”

“He’s my student!”

Asuma falls silent at the raise in his voice—the rough edge to his tone, the urgency in his face. For a moment, they simply look at each other.

“If it were one of your students,” Kakashi says, and his voice is calmer now. “If it were Shikamaru or Choji or Ino… don’t tell me you wouldn’t be by their side immediately.”

Asuma is silent, his mouth a hard-pressed line. Then, reluctantly, he moves aside.

 

 

Kakashi drags himself toward the hospital, somehow managing to keep his feet beneath him the whole while. His head is pounding and everything around him looks alarmingly unfocused, but he pushes through the hospital doors anyway, straight toward the front desk.

The woman there directs him to the third floor of the building. The look on her face when he mentions he’s there for Sasuke Uchiha causes a spike of alarm to go through him.

He’s alive, Kakashi reminds himself. Whatever else is wrong, it can be dealt with.

He finds Gai in the hallway. As he draws closer, he notices the slump to his friend’s shoulders, the circles under his eyes. The man is completely exhausted.

“Please tell me you haven’t been standing here for five hours.”

Gai’s head snaps toward him. Surprise spreads clearly across his face.

“Kakashi!” he yells, a bit louder than what’s appropriate for a hospital. He pushes himself off the wall. “You are awake! And you’re up!” For a moment, elation becomes worry, his smile pulling into a slight frown. “Should you be up?”

“I’m fine,” he says. “You look more exhausted than I do. Tell me you’ve gotten some rest since confronting Itachi and Kisame.”

Gai mouths the name Kisame silently, making a perplexed face, but shakes his head and hardens his expression. “I couldn’t leave your student while you weren’t here to watch over him. It didn’t feel right to leave.”

Kakashi sighs. He feels unbelievably grateful for Gai’s actions – but he also feels guilty. It’s not Gai’s job to watch over Kakashi’s students; that’s Kakashi’s job, and he’s failed miserably by not being here.

“Thank you,” he says. “But you didn’t have to do that. You should let yourself rest.”

“Nonsense!” Gai proclaims. “Sleep has no hold over me! The power of Youth keeps me bright and energized!”

He’s obviously exhausted, but whatever. Kakashi doesn’t have the patience to argue with him – not when he still doesn’t know his student’s condition.

“Gai,” Kakashi says, and his tone causes the man to become immediately serious. “What happened with Sasuke?”

He sighs, his shoulders slumping. “Asuma told you, right? What exactly did he say?”

“That Sasuke ran after Itachi and got himself beat up. That you ran after him.”

Gai nods. “I did. I ran after him immediately. But that kid – the mention of his brother lit a fire under him. I couldn’t catch up to him in time. I’m sorry, Kakashi.”

Kakashi shakes his head. “It wasn’t your fault, Gai. You brought him back.”

“Pretty much the only useful thing I did,” Gai says. The self-deprecating tone is very unlike him, and Kakashi frowns at hearing it. “Anyway, I didn’t see anything, so I can’t tell you much more than Asuma did. But…”

Gai noticeably hesitates. Kakashi narrows his eyes at him.

“Gai, what?” he presses.

Reluctantly, he says, “Jiraiya did say that Itachi put Sasuke under some type of genjutsu. It’s impossible to say for sure, but from the way he described it, it sounded a lot like…”

“Like the one he used on me.”

Gai nods. Kakashi thinks he might be sick.

He remembers the dream-world Itachi constructed around them, remembers how vividly real every sensation had felt. He remembers the way that sword had slid into him, again and again and again, until the agony became the only thing he knew; never receding and never relenting, so familiar to him that he soon forgot how it felt to live without it.

He remembers breaking. He remembers falling to his knees in the water, three days of torture compounded into a single second. He remembers feeling his mind slowly splinter, then finally shatter.

He remembers all of that, and he imagines it happening to Sasuke. He imagines a child subjected to a mental attack that a grown adult could not stand against, and he’s left utterly horrified.

Please. Not that.

“What’s his condition?” he asks abruptly.

Gai shakes his head. “I don’t know much about that, either. I’m not his parent or teacher, so I’m not privileged to that information. But his injuries weren’t serious enough to need surgery, and he’s stable now. They let me in to see him a few hours ago.”

His eyes flicker over to the closed door to his right. Kakashi steps passed him to stand in front of it. Slowly, he reaches his hand out to push it open.

He steps into the room, and his breath catches painfully. Sasuke is laying on the bed in the center of the room, small and fragile against the sheets. There’s a mask on his face, helping him breathe. Kakashi steps up closer to the bed, his hand hovering uncertainly in the air.

“Oh god,” he breathes.

Gai steps up behind him. “I asked them about that,” he says, gesturing toward the oxygen mask placed over Sasuke’s mouth and nose, “but they wouldn’t tell me. They did say it looks a lot worse than it is, though.”

Slowly, Kakashi lowers a shaky hand toward Sasuke’s face, gently brushing his hair out of his eyes. His gaze traces the bruises on his skin, a patchwork of colors that seem to be mostly hidden by his clothes. His arm has been immobilized, placed in a sling.

He sees the dark bruising around Sasuke’s throat, and he actually flinches. The imprint of fingers is clearly visible.

Gai must have guessed he was about to fall, because suddenly there’s a chair beneath him. He stares at Sasuke’s pale face, his closed eyes, and he hunches over and buries his face in his hands.

“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck.”

For a moment, he just sits there. Gai places a hand on his shoulder in a silent show of support, giving him a moment to collect himself. Neither of them speak.

Eventually, once he feels less like punching someone – like hunting down Itachi and punching him – he raises his head from his hands. He stares at Sasuke, at the slow rise and fall of his chest that reassures him he’s alive, and he thinks, I should’ve been there. I should’ve been there.

“Does Sakura know?” he asks, refocusing his thoughts before he can fall too far into his spiral of self-recrimination.

Gai’s eyes widen. “Crap! I didn’t even think! I can go to her now – ”

Kakashi shakes his head. “No, I’ll tell her. She’ll take it better coming from me.”

They descend into silence again. After a few moments, Gai tells him he’s going to find someone from the staff and tell them Kakashi’s here. He slips from the room, leaving Kakashi with his thoughts.

He keeps his uncovered eye on his student. It’s unsettling to see him so still, and Kakashi finds it hard to look away. He remembers the night the Uchiha were killed, the way their bodies had looked littering the streets; he never actually saw Sasuke that night, but he imagines he must’ve looked a lot like this.

Guilt sits heavy in his stomach. Logically, he knows that he probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything, even if he had been there. But guilt is rarely rational, and knowing he couldn’t have helped doesn’t stop him from feeling responsible.

He reaches out, running his fingers through his student’s hair – a tender act that Sasuke never would have allowed had he been awake.

“I’m sorry, Sasuke,” he whispers.

The door opens, and Kakashi pulls his hand back, turning his head. Gai enters the room, followed by a female medical nin who looks vaguely familiar. Kakashi pushes himself up a bit too quick, still not completely recovered, and for a moment his vision blurs.

He steadies himself by placing his hand on the back of the chair. Behind the med-nin, Gai gives him a look, and Kakashi silently waves away his concern. I’m fine.

“Hatake-san,” the med-nin greets him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner. Nobody told me you had arrived.”

Kakashi ignores the greeting, asking immediately, “How is he? Gai said it wasn’t as serious as it looked, but then what’s the mask for?”

“Your student broke four of his ribs,” she explains. “Luckily, none of them punctured his lungs, so no surgery was needed, however, one of his arteries was damaged. It’s something commonly seen when one of the first three ribs are broken; that bone often ruptures a major blood vessel. The damage wasn’t too major, so his life isn’t in danger, but he needs the oxygen mask to help him breathe properly. We should be able to take it off by tomorrow.”

Kakashi releases a breath he didn’t release he was holding. “So, he’s fine?”

The woman presses her lips together. “I’m afraid not,” she says. “Physically, he’s fine and will make a full recovery. But psychologically…”

Kakashi stares at her, thinks about the effect Itachi’s genjutsu had on him, someone nearly three times Sasuke’s age. “What are you getting at?”

“Your student was placed under a genjutsu that caused him severe mental strain – the extent of which his mind couldn’t stand against. I’m afraid that he’s fallen into a coma.”

Kakashi let’s that information hit him, and the air leaves his lungs. The floor falls out from beneath him. Denial bursts in his chest, bright and desperate. No, he isn’t… this isn't…

“Surely there’s something you can do!” Gai protests.

The med-nin looks pained as she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. But there’s no physical cause to his coma, and the type of mental trauma we’re talking about is… it’s beyond my expertise. I don’t know how to even begin fixing it. I don’t even know if it can be fixed.”

“What are you saying?” Kakashi demands, distress turning his tone harsh. “That you don’t know when he’ll wake up?”

“I’m saying I don’t know if he will.”

Chapter Text

Sakura has been worried about Sasuke ever since he ran off earlier that afternoon. She can’t stop hearing the urgency in voice as he demanded to know where Naruto was. It’s been echoing in her head for hours.

There was a desperation on his face that had stolen her breath, made cold fear take root in her heart. She had searched for him for hours, but she couldn’t find anyone—no Sasuke, no Naruto, no Kakashi.

Now, hours later, Sakura sits at the dinner table with her parents, the memory running on a loop in her mind. She stares down at the food on her plate, and she feels sick to her stomach.

“Are you alright, honey?” her mother asks. “You haven’t touched your food.”

Sakura looks down at the table, pressing her lips together. “I’m not feeling very hungry.”

Her mind is stuck on that moment—eyes wide in panic, fraught impatience as he spun around without waiting for an answer. Her worry is like a snake in her stomach, wriggling around and making her nauseous.

“You are looking rather pale,” her mother notes with a frown. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”

She shakes her head. “No, it—it's not that. You remember that boy I told you about?”

Her mother knows who she’s talking about immediately. Sakura doesn’t speak to her parents as much as she used to, not since she became a ninja, but they still know all about Sasuke Uchiha.

“The one on your team,” her mother responds. “Sasuke, wasn’t it?”

Sakura nods. Her father is slower to catch on, but when he does his face darkens. “He didn’t do something to you, did he?”

She shakes her head quickly. “No, Dad, it’s nothing like that.” She frowns down at her plate, her hand clenching around her fork. “Something happened today, and it’s just made me really worried about him. And I don’t know where he is now. I’m afraid something bad might have happened.”

The snake in her stomach multiplies, becomes two, then three. She hunches her shoulders, remembering Sasuke’s voice when he demanded where's Naruto. Is Naruto in trouble? Is Sasuke? Where are they?

Her mother and father exchange looks. They’ve been doing that a lot since she became a ninja. Since she began waking up at night from nightmares of her teammates dying, afraid in a way that they could never understand.

“Did you try speaking to your sensei about it?” her father asks. “I’m sure he could put your mind at ease.”

“I couldn’t find him either,” she says quietly. Her hand has started to shake around her fork, and she can’t get it to stop.

A gentle hand wraps around her own, stopping the trembling. Sakura looks up into her mother’s face.

“I’m sure they’re alright, sweetheart,” she says. “It’s been a long day. Why don’t you head to bed? You can sort everything out in the morning.”

Sakura knows that there’s no way she’s going to be able to fall asleep. But still, she nods. Her mother is right; it’s been a long day. It’s already nearly nine o'clock—they were forced to have a late dinner because Sakura was out searching for her teammates for so long.

She slips her hand from her mother’s and stands up from her chair. That’s when the doorbell rings.

Sakura stops, turning her head in the direction of the door. Her mother frowns. “Who could that be this late?”

Her first thought is Sasuke. Which is stupid, because Sasuke doesn’t even know where she lives, and even if he did, he wouldn’t come to her house. Her second thought is Kakashi-sensei.

“I’ll get it,” she tells her parents. She rushes to the door as fast as she can without running, grabbing the knob and pulling it open.

Kakashi stands on the other side. A rush of relief hits her at the sight. Most of her worry was reserved for Naruto and Sasuke; it isn’t until she sees her sensei that she realizes how worried she was for him as well.

After all, Kakashi-sensei is powerful, but he isn’t invincible. The Land of Waves proved that.

She opens her mouth to express her relief—or maybe to yell at him for being nowhere to be found—but then it truly hits her that he is standing at her front door at nine o'clock at night. That he is visiting her home, when he’s never had reason to do so before.

Dread settles over her heart. She looks at him, and his face is cast in shadow. The feeling grows, spreading through her chest like ice.

“Sensei, what happened?” she asks quietly.

Her voice trembles. She clings to the frame of the door, eyes locked on her sensei’s somber face, and she prays that she’s wrong. She prays he’ll tell her everything’s fine.

Kakashi’s shoulders are slumped. His uncovered eye is pained.

“It’s Sasuke,” he tells her, and Sakura feels herself stop breathing.

 

 

 

The trip to the hospital is filled with fraught silence. Kakashi explained everything to her; there’s nothing left for them to say. Sakura’s mind spins with questions, with fear, with confusion.

I didn’t even know Sasuke had a brother, she thinks. For some reason, this makes her feel like she’s failed somehow. Sasuke is her teammate, her friend. Surely she should have known this about him?

She shivers, wrapping her arms around herself. Kakashi casts her a concerned look.

“I’m fine,” she tells him. “Just cold.”

They reach the hospital and begin to walk up the stairs. The heavy feeling in Sakura’s chest grows greater with each step she takes. She needs to see Sasuke—but she’s not sure if she wants to.

Her mind flashes back to Kakashi’s words, and her gut feels like a pit of vipers. What if he never wakes up? she wonders. What if he’s asleep forever?

They step into the room. Sakura gasps, her breath leaving her. She rushes to his side, falling to her knees beside the bed.

“Sasuke-kun!”

The boy on the bed doesn’t look like Sasuke. He’s small and fragile and bruised, and a whole strew of other things that Sasuke should never be. Sakura’s gaze falls on the oxygen mask over his face, on the bruises forming on his jaw and creeping up his neck.

The back of her throat burns. It’s like the Land of Waves all over again.

Her eyes sting with tears. She pushes them back, telling herself the same thing she did then. Rule twenty-five of the Shinobi Code of Conduct. A shinobi must never show emotion.

Unlike last time, she succeeds. Her throat still burns persistently, but she holds her tears at bay.

She reaches out to wrap her hand around Sasuke’s. A few hours ago, she would have given anything to hold his hand. Now, all she wants is for him to wake up and pull away from her.

Her eyes prickle again, her vision becoming blurry. She squeezes her eyes shut. No, she reminds herself. No crying, Sakura. You have to be strong.

Kakashi steps up from behind her. He leans forward to squeeze her shoulder, then leaves his hand there. She draws her strength from him, from that steady point of contact in the storm.

For a long time, they don’t speak. Sakura stares down at Sasuke, at the slow rise and fall of his chest, and her heart aches.

“I didn’t even know Sasuke-kun had a brother,” she finally speaks. Her voice is soft in the stillness of the room. “How could I not know?”

There's a slight pause before Kakashi answers. “Sasuke is a very private person. You know that. He doesn’t open up to people easily. Even if you had asked him about his family, I doubt he would have told you anything.”

Sakura bows her head. It’s hitting her now just how little she knows about her teammate—about either of them—and the realization is like a punch to the stomach. She’s liked Sasuke for years now—how could she not know anything about his life?

She knows about the massacre, of course. Everyone does. But no one ever talks about it, which makes it easy to forget. Sasuke certainly never brings it up.

For the first time, Sakura truly thinks about the massacre. She thinks about how it would feel to lose her entire family in one night. She remembers her own words after their genin teams were announced, when she told Sasuke that Naruto was lucky for having no parents, and she cringes.

No wonder Sasuke had looked at her with such anger in his eyes. How could she have ever said something so callous?

Her eyes trace Sasuke’s face. They then fall to his throat, catching on the finger-shaped bruises against skin. She imagines a hand wrapped around Sasuke’s neck, and she tries not to cry.

“How could Sasuke-kun’s brother do this to him?” she asks. She doesn’t understand. She thinks about her father’s warm smiles and her mother’s lips against the top of her head, and she doesn’t understand.

Her hand tightens around Sasuke’s. “Family is supposed to love you,” she says.

Kakashi’s hand slips from her shoulder. He sighs. “How much do you know about the Uchiha Massacre?” he asks.

“Not much,” she admits. “I remember hearing about it in class after it happened. Ino told me that the entire clan was killed in a single night. Sasuke-kun was missing from school for a while, and Iruka-sensei forbid us from talking about it.”

She remembers that day, when Ino told her. She was only seven at the time, and she hadn’t understood the gravity of it. All she knew was that something really bad had happened, and that Sasuke seemed different afterwards. Like there was suddenly a wall between him and the rest of the world.

“Itachi was the one who killed them,” Kakashi says. Sakura’s head snaps around to look at him, her eyes wide. “It’s not classified information, but it’s not exactly public knowledge, either.”

Sakura’s at a loss for words. She turns from Kakashi, back to Sasuke. She recalls Sasuke when Team Seven was first formed, hands stapled under his chin as he made a vow of murder. To kill a certain man.

She never asked him who he’d meant. She thought he’d looked so cool when he'd said that.

“Was that why he attacked Sasuke-kun?” she asks quietly. Her voice trembles. “Because he didn’t kill him before, and was trying to finish the job?”

Kakashi hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says, but something in his voice tells her there's something he isn’t saying.

She frowns, thinking. “But then… why was Sasuke-kun worried about Naruto?”

He frowns down at her. “Hm?”

“Earlier today,” Sakura tells him, her eyebrows furrowed. “He ran into me and demanded to know where Naruto was. If he was after his brother, why was he looking for Naruto?”

Something flashes through Kakashi’s eye before it’s quickly gone. “I already told you what Itachi did to me,” he says. “It’s possible Sasuke thought his brother would go after his teammates to get to him. That was probably why he was worried for him.”

“Oh,” Sakura responds. She supposes that makes sense. She feels a bit hurt by it, though. Then why wasn’t Sasuke-kun worried about me? Doesn’t he care about me at all?

She tries to push the hurt away. It’s selfish of her to dwell on it when Sasuke is laying in a hospital bed. “Is there really nothing we can do? There has to be some way to help Sasuke-kun!”

“Naruto has gone with Jiraiya to bring Tsunade back to the village,” says Kakashi. “She’s one of the Legendary Sannin and a great medical ninja. If anyone stands a chance at helping Sasuke, it’s her.”

“So what,” Sakura asks, “we just wait?”

Kakashi places a hand on her head. “We be here for him,” he tells her gently. “And we make sure he knows he has a reason to wake up.”

Chapter Text

They’ve been walking for what feels like forever when Jiraiya finally agrees to stop. They’ve grown too tired to keep on, and the sun has long since set, so as soon as they reach the next village they head to the closest hotel.

All notions of sleep fly from Jiraiya’s mind when he lays eyes on the sexy young woman at the concierge desk. Rolling his eyes, Naruto takes the room keys for himself, stomping up the flights of stairs.

“Old pervert,” he grumbles, as he searches the numbers on the walls for the one that matches the key. He wonders how long it will take Jiraiya to realize the girl isn’t interested and follow him up.

When he finds the correct room, he opens it up and immediately throws himself on the bed. He’s tired, and he’s irritated, and his mind is spinning with questions that the Sannin refused to answer.

He buries his face in the pillow in front of him, which doesn’t smell like it’s been washed recently. He’s spent most of their journey staving off his worry, his confusion, and it’s only now that he’s stopped that he allows himself to feel it again.

His mind is filled with images, with sounds. Eyes that were just like Sasuke’s, yet somehow, nothing like Sasuke’s at all. The splintering of bone. Broken screams.

Naruto’s almost tempted to cover his ears, but he knows it won’t stop him from hearing the noise. None of it is real anymore; it’s all inside his head.

Naruto remembers Sasuke screaming, can’t stop remembering, and he doesn’t understand.

Naruto doesn’t know what happened at the hotel. He tries to sort it out in his head in a way that makes sense, but all of it is a jumble. Jiraiya knows, Naruto knows he knows, but he isn’t talking.

Sasuke is hurt, possibly dying, but Jiraiya isn’t explaining anything to him, and that’s not okay.

He has so many questions. Questions that swirl in his head and grow louder and louder the longer they go unanswered. He can’t breathe beneath the weight of them.

Who were those two guys? How did they know about the Kyuubi? Why is Sasuke’s brother after it? Why does Sasuke hate him so much? Is Sasuke okay?

Naruto growls into his pillow. It smells like dust and like somebody else’s sweat, and he takes it and chucks it across the room. It lands on the floor near the doorway, just as the door opens and Jiraiya steps inside.

Jiraiya glances between the pillow and Naruto, bemused. Naruto scoots toward the end of the bed, facing the Sannin. He glowers.

“Bastard,” he says. “Took you long enough.”

Jiraiya rubs the back of his neck a bit sheepishly, grinning. He avoids looking Naruto directly in the face. The glare he’s sporting looks distinctly Kushina-like, and it causes the man to sweat.

“Sorry. But I could hardly just abandon such a beautiful woman for an empty bed without—”

Naruto’s nose wrinkles. “Gross. I don’t care.” His eyes are like blue steel as he looks at him. “Pervy Sage, tell me about those ninja at the hotel. Stop avoiding my questions.”

Jiraiya sighs as he walks to sit down on the end of the bed next to Naruto’s. The kid has been badgering him on the subject ever since they left Sasuke behind, and Jiraiya has been getting increasingly more creative in deflecting his questions. But he can’t keep it up forever, and he knows that Naruto isn’t going to let it go.

“Naruto,” he says heavily, “I can’t tell you. The information is… it’s not something you need to know.”

“Oh,” Naruto replies, and there’s real anger in his voice now. “Like how me having the Kyuubi inside me wasn’t something I needed to know?”

Jiraiya winces, because he knows the kid is right. There’s so much about himself that’s been kept from him—that's still being kept from him—and that isn’t right. The problem is, Jiraiya doesn’t know what he can tell him. That sort of thing is usually up to the Third, and he’s gone now.

Jiraiya feels a deep ache of grief at the thought of his sensei—along with a sharp spike of anger. Orochimaru. How could you?

Jiraiya’s mind falls back on a memory. The three of them gathered around a campfire, back when things were still simple, before the horrors of war tore them apart. He remembers a boy with pale skin and serpentine eyes; he remembers how the signs were there even then, but he refused to see them.

(“I want to master ninjutsu. And become stronger than anyone.”

“Oh? For what purpose?”

“For what purpose?” A pause. The slightest quirk to his lips. “I’ve never thought about such a thing.” )

“Fine!” Naruto yells, and Jiraiya is jolted roughly back to the present. “Don’t tell me about those cloak guys, then! But you have to tell me about Sasuke!”

Jiraiya blinks, shaking the remnants of the memory from his head. He focuses back on Naruto’s words. “Sasuke? I already told you, he should be fine so long as—”

Naruto shakes his head. “No, not that! I want to know about Itachi Uchiha. How is it Sasuke has a brother? His family is dead, aren’t they?”

Naruto’s thought about it, and it’s just another thing in a mess of things that don’t make sense. He doesn’t know anything specific about what happened to Sasuke’s family, but he knows that they’re dead. All of them. He knows it was something awful, the kind of tragic story that people like to whisper about but never actually talk about.

He remembers the day he first heard about it. He remembers Sasuke being missing from class for a week, and then suddenly he was back, and everyone had suddenly been looking at him and whispering. Wide eyes and hushed voices, words like slaughtered and killed and all gone.

Did you hear? they had all said. How awful. How terrible. Sasuke hadn’t reacted, had remained frozen in his seat, staring straight ahead.

Jiraiya is making a complicated expression. “I’m not sure I should tell you about that.” Naruto makes an indignant face, but Jiraiya holds up a hand before he can speak. “Not because I’m not allowed to. I’m just not sure it’s my place. Sasuke’s history with his brother is personal. If he hasn’t told you—”

“He never tells me anything!” Naruto yells.

“Have you asked him?”

Naruto opens his mouth, then pauses. He closes it. Jiraiya looks at him with a raised eyebrow, and Naruto frowns.

He hasn’t asked him, he realizes. He’s never asked Sasuke a single thing about himself. He’s never bothered with getting to know him; he’s been too busy trying to prove that he’s better.

“My brother… I promised myself… I’d stay alive… until I killed him…”

And Sasuke had told him he had a brother, hadn’t he? Bleeding in Naruto’s arms, the breath leaving his body. And Naruto never…

Naruto looks down, biting the inside of his cheek. He feels strangely ashamed of himself.

Jiraiya watches Naruto, studies the turmoil so clearly on his face. He sighs. “Fine, I’ll tell you,” he says. “But just the general story. No details, alright? You can get those from Sasuke.”

I'm never getting any details, Naruto thinks. He straightens, turning his full attention to Jiraiya. No way Sasuke would ever tell me anything. This is the only information I’ll get.

“You know when the massacre took place?” Jiraiya asks.

Naruto nods. He doesn’t remember the exact date, but he remembers the time it took place around. It was really hot, he remembers. Summer.

“Yeah, it was five years ago,” he answers. “It was July, I think. Everyone was excited, because vacation was coming up.”

He’s starting to remember it more clearly now. Sasuke had been missing from class those last few days. He was back when they returned from their break in August.

That’s when Naruto first heard about the massacre. That’s when he started seeing Sasuke sitting by himself on the end of the dock—and realized that he was now just as alone as Naruto was.

“That night when Sasuke returned to the Uchiha compound,” says Jiraiya, “he witnessed his brother kill his entire clan. I’m not privy to the details, I don’t know why he was left alive. But he was the only survivor.”

Naruto processes that slowly. For some reason, the first thing that he thinks is, Sasuke was there? He saw it happen?

He’s not sure why that’s the revelation that hits him first. Maybe the fact that Sasuke’s brother is the one who killed his family is just too shocking.

He’s never really thought about the massacre itself. He’s thought about its aftermath, what it caused. He’s thought about Sasuke sitting on the end of that dock, of going home to an empty house, of being all by himself, just like Naruto. He’s thought a lot about the massacre's results, but never about the actual event.

It isn’t that he thought Sasuke wasn't there when his family was killed. It’s just that he never thought about it.

It’s then that the other part of the words finally registers. Naruto lifts his head and stares. It takes a few moments for him to speak.

“Sasuke’s… Sasuke's brother killed them?”

Jiraiya nods. His face is grimmer than Naruto’s ever seen it. Naruto thinks back to that hallway, to the pure hatred in Sasuke’s eyes. The desperation that drove him to keep fighting, to keep standing up, even every time he got beat down.

Naruto’s never had a family. He doesn’t know what having a brother is like. But he imagines how it would feel if the person closest to his heart ripped everything he cared for away—and in that moment, he thinks he’s closer to understanding Sasuke than he’s ever been.

“He wants revenge,” Naruto realizes. He remembers Sasuke on the day Team 7 was formed, hands stapled under his chin as he made a vow of murder. “He wants to kill him.”

Jiraiya nods. “Yes.”

Naruto thinks about Itachi. He remembers the coldness in his eyes and in his voice. He remembers the uncaring way he looked at Sasuke, remembers the hand around Sasuke’s wrist, around his throat.

Naruto remembers the sound of broken screams, of bones snapping. A fire burns in his chest, and in that moment, he understands Sasuke perfectly.

He’s never hated anyone as much as he hates Itachi Uchiha.

“Why didn’t you do anything?” Naruto demands. His hands are shaking, and he curls them into fists. “You just watched. Why didn’t you stop him?”

Jiraiya winces. Regret flashes across his face. “I underestimated Sasuke’s rage—and Itachi’s brutality. I don’t know if I could have taken Itachi out—not without destroying myself as well—but I should’ve stepped in much sooner.”

Naruto stares at him, his rage quelled by the words. Not without destroying myself. A shiver of fear goes through him.

“He’s really that powerful?” he asks quietly.

“He is,” Jiraiya confirms. His eyes are dark. “That at the hotel? That was nothing.”

Naruto looks away. He won’t deny it; Jiraiya’s words terrify him. I don’t stand a chance against someone like that.

“Will they come after me again?” he asks. “Because of the Kyuubi?”

Jiraiya watches him for a long moment. “Go to sleep, Naruto,” he says finally. “We’ll talk more in the morning.”

Yes, Naruto thinks, as he pulls back the covers and slides into the bed. That means yes.

Jiraiya flips off the light. He slides into the bed that's next to him, and Naruto closes his eyes, trying to forget what Sasuke looked like on that hotel floor.

He drifts off slowly, mind still spinning. He dreams of two pairs of red eyes, one like fire and the other like ice.

Chapter Text

“Request denied.”

Kakashi is kneeling in the center of the council room, his eyes on the floor. When he hears the two words, his head snaps up, disbelief written across his face. “What?”

Konoha's two elders stare back at him impassively from their seats. The response was quick and firm, answered barely a second after the question left his lips. They hadn’t even needed to think about it.

I request permission to go after Itachi Uchiha.

Request denied. No hesitation.

Their faces are like stone. Kakashi stares up at them from the floor, and he feels frustration flood through him at the response. At the fact that they didn’t even consider it.

Why?” he demands. Koharu's eyebrow lifts slowly, her eyes sharp, and Kakashi realizes how disrespectful he sounded. He reels his feelings in, once again bowing his head.

“Forgive me,” he says. “I merely meant… my student lays trapped in a coma. Each second that passes is another second his life is in the balance. Itachi is possibly the only hope he has.”

There’s a slight pause before he hears a response. He stares down at the wooden floorboards, fighting the instinct to look up and observe their expressions.

“Jiraiya has left the village in search of Tsunade,” Homura answers. “As you know, her medical ability is unrivaled. Once she returns, it is likely that Sasuke will make a speedy recovery.”

Kakashi’s teeth clench just slightly, his lips pressing together. “Yes, but we don’t know if Jiraiya will even find her. Or if she’ll even agree to come back. And even if she does, it’s not guaranteed she’ll even be able to help. Sasuke is trapped in a genjutsu of Itachi’s own creation. It’s mental, not physical.”

The two elders exchange glances. There's the slightest hint of uncertainty in their eyes now, and Kakashi lets himself hope they can be persuaded. They communicate silently.

“The answer is still no, Hatake-san.”

Kakashi feels his hope sink. He looks up at them desperately . “If I could just take a team—”

“It’s too risky, Hatake,” says Koharu. She leaves out the respectful san at the end of his name, which is a sure sign she’s growing annoyed. “The village is in a state of vulnerability without a Hokage at its head. We need all of our most capable shinobi present to defend our borders, and Itachi Uchiha has already proven himself to be more than a match for you.”

Kakashi's shoulders drop, his indignation quelled slightly beneath the harsh reality of the words. He doesn’t stand a chance against Itachi. Their previous skirmish proved this without a doubt. But if he takes a team of jounin—or waits for Jiraiya to return—

“What you're asking is a pointless endeavor,” Homura says, before Kakashi can speak any of these thoughts. “Even if you were capable—even if we allowed it—you have no knowledge on Itachi’s whereabouts. Absolutely no way to find him. He is dust in the wind, Hatake-san. Dust cannot be caught.”

Kakashi remains silent. His head falls forward. Their reasons are logical and sound, and in that moment, he hates them for it. He doesn’t want to hear reasons why he shouldn’t, or reasons why it won’t work. He wants to hunt Itachi down and drag him back to Konoha. He wants to drag him in front of Sasuke’s hospital bed, and watch his face as he realizes exactly what he’s done.

He wants his student to be okay, and if that’s not an option, then he wants to be sure Itachi pays.

“We understand your concern for your student,” Koharu says. “We share those same concerns. But you are wasting our time with this. Our answer remains the same.”

Their expressions are glacial, unchanged. They certainly don’t look concerned. Something dark sparks in Kakashi’s chest, and he keeps his gaze locked forward as he gives them a respectful nod, rising to his feet.

He turns to the door. He knows a dismissal when he hears one.

 

 

His feet take him to the hospital without any real conscious thought. For the third time since waking yesterday, he finds himself pushing open a pair of revolving doors, trudging up the steps with a heavy heart.

The elders' reasons for denying his request are perfectly reasonable. They make complete sense. And yet, Kakashi remembers the speed of their refusal, how hasty they had been to dismiss him, and something about the entire conversation feels odd. He recalls the glances they traded, the way there seemed to be an entire conversation hidden within them, and he can’t shake his sudden unease.

Something about it just feels wrong. He can’t explain why. And Kakashi has long learned the importance of trusting his instincts.

Kakashi sighs, turning a corner in the hospital hallway. He hasn’t gotten any proper sleep, and he’s completely exhausted. Maybe he’s overthinking it.

He opens the door to Sasuke’s hospital room. He’s expecting to find an empty chair by his student’s bedside, and blinks in surprise when that’s not what he sees.

“Sensei,” he says, caught off-guard.

Iruka turns his head. His face is creased in concern, and when he looks at Kakashi, it closes off into a mask of polite professionalism.

“Kakashi-san,” he greets. His voice is cordial, with just the slightest hint of coldness. His eyes flicker over him quickly, before returning to his face. “You look like hell.”

“Flatterer,” Kakashi responds, his tone an attempt at levity. It falls just short of the mark.

He steps into the room, letting the door fall shut behind him. Iruka turns back to Sasuke.

The two of them haven’t had a reason to speak since the Chuunin Exams. Their prior argument is sharp in Kakashi’s mind, and it causes a tension in the air between them.

“You don’t look so well yourself,” he says. Slowly, he comes to stand next to the chair the chuunin is sitting in. “Your students causing you trouble, sensei?”

A ghost of a smile pulls at Iruka's mouth. “Always,” he answers, but the smile fades, replaced by the same troubled look. His gaze stays locked on Sasuke. “But no. I just... my sleep has been troubled lately.”

Kakashi’s own gaze drops to his student's pale face, to the dark bruises around his throat. His heart constricts.

“I know the feeling,” he mutters.

Iruka's face softens. There’s a bit too much understanding in his eyes for Kakashi’s liking, and he suddenly feels very exposed. He cuts his gaze away sharply, clearing his throat.

“I didn’t expect you to be here,” he says. “Don’t you have a group of brats to supervise?”

He didn’t mean anything by the words; he just wanted Iruka to stop looking at him like that. Apparently, he succeeds a bit too well, because the teacher's expression immediately hardens.

“Those brats,” he puts a particular emphasis on the word, “went on break a couple weeks ago. Classes don’t resume for a few more days.”

He says this like it’s something that Kakashi should already know. Which it probably is, but Kakashi doesn’t usually bother to keep track of dates unless it’s an anniversary of some kind.

“As for why I'm here, he may be your student, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring about him.”

Kakashi winces at the ice in the other man’s voice. Guilt stirs in his chest, at the reminder of his words during their argument.

They’re not your students anymore. They’re mine.

The words were harsh. True, yes, but that doesn’t mean they needed to be said.

“That isn’t what I meant,” he says, after a moment of charged silence. “I would never expect you to stop caring about him—about any of them. And I was out of line with what I said before.”

Iruka presses his lips into a thin line. The anger in his eyes dims—not completely, but slightly. “I know you think I coddle them,” he says. “But I’m only trying to keep them safe. I may only be a schoolteacher, but I’m not ignorant to the dangers they’re placing themselves in. I’ve lost some of my best students because they tried to take on too much before they were ready. This village is so quick to throw their shinobi out into the world the moment they step out the Academy doors. But they’re still just children.”

Kakashi stares at him, as the chuunin turns his face away, back to Sasuke. Slowly, Kakashi lowers himself into the chair next to him. He’s quiet, searching for the correct words.

“I graduated the Academy at five,” he says. “I took the Chuunin Exams at six, and I passed.”

Iruka turns to look at him, frowning slightly.

“You say that they’re children,” he continues. “That they’re not ready. But I’ve never seen it that way. Compared to the way things used to be, they’ve had more than enough time to prepare for shinobi life. And that’s what my job is. To prepare them. Coddle them all you want, sensei. You’re allowed to. But I’m not allowed to do the same. Not if I want to keep them alive.”

Iruka looks at him for a moment, then looks away. “You’re right,” he admits. “I should’ve thought about it like that, but I—”

“But you care about them,” he says, smiling slightly. “Like I said, you’re allowed. Being hard on them isn’t your job.”

“But it is yours?” Iruka questions. “Then shouldn’t you be training them? All of them? Naruto told me you trained Sasuke for the third round of the Exams, but you didn’t train him.”

Kakashi frowns at the words. They’re true, but he despises the way they are spoken. “It wasn’t like that. I was teaching Sasuke a move that only he could master. And I was the only one who could teach him it.”

“The Chidori,” says Iruka with a nod. “I know, I saw it. I’m only saying… Naruto was pretty upset about you not training him. He seemed to think you were playing favorites.”

Kakashi blinks, stricken. “Favorites?” he repeats, because the idea honestly never occurred to him. “I wasn’t—I don’t play favorites with my students.”

Iruka sighs. “What was he supposed to think, Kakashi? You took Sasuke for private training to teach him one of your deadliest moves, and you pawned him off on someone else.”

“I didn’t pawn him off,” he protests, even as a sinking sensation takes place in his stomach. “I just—I wanted to give him his best chance to improve. I knew he wouldn’t get that with me, so I let someone else train him.”

“He didn’t want anyone else to train him. He wanted you. And now he thinks that you don’t want him.”

Kakashi winces at the words. He thinks about Naruto, standing in the lobby of the hospital and yelling at him accusingly, You’re gonna train Sasuke, aren’t you! He wonders how he could have failed to notice the disappointment in the boy’s tone. Does Sakura feel the same?

It wasn’t favoritism that caused Kakashi to place Naruto in another sensei’s care. He connects more with Sasuke than he does with either of his other students, but the idea of favorites has never crossed his mind. He loves all three of his students equally.

From the very beginning, he’s seen himself in Sasuke. Seen a boy so broken, that the only way to survive the world was to make himself cold. He knows that feeling, connects with him in a way he never has with Naruto and Sakura.

He and Naruto don’t have that. Perhaps it’s simply that they’re too different; or maybe it’s the ghosts of Minato and Kushina that keep Kakashi from getting too close. Either way, he doesn’t know how to help Naruto the way he should. He isn’t what the boy needs.

He tried to do make the correct judgment. He assumed Naruto would be glad. The boy never seemed to think much of him as a teacher, and he assumed that he would jump at the chance to learn from someone else. To learn from an adult with actual experience, who actually knew what they were doing.

The idea that Naruto might’ve felt looked over—might’ve felt discarded—never occurred to him. He never intended on making any of his students feel lesser in his eyes. He was just doing what he felt was best.

He can’t be a mentor. Can’t be a guiding hand, like his sensei was for him. Some days, he isn’t sure he remembers how to even be human.

“I never meant…” Kakashi shakes his head at his own naivety. “That’s not the least bit true. I never meant for him to think that it was.”

“I believe you. But whether you intended it or not, it’s how he feels.”

Kakashi hunches his shoulders. Shame tastes like dust in the back of his throat. He’s never felt more inadequate for the position he’s been given. He doesn’t know how to touch things without ruining them.

Why? he wants to ask the Sandaime. Why trust me with something so delicate, so fragile?

But the Hokage is dead now, and Kakashi will never have an answer.

He looks to Iruka, so sure of himself where Kakashi is floundering. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admits.

Iruka’s expression is kind as he smiles. “That’s normal. Teaching isn’t easy. It’s a learning process.”

“How do I fix it?”

“You just have to be real with him,” Iruka says. “Don’t talk to him like a teacher to a student, he won’t respond to that. You have to get on his level. Be a person, not a shinobi.”

Kakashi’s mouth tightens. Not a shinobi. He doesn’t think he’s ever been anything else. Maybe once, before his father’s blood stained the training room floor, but he’s long forgotten it by now.

“I don’t know how to do that,” he says, and he immediately wants to yank the words back out of the air. They feel like exposing a piece of himself.

But Iruka’s eyes aren’t critical, or pitying, as he feared. There’s a warmth in them that wasn’t there before. “It’s never too late to start trying.”

Try, Kakashi repeats. Try. He stares down at Sasuke, who he’s tried so hard to help. Tried so hard to save. I can definitely do that.

Kakashi’s an expert at trying. It’s succeeding that's always been the issue.

Chapter Text

Naruto picks a fight with Tsunade not even five minutes into meeting her. It’s totally justified though, because she’s clearly a horrible person.

She calls being Hokage a bother, spits right in the Third Hokage’s memory. Then she refuses to return to the village, even to save Sasuke, and what else is Naruto supposed to do then but take a swing at her?

She tells Naruto that his dream is nothing but a false hope, and Naruto has never been so offended in his life.

This woman, become the Fifth Hokage? What is Pervy Sage thinking?

“It’s not a joke!” he yells. His hair is wet with rainwater, and his ears are still ringing from the blow she dealt him. “I will master this jutsu! And I will become Hokage!”

She tilts her head, considering him. “In that case, how about a wager?”

Naruto blinks. Anger is replaced with surprise. “A wager…?”

“I’ll give you one week,” Tsunade says to him. “If you can master that jutsu, I’ll believe you have what it takes to become Hokage.”

It’s tempting. God, is it tempting. All Naruto’s ever wanted is to prove himself. To make people see him. He wants to tell someone he’s going to be Hokage, and he wants them to look at him like they actually believe him. This woman is offering him that chance, and he really doesn’t like her, but he still wants her to believe him. It’s a chance that he almost takes.

But he remembers Sasuke. He remembers Sasuke on that hotel room floor, pale and bruised and bleeding. He remembers how lifeless he had looked, how broken.

He’d promised he’d learn a new jutsu—that he’d come back and show Sasuke just how powerful he’d become. But he’d also promised to help him—because he'd once again risked his life for Naruto, ended up nearly dead, for Naruto.

(Itachi Uchiha had been after him, after all. And maybe Sasuke had had his own motives for showing up in that hallway, but he had still saved Naruto’s life. Again.)

And that’s how he decides, in the end. He wants to grow stronger, to prove himself to Sasuke. But not as much as he wants to save Sasuke’s life.

“I can’t,” he says, shaking his head. “I can’t wait another week. I told you, my friend is dying! I need you to come back with us now!”

Okay, so he doesn’t actually know if Sasuke is dying. He doesn’t know what his condition is at all. But he remembers the grim looks Jiraiya and Gai had traded in that hallway, and the way they had looked at Sasuke, and he knows enough to know that it’s bad. And according to Jiraiya, this woman is the only one who might be capable of fixing it.

Tsunade's lips are a thin line. Her jaw is tense, her arms crossed.

Please,” Naruto says. “You’re the only one that can help him.”

An emotion flickers briefly across the woman’s face, but it’s quickly hidden away. “I already told you. I won’t return to Konoha.”

Disbelief spreads within him. “But he’s dying!”

“Lots of people die, brat. That’s life. Better you get used to it now.”

Naruto stares at her with wide eyes. Off to the side, Jiraiya winces, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Tsunade,” he says, halfway between a hiss and a sigh.

Indignant rage spreads through him at the words. His teeth clench, his hands becoming fists. But still, beneath the callous words, there’s a hint of something else, something sad, and Naruto thinks he’s beginning to understand.

“That’s not true!” he yells. “People don’t just die!” He remembers her earlier words, about the Sandaime being old and foolish, and he continues, “The Third wasn’t a fool for choosing to fight! Maybe if you had been there to help him, it wouldn’t have happened!”

Naruto!” Jiraiya snaps. Naruto spares a glance in his direction. He’s never seen the man look so harsh with him before. “You’re out of line.”

Naruto turns back to Tsunade. He knows the words he said to her probably aren’t true. That’s okay. He’s not trying to hurt Tsunade, or to give her a guilt trip; he’s just trying to prove something to himself.

Tsunade’s face breaks at the words, her cold mask splitting. The guilt and grief in her eyes is a startling sight.

Naruto was right. She was never angry at the Third for dying. She’s angry at herself for not being there when he did.

“Tsunade,” Jiraiya says softly, taking a step forward. He hasn’t seen her look this heartbroken since Dan.

Tsunade holds up a hand in his direction. “Don’t,” she says. “Let him speak.”

She’s looking at Naruto in a way she didn’t before. Like she’s actually seeing him. Her gaze is sharp and keen.

“People don’t die because of life,” Naruto snaps. This is something he knows. Sasuke’s parents didn’t die because of life, and neither did Iruka-sensei's. And Naruto doesn’t know anything about his own parents, but he’s sure that’s not why they died, either. He has to believe that they wanted to be here—to be with him. “People die because somebody lets them. Because someone had the power to stop them and didn’t.”

He watches the way the words hit Tsunade, the way she’s visibly affected by them. They hit Jiraiya, too, and he wrestles with the truth of them.

The Third Hokage didn’t just die—they let him stand alone, instead of fighting by his side. And Orochimaru didn’t just leave Konoha behind—Jiraiya and Tsunade let him walk away. And that’s a weight they’re going to have to carry on their souls forever.

“I’m sorry about your sensei,” Naruto tells her. “I’m sorry your team fell apart. But Sasuke isn’t the Sandaime, and he isn’t Orochimaru.”

Jiraiya winces, and remembers the stone casket where the Third’s body had been placed. Tsunade remembers the last memory she has of her teammate, standing at the village gates, eyes cruel and slitted, his smile razor-sharp.

(“Orochimaru. If you do this… there’s no coming back from it.”

“I’m not coming back.”)

“You lost them,” Naruto says to her—to both of them. “Please. Don’t make me lose him.”

Tsunade looks into his eyes, and the conviction within them is so familiar, but for a moment, she can’t place it. When she finally does, it makes her breath catch in her chest.

Dan, she realizes. He reminds her of Dan.

Tsunade shoots a glare at Jiraiya. You bastard, she thinks at him, knowing he can clearly read what she’s thinking. Bringing him with you. This was your plan all along, wasn’t it?

“Alright,” she says finally, turning back to the painfully familiar boy in front of her. “I’ll come with you.”

Naruto whoops with joy, his smile wide and splitting his face. It reminds Tsunade of her brother.

Damn you, Jiraiya, she thinks again, as her heart gives a painful twinge. Damn you.

 


 

It’s been nearly three days now that Sasuke’s been asleep, and Sakura feels like she’s slowly losing her mind.

(And perhaps asleep isn’t the correct word. More like unconscious. Unresponsive. But those words sound so scary in her head, and asleep just sounds so much nicer.).

Life just doesn’t feel right, without Sasuke there with her. It doesn’t feel like hers. She’s living someone else’s life, walking in someone else’s shoes, because her life has Sasuke in it, and he’s not here now, so it can’t possibly be hers. It can’t be.

She keeps waiting for the moment she wakes up. Or the moment when it all becomes real. But she doesn’t wake up because this isn’t a dream, and the only one who’s sleeping is Sasuke.

(Not sleeping. Unconscious. Unresponsive. Comatose.)

She misses him. She misses him so much, and it’s an awful feeling, because Sakura’s never had to miss anyone before. Everyone who’s ever come into her life has always stayed there.

It’s an ugly thing, and it weighs down her heart, makes it hard to breathe. She wonders if this is how Sasuke feels all the time. She wonders how he’s able to bear it.

How do you get out of bed every morning? she wonders at him silently. She places her hand against her chest, feeling the fragile beat of her heart against her palm. How do you stand? How do you breathe?

It’s eight in the morning, and she’s walking down the street toward the training grounds. Training started an hour ago, but she has no real desire to be there. It’s not like Kakashi is ever on time anyway.

It’s the first training session since Sasuke was attacked, since Naruto left, and Sakura doesn’t understand the point of it. What’s the use in training when only one-third of their squad is present? When the one who’s left behind is undoubtedly the weakest?

Kakashi hardly ever trains her anyway. Training is just a farce. An attempt to keep routine, to pretend like nothing has changed, like everything isn’t falling apart.

She just feels so powerless. Useless, and worthless, and utterly weak. Sasuke is always saving her—shielding her, or shoving her out of the way—and now he’s the one who needs saving, and she can’t do anything but watch.

Even Naruto is helping. Off somewhere miles away, chasing after their only solution. Sakura is just watching. Is just waiting.

Waiting for Sasuke to wake up. Waiting for Naruto to come home.

She misses him. She misses both of them, which is something that surprised her. Naruto is always so loud and annoying; she never thought she’d miss him when he was no longer there.

But she does. She misses him the same way she misses Sasuke. She misses his wide grin and noisy voice; she misses the way he and Sasuke bicker, the way Kakashi has to get between them and pull them apart. She misses the warm feeling she gets in her chest when they’re around, the feeling of having somewhere to belong.

She doesn’t know when it happened, but at some point Team Seven became her home. And she’s terrified that she’s going to lose it.

Her stomach in knots, she tucks her hair behind her ear as she walks, noticing as she does it that her fingers are shaking. She curls them into her palm repeatedly, but they refuse to stop.

“Sakura!” a voice calls. “There you are!”

It’s Ino. She’s standing on one of the training fields with the rest of her team, and it’s only the lack of that insulting nickname she uses that causes Sakura to stop.

She separates from her team, running over to meet with Sakura on the sidewalk. She pauses once she’s standing in front of her, looking suddenly unsure of what to say.

“How are you?” she asks finally. “I… I’ve been worried.”

Her voice isn’t snobbish or mocking like it usually is. The question sounds completely genuine, and it catches Sakura off guard.

“You… were?”

“Of course,” Ino responds. She casts a look behind her, back at her teammates. “We all heard about Sasuke-kun. It’s so horrible. What happened exactly?”

Sakura shuts down immediately. She should have known that Ino was just concerned about Sasuke. For a moment, she actually thought Ino was concerned about her.

Of course she isn’t. How stupid of her to think.

“I’m not allowed to discuss what happened,” says Sakura, and she’s unable to suppress the slightest tremor to her voice as she recalls what Kakashi told her. He was attacked. His brother— “I need to get to training. If you’re that concerned about him, you can go visit him at the hospital.”

“I tried that. But they wouldn’t let me in—Sakura, wait!”

Sakura shoulders past her, her hands trembling harder than ever. Ino calls out to her again, but she doesn’t respond, just keeps walking forward. Tears sting at her eyes, and she doesn’t know where they come from. She pushes them back.

Don’t cry. Why are you even crying?

It’s not Ino. She knows that. She’s actually starting to feel a bit bad, because Ino really did look concerned, and Sakura knows that she cares about Sasuke too. But her heart is in her throat, and her stomach is in knots, and she doesn’t want to talk about Sasuke, because talking about Sasuke makes her remember that he might never wake up.

Oh god, what if he never wakes up?

Tears push against the back of her eyes again. She blinks them away, silently reciting rule twenty-five in her head.

When she reaches the training field, Kakashi is already there, which is something that’s never happened before.

“You’re late,” he says, but his voice isn’t reprimanding. There’s a hint of concern in it.

And you’re not, she thinks, but instead of saying it, she just shrugs. She doesn’t feel much like speaking. This whole thing feels utterly wrong; she shouldn’t be here, not without Naruto and Sasuke.

“What are we doing today?” she asks.

“Target practice,” Kakashi tells her. His wrist flicks, a movement barely perceptible to her eyes, and a shuriken suddenly whistles through the air next to her cheek.

She barely refrains from jumping. It embeds itself in the post behind her.

“You’ve excelled in learning to control your chakra,” says Kakashi. “And you’ve made real strides in your hand-to-hand combat ability. But your aim could still use some work.”

Sakura tries not to take his words as a slight, tries to accept them as the constructive advice they’re meant to be. Kakashi directs her in how to stand, going over with her where to place her feet, where to direct her gaze. Then he steps back out of her range, and she draws the shuriken from her belt to begin throwing.

She’s never had very good aim, whether it be with shuriken or with kunai. She likes to believe she’s better at it than Naruto, but she’s still nowhere near Sasuke’s level. As she practices, only about half of her throws hit the center; the other half thunk hard against the sides.

She slowly grows more and more frustrated. She throws the shuriken quicker now, faster, and her grip on her weapons becomes careless. She slices her fingers open on the edges.

She thinks about Sasuke in that hospital bed, pale and fragile and broken. The back of her throat burns at her own helplessness. Why can’t she do it? Why can’t she hit the stupid target? Why can’t she help him? Why can’t she do anything?

Kakashi notices her carelessness, the way her throws begin to go wider, the blood causing the shuriken to slip in her hand.

“Sakura,” he calls. Then sharper, when she doesn’t respond: “Sakura. That’s enough.”

She doesn’t listen. Her eyes are stinging. She throws another shuriken, and this one misses the post completely. There’s something sitting on her chest, a heavy weight pressing against her ribs.

Pathetic. Pathetic. Why can’t you do anything?

A sob rips out of her. Her knees give out, but Kakashi is already there, intercepting her before she hits the ground. She falls against his chest, and he plucks the shuriken from her fingers, flinging it away from her.

She doesn’t know why she’s crying. But there’s been this pressure building inside her for days now, and it’s too huge for her to hold it in any longer. She chokes on her own tears, struggling to stop them from coming, but the sobs continue.

“Shh.” Her sensei's hand is on her back, hesitant and awkward, as if he’s unsure of how to respond, but the weight of it is still somehow calming. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I’m s-s-sorry,” she chokes out. Another sob breaks through her words, and she presses her hand against her mouth. “I’m sorry—”

She feels Kakashi’s chin brush against her hair as he shakes his head. “Don’t be sorry. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

She pulls back slightly, sniffling. “B-But—a shinobi must nev-never show t-tears—”

Something twists in Kakashi’s face, as if the words are painful to him. “That’s not true. You can cry if you need to.”

She shakes her head. Her crying quiets to desperate gasping, and she struggles to even her breathing. “I don’t even—I don’t even know w-why I’m cr-crying—I'm so p-pathetic—”

“You’re not pathetic,” Kakashi says strongly. His hands are gentle on her shoulders, and she forces her head up to look at him. “Sometimes things are just too much. Don’t be upset for having feelings.”

She sniffs, scrubbing at the tears on her face. Her entire body feels extremely shaky—like a single guest of wind could blow her away. But the words are anchoring, and she feels something inside her calm slightly.

She still can’t stop seeing Sasuke on that hospital bed. She looks at Kakashi with shining eyes. “I’m scared,” she admits.

Kakashi is silent for a moment, and the look on his face is painful to look at. “I know,” he responds. “So am I.”

She closes her eyes against the flow of tears, fighting the flood of despair that fills her. She opens them again to look at him.

“Sasuke-kun’s going to die, isn’t he?” she whispers.

Kakashi jerks as if he’s been slapped. “No,” he says, and there’s a current of steel in his voice that Sakura’s only heard once before—only heard when Kakashi turned to Sasuke in the Land of Waves and said, Don’t worry, Sasuke. I won’t ever allow my comrades to die.

“No he isn’t,” Kakashi repeats. “He’s going to wake up, he’s going to be fine, I promise.”

Sakura looks at him, a fragile hope inside her. “Really? You promise?”

And if Kakashi hesitates just a fraction too long before he answers, looks a bit too uncertain, then Sakura doesn’t allow herself to notice it.

“…I promise.”

Chapter Text

It’s been nearly a week since Itachi blew through Konoha, leaving a trail of broken glass in his wake. Sasuke remains comatose, his condition unchanging. Kakashi hardly ever leaves his side.

Gai watches his rival, and he worries.

It’s not a new feeling, this worry. Gai’s spent his entire life worrying about Kakashi. It’s second nature by now. When he thinks on it too long, he realizes he’s hard-pressed to recall a time when he wasn’t worried for Kakashi. Perhaps before Sakumo, but they hardly knew each other then.

Gai had made Kakashi his rival the second he laid eyes on him. It wasn’t until after Sakumo that he made an effort to be his friend.

It’s taken him years to finally break through, but today Gai is proud to be one of the few people Kakashi trusts. To be the one who knows him the best. From Sakumo, to ANBU, to the dozens of tragedies in between, Gai has been there with him through it all. He’s refused to be moved, even when Kakashi’s done everything possible to push him away.

Gai knows how Kakashi reacts. Knows the way his own perceived failure wraps around his neck like a noose. Which is why he refuses to leave him alone in his self-imposed exile, no matter how much he may wish it.

Kakashi will kill himself, one of these days. And he won’t even realize he’s doing it.

“You look like hell, Kakashi,” Gai tells him, after five days of near silence. “Don’t do this to yourself. Step away for a few hours. Give yourself space to breathe.”

If Kakashi is surprised by his sudden appearance, he doesn’t show it. He sits in the chair by the bed, and his face doesn’t turn toward the doorway. “I can’t,” he says. “I need to be here.”

His gaze doesn’t move from his student. Wishing to see his face when they speak, Gai steps further into the room. “You can’t be by his side twenty-four seven. You need to take care of yourself. And what about Sakura?”

“Sakura came by earlier.” Something slightly pained flits across his face, and he continues, “We tried to train a bit yesterday, but—we decided it’d be best to hold off on any more for now. At least until Naruto returns.”

There’s more to that story, Gai can tell. But observing the tight expression on his rival’s face, he decides not to pry. Not now, at least.

Kakashi looks unbelievably tired, which isn’t a surprise. He's putting up a convincing front, but Gai knows he still hasn’t completely recovered from whatever it was that Itachi did to him. And he isn’t going to recover, not if he keeps going on like this. He needs to go home. He needs sleep.

But Gai knows how stubborn his rival is. He knows Kakashi will never agree to it. So he compromises. He can’t let this go on; even if it’s not to rest, Kakashi needs to get out of this hospital.

“Come out with me,” he says. “We’ll get lunch. The food here is awful.”

Gai can’t see because of the mask, but he thinks Kakashi smiles slightly. “It is,” he agrees. Kakashi ends up in the hospital at least once a month, so he would know better than anyone. Gai often jokes that he should just get his own room there and move in.

“Then let’s go!” Gai urges him.

Gai can tell he’s tempted by the offer. But his gaze falls once again on Sasuke, and he closes off.

“I’m not hungry.”

Like hell you aren’t, Gai thinks. He sighs.

He can’t be angry at Kakashi for being so stubborn. It wasn’t too long ago when their positions were reversed. When it was Gai sitting in that chair by that hospital bed, refusing to be moved from his student's side.

Lee, Gai thinks, a familiar ache in his heart. He should go pay him another visit soon.

He forces his thoughts away from Lee for the moment. There’s nothing Gai can do to help him right now—just as there’s nothing Kakashi can do to help Sasuke. Instead, he focuses on the person he can help.

“There’s nothing you can do for him now,” he tells Kakashi gently. The troubled expression that flashes across his face is painful to watch, because Gai knows how he feels. But the words are true, and he needs to hear them. “If he’s going to wake up, he’ll wake up. You’re not helping him any by running yourself into the ground like this.”

Kakashi visibly wavers. Gai seizes his moment of hesitation immediately. “Don’t make me drag you, Kakashi! You know I’ll do it!”

He will do it. He has. After Rin, after Minato and Kushina—he barged into Kakashi’s apartment, forcing him out of his solitude and back into the world. He didn’t care for his protests then; he doesn’t care for them now.

Kakashi knows this too well. He sighs, reluctantly caving.

“Fine, fine, I’m coming,” he agrees, standing from the chair. “Just don’t knock me out. You gave me a concussion last time.”

Kakashi spares one last look at Sasuke, pale and unmoving on the bed, before he follows Gai from the room. Gai grins in victory beside him.

“What about that yakitori stand by your apartment? I bet I can beat you there. Loser has to circle around the village on their hands!”

 

 


Kakashi doesn’t agree to race him to the yakitori stand, which Gai is secretly relieved by since he looks so exhausted, but he makes a show of being disappointed.

“I think I’ll circle around the village on my hands anyway,” Gai tells him when they get there. “I’ve got to keep myself hip and in shape, after all!”

“You do that,” Kakashi responds tonelessly. He drops himself onto one of the stools.

Gai takes a seat next to Kakashi and orders himself a skewer of chicken. He shoves one on Kakashi as well once it’s clear the man isn’t going to ask for one. Kakashi doesn’t look too enthused, but he takes the stick without protesting, so Gai counts it as a win.

The sun is still rather high in the sky, though the afternoon is now reaching into the evening. In the sunlight, Kakashi looks much paler than he did in the hospital. It wasn’t as noticeable surrounded by the white walls and white floors, but now it’s really thrown into focus. He looks terrible.

“You look awful, Kakashi.”

“So you’ve already said.” Kakashi’s eyebrow rises, disappearing beneath his slanted headband. “And thank you. You really know how to flatter somebody.”

Gai observes his rival closely. There are dark circles under his eyes, and he’s trying not to be obvious with how heavily he’s leaning on the counter. He doesn’t look hip or youthful at all. It’s distressing to Gai to see him in such a state.

“How have you been?” he asks.

Kakashi gives him a dry look that seems to communicate that he thinks Gai’s an idiot. “My student is in a coma,” he says. “How do you think?”

Gai winces. “I meant physically,” he corrects. “Itachi did a number on you, and I know you’re still recovering from that.” Kakashi makes a displeased face him, and Gai brandishes his skewer of chicken at him before he can protest. “Don’t say you’re not, Kakashi! I saw you stumble on your way here!”

“I tripped.”

Six times?”

Kakashi scowls at him. “You counted?”

“Of course I did! What kind of rival do you take me for!” He bites a piece of chicken off the end of his kabob. “But seriously, Kakashi. You’re not well.”

Kakashi sighs. “I’m fine, Gai. Just a bit tired.”

“Exactly!” Gai jabs his skewer forward, pointing it at Kakashi. Kakashi's eyes widen, and he leans back so the end of it doesn’t stab him in the throat. “You’re tired! And do you know why you’re tired? It’s because you’re still recovering! Except you’re not allowing yourself to recover, because you’re not getting any sleep!”

Kakashi eyes the pointed end of Gai’s skewer as if it’s a deadly weapon instead of a flimsy piece of wood. Slowly, he raises his arm and places his hand on it, lowering it from his face.

“You’re going to give me a tracheotomy with that thing, put it down. I’m fine. I’m sleeping fine.”

Gai narrows his eyes at him, at his weary posture and the circles beneath his eyes. He shakes his head. “I don’t believe you,” he declares. “You look terrible.”

“Yes, we’ve been through this twice now,” Kakashi responds. He sighs, his shoulders slumping. “Look,” he begins reluctantly, but sounding more serious, “I admit that Itachi’s genjutsu has been having some prolonged effects on me. But I’m getting through it. There’s no need for you to worry.”

There’s always a need with you, he thinks, half irritated and half fond. Still, he decides to drop it. For now. He can bully Kakashi into resting some other time. He’ll even enlist Asuma and Kurenai to help him. Maybe Genma and Raidou as well, if Kakashi decides to be particularly difficult about it.

“What exactly did he do to you, anyway?” Gai asks. “I know it was genjutsu, but… I’ve never seen anything drop you like that.”

He wasn’t there for the start of the fight. He only came in near the end, when Kakashi was already on his knees in the water. And then he just passed out. It was terrifying.

“I’m not exactly sure,” Kakashi admits. “I’ve been placed under genjutsu before, but never anything like that.” His face twists with the memory of pain. “Everything was unbelievably vivid. I lost count of how many times he stabbed me. Seventy-two hours, and barely even a moment in the real world.”

Gai needs a moment to process that. “Seventy-two hours?” he repeats. “You're telling me he tortured you under genjutsu for seventy-two hours?”

“He said it was seventy-two hours,” says Kakashi. “Honestly, it felt like a lot longer.”

The look in Kakashi’s visible eye is slightly haunted, remembering the experience. Gai knows Kakashi’s been tortured before, usually emerging mostly unaffected, so it must have been pretty bad if it’s causing him to linger on it like this. Gai’s never heard of a genjutsu as powerful as the one he’s describing.

Gai recalls what Asuma and Kurenai said to him—how one second Kakashi was fine, and the next he was on his knees. No wonder he collapsed, Gai thought. It’s a miracle he isn’t in the same state as Sasuke.

With that realization comes a whole new wave of horror, as Gai realizes that the genjutsu that Kakashi just described was likely the one used on Sasuke. “And Sasuke? You think Itachi did the same thing to him?”

The hand Kakashi’s placed on the counter tightens. His face is white. “From what Jiraiya said to you, it seems like the same trick. But we won’t know until he wakes up.”

If he wakes up, Gai thinks. But he’s not cruel enough to ever say that out loud.

Despite Gai’s natural optimism, he can’t help thinking that Sasuke’s chances aren’t good. Especially now that he knows more about the specific type of damage they’re dealing with. He’s seen experienced shinobi break from much less. He knows Kakashi has too.

Kakashi must be able to tell his thoughts from the look on his face, because his expression hardens. “Sasuke is strong,” he says. “One of the strongest kids I’ve met. He’ll pull through. He did it before.”

Gai frowns in confusion. “Before? You mean that mission you guys went on in Wave?”

Kakashi hesitates for a moment, then shakes his head. “No, I meant… after the massacre.”

Gai frowns, thinking back to that time. He wasn’t ANBU, so he wasn’t involved at all in the aftermath of the massacre like Kakashi was. All he knows is what he’s been told.

“It was bad afterwards?” he asks. He’s always been under the impression that Sasuke was unhurt in the massacre. That Itachi, for some reason, left him unharmed (physically at least).

“The Third gave me access to Sasuke’s medical files when he became my student. Apparently, he was left in a similar state then as he is now.”

Gai processes that, latches onto what Kakashi isn’t specifically saying. “Are you suggesting… you think Itachi used the same genjutsu on him then? On a seven-year-old?”

The warring expression on Kakashi’s face matches Gai’s feelings perfectly. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just know it sounds the same. And if he recovered then…”

Kakashi trails off, falling into silence. He’s obviously horrified by the prospect of his student enduring the same mental torture he did—and at only seven years old. Gai himself is horrified, and he’s never even spoken to Sasuke.

Gai has lived the life of a shinobi for over two decades now, and in that time he’s seen many terrible things. But somehow, the human capacity for cruelty never ceases to shock him.

“He would do that to a child?” Gai says. His hand becomes a fist. “To his brother?”

He wonders why he’s even surprised. It was him after all, who told Kurenai just days ago that Itachi’s actions aren’t ones that can be reasoned with; that they’re the actions of a monster. Yet, he’s still shocked.

Itachi himself is only eighteen. Barely an adult himself. It’s nearly impossible to think of someone so coldblooded as being so young.

“Itachi Uchiha…” Gai says. He thinks of a thirteen-year-old boy deciding to slaughter his entire family in one night—no older than Sasuke, no older than Lee. He shakes his head. “Honestly, I still can’t believe it.”

“Me either,” Kakashi says softly, and something in his voice makes Gai turn to look at him. There’s an ache on his face, but it’s not the same as before. This pain is duller, older.

Gai looks at the expression in confusion, until the realization hits him. Oh.

He remembers the ANBU mission from years ago that he stumbled into; a dark-haired boy in a cat mask, surrounded by bodies and standing at Kakashi’s side.

“That’s right,” says Gai. “I forgot you two knew each other before.”

Kakashi immediately shuts down. “I’m not allowed to talk about that.”

Gai winces at the hard look on Kakashi’s face—the way any semblance of an expression seemed to fall away. There are only a few subjects that can provoke such a reaction from him, and it seems Gai has just found another one. Kakashi’s time in ANBU with Itachi is a subject that is Off Limits.

Off Limits is how it should be. ANBU operatives carry out their missions in complete secrecy, and their identities beneath their masks are kept hidden even from each other. The only reason Gai even knows Itachi was on Kakashi’s squad is because he figured it out himself; Kakashi always seemed to take the massacre a bit personally, even before getting Sasuke as a student.

Itachi is no doubt another thing he blames himself for—even though he has absolutely no reason to.

“So Jiraiya’s going after Tsunade, huh?” Gai asks. A blatant change of subject. “She should make a good Hokage. What do you think?”

“I guess.”

There’s a subtle note of something in his voice when he answers, and Gai frowns at him. “What do you have against Tsunade?”

Kakashi shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says. “I barely know her.”

He sounds truthful, but he still has that slight edge in his voice that suggests he’s not saying something. Gai considers it for a moment before deciding not to push it.

“Why do you suppose Jiraiya took Naruto with him?”

“Don’t know,” Kakashi responds. “He didn’t even ask me about it beforehand. But Naruto seemed more than happy to go with him.”

Gai presses his lips together when he hears that, feeling indignant on Kakashi’s behalf. “He should’ve requested your permission! Why, if it were one of my students—!”

Kakashi waves a hand at him to quiet him down. “I don’t mind, it’s not a big deal.”

Gai huffs, disagreeing. Still, despite the words, Kakashi looks bothered by something. “Alright,” he says. “Then what’s making your face look like that?”

Kakashi doesn’t look at him. He drums his fingers against the counter, his gaze forward.

Kakashi.”

Kakashi snaps his head to the side to look at him. “Do you think I’m a bad teacher?” he asks suddenly.

Gai blinks, startled. “What?”

Because where the hell did that come from? Gai goes over their conversation in his head, but he can’t see anything that might’ve led to that question.

Kakashi is quiet for a few moments, his fingers drumming against the counter. “Iruka Umino said something to me a few days ago,” he begins haltingly. “And it just got me thinking. He accused me of playing favorites. And I think he might’ve been right. I think maybe I have been.”

Gai goes over what he remembers from the interactions he’s seen between Kakashi and his students. “I don’t think that’s true,” he says slowly, thinking. “I mean, I know you trained Sasuke for the Chuunin Exams. But you were the only one able to teach him the chidori. And from what you explained to me, it’s not a move that can be taught to Naruto.”

“I still should’ve trained Naruto myself,” Kakashi says. “I shouldn’t have pawned him off on someone else. And I’ve neglected Sakura as well, my training session with her yesterday proved that.”

Gai sighs, trying to think about what to say. He has noticed Kakashi leaning a bit more toward Sasuke than his other two students. But then, he does the same thing with Lee.

“It’s not a crime to relate to one of your students more than the others,” Gai tells him. “Sometimes you just connect with them in a way you don’t with the other two. You just have to make sure those feelings don’t affect your teaching.”

Kakashi is quiet for a long moment. “So what you’re saying,” he finally responds, “is that it’s okay to have favorites. It’s just not okay to play favorites.”

Gai thinks about Lee. He could lie to himself and say he doesn’t have a favorite student—that Neji and Tenten are just as dear to him. But he knows that that isn’t true. Lee holds a special place in his heart.

But he never lets that affect their training. Never offers Lee more, or the others less. He cares for them all uniquely, and he offers the same level of care to all three of them.

But he looks at Lee—and he sees himself.

“Do you know what I thought during the preliminaries,” says Gai, “when I first saw Sasuke fight?”

Kakashi frowns. “What?”

“I thought, ‘this kid reminds me of Kakashi’.”

Kakashi blinks in surprise, but before he can speak Gai goes on, “I looked at him, and I saw you as you used to be. A lonely kid, angry at the entire world. Determined to isolate himself from everyone else. I understand why you want to help him so badly, Kakashi. I understand why you feel like you need to.”

Kakashi looks down, directing his gaze toward the counter in front of him. “Our circumstances are way different,” he says. “But I swear, Gai. Sometimes it’s like looking into a mirror, and it terrifies me.”

Gai listens silently. This, he doesn’t understand as well. The likeness between him and Lee has always been something he’s cherished. He doesn’t know what it’s like to look upon those similarities and dread them.

“And I’ve been trying recently,” Kakashi continues. “I’ve been trying to fix it. With Sakura, at least, since Naruto’s not here. But I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Gai considers him. “Just show them you’re trying,” he says.

Trying,” Kakashi repeats. He huffs quietly, shaking his head. “Iruka said close to the same thing.”

“Well then, it’s clearly excellent advice! You should follow it!”

Kakashi laughs. The chicken on his skewer is gone, and Gai stares at it for a moment, wondering how he managed to eat it without appearing to pull down his mask. That Kakashi! How does he always do that!

“You’re right to try and help him, you know.”

Kakashi looks over at him, frowning, and Gai clarifies, “Sasuke. He needs help. He’s like a young you, so that’s how I can tell.”

Kakashi nods. “I know,” he says, and his gaze is heavy. “I know.”

“Help him, Kakashi,” Gai tells him firmly. “Don’t wait for him to ask for it. Because if he’s anything like you, then he never will.”

 


 

That evening, Kakashi returns to the hospital. Head still spinning with Gai’s words, he sinks into the chair by Sasuke’s bed.

Help him. Don’t wait for him to ask for it.

Heart aching, he reaches out to take his student’s hand. His skin is cold.

“Wake up, Sasuke,” he whispers. “I’m right here. I’m not giving up.”

Beneath his hand, he thinks he feels Sasuke’s fingers twitch.

 

Chapter Text

Word of Orochimaru’s attack on Konohagakure spread quickly through the Land of Fire. Tsunade listened, and she thought she knew what to expect. She thought she was prepared.

She isn’t.

Nothing prepares her for the sight of her home in shambles—because Konoha is her home, no matter how many years she spent away trying to convince herself otherwise. And now, that home has been torn apart at the hands of someone she used to love.

(Someone she still loves.)

Perhaps in shambles is a bit of an exaggeration. There seems to be entire portions of the village that have gone completely untouched, and reconstruction seems to be well underway. But each piece of debris, each crumbling building or boarded up rooftop, makes her heart clench in her chest. Her hand becomes a fist at her side.

Orochimaru, she thinks, remembers the six-year-old boy who once blushed when Tsunade told him she thought his hair was pretty. How could you?

She doesn’t look up at the Hokage Monument. Seeing Sarutobi’s face carved into the rock would be too painful.

Beside her, Jiraiya reaches forward to briefly squeeze her hand. She squeezes back. There are no words needed between them.

(I’m here, the touch means.

I know, she responds.)

“Come on, dattebayo!” Naruto yells from ahead of them. “The hospital's this way!”

The loud words cause some of the depression to fade from her mind. She watches as Naruto quickens his pace, racing ahead of them. She turns to Jiraiya with a raised eyebrow and an amused smile.

“’Dattebayo'?” she repeats.

Jiraiya grins, a free expression that chases the grief from his face. “I know. He’s just like Kushina.”

Tsunade’s smile fades for a moment. She turns her gaze to Naruto, then back to Jiraiya. “Does he know—”

“No,” says Jiraiya, and his face pinches. “He doesn’t. And he can’t.”

Tsunade presses her lips together. She nods.

The villagers turn to look at the three of them as they pass. Most of their gazes slide away from them pretty quickly, but a few of their eyes linger on her slightly longer, some with curiosity and others with faint recognition.

By the time they’ve been in the village for five minutes, the whispering has started. Tsunade catches her name in the whispers, along with certain snatches of conversation.

“Tsunade Senju—”

“—one of the Sannin—”

“—death of the Sandaime—”

“Do you think—”

Tsunade ignores the outbreak of gossip. She focuses her gaze ahead.

“This friend of yours,” says Tsunade. “You said he was placed under genjutsu?”

Naruto turns his head to look at her. His face is pinched, as though recalling something painful. “He was beat up really badly too…”

“His physical injuries weren’t as extensive as they looked,” Jiraiya breaks in. “They’ll heal on their own. It’s the genjutsu that’s the issue.”

Tsunade nods. He and Naruto filled her in on the situation before she left. The genjutsu Jiraiya described to her certainly didn’t sound like an average illusion. “It’ll be difficult. Wounds of the mind are the trickiest to heal.”

“You’ll be able to do it, won’t you!?”

Tsunade glares at him. “Stop shouting, brat. I need to see exactly what was done to him first, and you’re not exactly giving me much to go on.”

Naruto huffs. “I already told you everything!”

“I know. And I told you, I need to see him.”

Naruto grumbles under his breath as he continues to lead the way to the hospital. Jiraiya spent the entire journey to find Tsunade talking about how talented she is, but personally, Naruto doesn’t see what’s so great about her.

She talked bad about Old Man Hokage, Naruto thinks, sending her a contemptuous look. And while he understands now that she’s grieving in her own way, he’s still not ready to forget what she said.

Plus, she insulted the Yondaime—Naruto's personal hero. No way he’s ever forgiving her for that.

“Naruto,” Jiraiya calls.

Naruto turns to look at him. He and Tsunade have stopped, their bodies angled toward something behind them.

Jiraiya looks at him with a half-grin, his head indicating something near the ground. “There’s a box following us.”

Naruto blinks, then stares. Sure enough, there’s a cardboard box just behind them on the path they’re on. It’s not moving now, but Naruto doesn’t doubt that it had been just a second ago.

“This again, seriously?” he exclaims. “I know it’s you, Konohamaru!”

The transformation technique ends in a puff of smoke. Konohamaru is left standing where the box used to be, his familiar goggles in place on his forehead. He’s alone today, without his Ninja Squad that usually follows him everywhere.

“Naruto-niichan!” he yells. “How did you know it was me?”

Warmth spreads through Naruto’s chest at the moniker, but he makes sure his expression stays irritated. “You need to get a new technique,” he tells him. “That one’s super old now.”

“Plus,” Jiraiya adds, amused, “boxes don’t usually move by themselves, kid.”

Konohamaru stomps on the ground in a childish fashion. “Foiled again,” he mutters. “You’re too good, Boss.”

Naruto grins. “And don’t forget it!”

Seeing Konohamaru sneaking around after him makes him smile. Last time he saw him was before he left the village with Jiraiya, after the Sandaime's death. Konohamaru was taking it pretty hard, so Naruto is happy to see him acting like his old self.

“How did you know I was back?” Naruto asks. “I only just got here.”

“Everyone who’s seen you is talking! They say that you and Jiraiya-ojisan came back with some lady, and that she’s going to be the Fifth Hokage!” Konohamaru turns to look up at Tsunade, his eyes narrowed. “Is that you, obaasan?”

Tsunade’s face becomes enraged. “Obaasan!?”

Naruto slaps his hand over his mouth quickly to restrain his loud burst of laughter. Jiraiya doesn’t bother.

“Careful now, Tsunade,” he says, chuckling at the woman's obvious fury. Her entire body is vibrating. “You can’t punch him, that’d be child abuse. Plus, he’s the Honorable Grandson.”

Jiraiya throws a wink in the young boy’s direction at the title. Konohamaru fumes. “That’s not my name! Don’t call me that!”

“So sorry,” says Jiraiya, his tone purposely goading. “Would you prefer Konohamaru-sama?”

Konohamaru kicks him in the shin.

The anger has dropped from Tsunade’s expression, replaced by a spark of recognition. “The Honorable Grandson?” she repeats. “You’re Kenta and Matsuki's son?”

Konohamaru pauses in another kick, this one aimed at Jiraiya’s groin. The man sighs in relief as the kid lowers his foot and turns away from him.

“You knew my mom and dad?” Konohamaru asks.

“I did,” says Tsunade. “We weren’t close friends, but I was sorry to hear of their passing. And I’m sorry about your grandfather. He was family to me, too.”

Jiraiya reaches out to squeeze her shoulder. Konohamaru stares at her for a moment, seeming to study her.

“Okay,” he decides after a moment. “You’re alright, I suppose. I guess you can be Hokage.”

Naruto gapes at his apprentice. What!? He totally wouldn’t say that if he heard what she said about Old Man Hokage earlier!

Tsunade smiles. “Thanks, kid,” she says. “You’re alright, too. Now if you don’t mind, we’ve got somewhere to be.”

Naruto shakes his head, his thoughts clearing and immediately refocusing. Right. Sasuke. His previous feeling of urgency returns instantly.

“We’ve got to get to the hospital,” says Naruto. “But keep practicing those jutsus, alright?”

Konohamaru grins. He holds out his fist for Naruto to bump. “You got it, Boss!”

 



Tsunade wasn’t expecting anything when she walked into the hospital, but Kakashi Hatake surprises her. She hadn’t been aware that the man was now a jounin-sensei; the last time she saw him, he was a teenager behind an ANBU mask.

“Tsunade-hime,” he greets her respectfully.

“Hatake,” she says back. Even with the mask covering most of his face, he still looks so much like his father, and she has to stop herself from grinding her teeth.

She turns her attention to the rest of the room. Sasuke Uchiha is laying on a hospital bed, his breathing slow and even. Deeply unconscious. In the chair next to the bed is a pink-haired girl, whom Tsunade assumes is the other member of their three-man squad.

The girl looks over to Naruto, then at Tsunade. Her eyes are tired but hopeful. “Naruto?”

“Hey, Sakura-chan,” says Naruto. His gaze drifts to Sasuke. “How's Sasuke?”

It’s Kakashi who answers. “He’s in a coma,” he explains. His voice doesn’t waver, but there’s a somber weight to it. “No one has been able to wake him.”

“Not surprising,” Jiraiya responds. “Have they been able to determine what was done to him?”

“Nothing more than what we already know.”

Tsunade walks past Kakashi and the young kunoichi, so she’s standing by the Uchiha's side. This close up, she can see the bruising at his jaw and around his throat. One of his arms is broken.

She considers healing the injuries, but decides that most of them are minor and will heal fine on their own. Still, the bruising on his throat is dark and awful-looking, and if she does succeed in waking him from his coma, it’ll hurt like hell for him to talk.

After a moment of hesitation, she brings her palms together to form the two seals. Ox. Tiger. Then she places her hand above the boy’s neck. She calls out to her chakra, pooling it into the pathways in her hand. A green glow appears beneath her fingers.

Behind her, she hears the girl—Sakura—gasp quietly. Everyone else is quiet. Slowly, the bruising fades, the imprint of Itachi Uchiha’s fingers disappearing. Tsunade lets the chakra at her fingertips dissipate, dropping her hand.

“Wow,” Sakura breathes, mesmerized. “That’s amazing. How does it work?”

Tsunade notes the tone of her voice with interest. Longing. Is she interested in being a medical ninja?

“A person’s body is made up of different chakra pathways,” Tsunade explains. “When the body is injured, those pathways become twisted and disrupted. By pushing my own chakra into the body, I’m able to mend those pathways and accelerate the natural healing process.”

“And that will heal Sasuke-kun's mind as well?”

Tsunade frowns down at the unconscious boy in front of her. She is a medic; she specializes in healing the body, not the mind. The brain is a muscle, and she can mend it like she can any other, but there are other forces at play with an injury like this.

“That’s difficult to say,” she admits. “Injuries like this are trickier, because there are psychological effects to consider as well. I can heal any physical damage done to him, but anything mental isn’t something that can be fixed so easily. I can heal the brain, but I can’t heal the mind.”

Sakura clasps her hands tightly in front of her; her bottom lip trembles. Naruto’s face is torn between worry and confusion, as he glances between Tsunade and his teammate.

“What’s the difference?” he asks. “Aren’t they the same thing?”

Kakashi sighs heavily, placing a hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “Not exactly, Naruto.”

Sakura looks at her with wide, pleading eyes. “But you’ll try, won’t you? Please, Tsunade-sama.”

Tsunade wants to protest at the form of address—she isn’t Hokage yet, she isn’t sure she even wants to be—but she gets caught in the raw emotion on the girl’s face. She’s so young, so desperate, so scared.

Tsunade remembers a time when she was like that.

She forms the seals again. Ox. Tiger. She exhales slowly, bringing up her palm to hover over Sasuke’s forehead. Chakra sparks in the veins of her hand, warms the tips of her fingers.

She closes her eyes and reaches out. Her chakra presses against the chakra pathways in his brain, maps them out, and she frowns when she gets a clear sense of how broken they feel. Twisted, and frayed, and smashed into fragments.

A less-experienced medic would have instinctively withdrawn. But Tsunade has been through a war, and she has seen worse damage. She frowns deeply, but she doesn’t pull away.

Something is disrupting his chakra pathways. It isn’t simply that they’ve been twisted, it’s that something is still twisting them. A force pressing against them, widening the fractures. She can’t heal the damage because the pressure that caused it is still there, still pressing against the fringes in his brain.

She recognizes the feeling immediately. She’s felt it before.

Sasuke Uchiha isn’t suffering the effects of a genjutsu. He’s still under a genjutsu.

Sasuke’s face twitches slightly, his eyes moving beneath his eyelids, but he doesn’t wake up. Mouth set in a hard line, Tsunade lets her hand fall back to her side.

“Fools,” she snaps. “Could none of you seriously recognize a genjutsu?”

All four of their faces are confused. Jiraiya shakes his head. “I told you he was placed under a genjutsu,” he says. “I don’t know what—”

“He wasn’t just placed under a genjutsu, you moron, he’s still under it!”

Kakashi’s uncovered eye widens. “What?”

She turns her gaze on him, eyes sharp. “The genjutsu Itachi placed on him. He’s still under it. The genin I can understand, but you’d think a high-level jounin would have recognized the signs.”

Kakashi doesn’t flinch at the harsh tone. He’s too busy processing the revelation that his student has been trapped in a nightmare realm for nearly a week now.

“What do you mean?” Naruto asks. His head bounces back and forth between the three adults in the room. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with Sasuke?”

“Quiet, Naruto,” says Jiraiya. The words aren’t said harshly; he's simply laser-focused on Tsunade. “You’re telling me that that kid has been trapped in a genjutsu for nearly a week now? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. I've seen genjutsus that have continued even when someone is no longer actively casting them, but this is something else. The amount of power it would require…”

Kakashi’s visible eye is like stone. “This is no ordinary genjutsu. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it.”

Tsunade studies the grave set to face, the hard line of his shoulders, and recalls what Jiraiya told her. That’s right. He experienced it, too.

Both of the genin look confused by the conversation. Only Kakashi seems to understand the gravity of what she’s saying.

“Break him out of it,” he snaps, in a tone like steel. He sounds every bit of the ANBU captain he used to be. “Break him out of it now.”

He sounds like Sakumo, and Tsunade feels herself react to it. The words that rise in her throat taste like poison.

“I tried. I attempted to disrupt his chakra flow when I tried to heal him, but it didn’t work. If you think you can do better, then be my guest.”

Kakashi’s lips seem to twist beneath his mask. Immediately, he pulls up his hitai-ate to expose his Sharingan. Eye whirling, he leans down toward Sasuke—

Jiraiya grabs him by the arm, yanking him back. “Hell no. Are you crazy?”

“I can use my Sharingan to get in his head. I can break the illusion—”

“Or get trapped inside it yourself! Did you forget what it did to you the first time!?”

“And what about what it’s doing to Sasuke!? You expect me to stand here—”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Naruto yells loudly. It has the desired effect; both Jiraiya and Kakashi go quiet. “What the hell are you two talking about and what’s going on with Sasuke!?”

Naruto’s standing next to the chair Sakura is sitting in, glaring at the three of them. He’s visibly angry, but that anger is only a thin mask for the fear that lies beneath it.

“You’re saying Sasuke-kun is under a genjutsu,” Sakura begins hesitantly. “But I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Why can’t Kakashi-sensei just break him out of it?”

Kakashi sighs. He pulls his arm from Jiraiya’s grip and reluctantly slides his hitai-ate back over his eye. “This type of genjutsu is different. If he’s under the same one I was, Itachi told me it can only be broken by someone who shares the same blood.”

Jiraiya raises an eyebrow at him. “And yet, you were still going to try. Honestly, kid, I get that you’re worried, but stop and think next time. The last thing we need is for you to trap yourself in there with him.”

Kakashi bristles slightly. Whether it’s at Jiraiya calling him a kid or at his implication that he’s behaving thoughtlessly, Tsunade doesn’t know.

But Jiraiya is right. Kakashi is acting carelessly, without giving proper thought to his actions. From what Tsunade remembers of him as a teenager, this isn’t like him. He’s obviously extremely affected by the situation, because he’s not thinking as clearly as he usually would.

“Wait,” says Sakura. “You said the genjutsu could only be broken by someone who shares Itachi’s blood?”

“That’s what he said,” Kakashi responds. “Whether it’s true or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

“But if it is true… then couldn’t Sasuke-kun break the genjutsu himself?”

Tsunade sighs. “Theoretically, yes,” she says. “However, even if he does have the ability, I doubt he’s in any state of mind to attempt it.”

“But then who can?”

Tsunade shares a heavy look with Kakashi and Jiraiya. After a moment, Kakashi inclines his head, granting her permission to tell them.

“The only person who can break the illusion,” Tsunade answers, “is the one who cast it.”

Naruto’s eyes widen. “You don’t mean—”

“Itachi Uchiha. He’s the only one who can wake your friend up.”

 

Chapter Text

Tsunade stares down at the ceremonial hat she holds in her hands. Her stomach feels heavy, and she runs her fingers gently over the kanji embroidered on the front of it.

Hokage.

The sick feeling in her stomach intensifies. Her grip on the hat tightens.

“I don’t know if I’m the right person for this,” she confesses.

Gentle hands come up to cover hers. Tsunade lifts her head and looks into a kind face.

“Tsunade-hime,” Shizune says, “you’re the only person for this.”

Tsunade looks back down at the hat in her hands. Her sensei wore this hat. Her grandfather wore this hat.

“He’d be proud of you,” Shizune tells her. “They both would be. You can do this. You were meant to do this.”

Tsunade thinks about Sarutobi, standing tall against his own student to keep the village safe. She thinks about her grandfather, shoving a sword through his own friend's back to protect the dream they once shared.

She thinks about Dan, who left this world with his dream unfulfilled. Who believed in the possibility of peace, and had once made Tsunade believe in it as well.

A firm resolve settles between the spaces of her ribs. She places a hand over her heart, her fingers curling into a fist.

“You’re right,” she says. “I was meant to do this.”

Slowly, she reaches up to place the hat on her head. The veil falls artfully around her face. Shizune smiles, then bends into a bow.

“Congratulations,” she says, “Hokage-sama.”

Tsunade spins, her robes swishing at her feet. She exits the office she is standing in, climbing up onto the roof of the building. Jiraiya is standing there waiting for her, along with the two Elders, Koharu and Homura.

Tsunade walks by them briskly. Jiraiya grins and gives her a thumbs up as she passes.

She looks out at the village—her village—and at all the villagers gathered in the streets below her to witness her take her place. She looks at them, and she takes them all into her heart. Accepts them as her family, her children, as her sensei and grandfather did before her.

She takes the brim of the hat in her hands and whips it off, so all of Konohagakure can see her face.

“From this day forward,” she declares with a smile, “I am the ruler of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, the Fifth Hokage!”

The villagers clap and cheer for her. She sees Naruto in the crowd, along with Kakashi and Sakura. She sees people she used to know, before she fled the village and didn’t look back.

She sees Sarutobi’s grandson, clapping extra hard, cheering loud enough to be heard over the crowd.

Tsunade’s heart grows warm. In that moment, she accepts the Will of Fire into her own soul, vowing to foster that flame, and to carry it within her for as long as she shall live.

She turns her face around, to look at the Stone Monument just behind her. For the first time since arriving in the village, she lets herself look at the Sandaime’s Great Stone Face.

I promise you, Sensei, she vows, I’ll do you proud.

 


 

It’s been a day since Tsunade’s official inauguration, and Sakura finds herself once again walking home from the hospital. By now, the path has become so familiar to her that she could navigate it blindfolded.

She wonders how many more times she’ll have to walk it. How much longer she’ll have to bear it. For one horrifying moment, she sees her life stretch out before her, and Sasuke isn’t in it. She sees a life filled with endless hospital visits, holding the hand of a boy who is forever out of her reach.

That won’t happen, she tells herself, a nauseous feeling in her stomach. Kakashi-sensei’s going to find Itachi. He’s going to bring him back here and force him to fix this.

She thinks back to three days ago in that hospital room, after Tsunade and Jiraiya left. She remembers the warmth of Kakashi’s hands on her shoulders as he bent down to her level.

“It’ll be okay, Sakura,” he told her. “I’m going to fix it, I promise.”

Kakashi hasn’t broken a promise to her yet. He promised to keep them safe in the Land of Waves, and that’s exactly what he did. She believes he’ll keep this one as well.

But the problem with Kakashi keeping his promise is that he has to find Itachi Uchiha in order to do it. Sakura’s never met Sasuke’s brother—didn’t even know he existed until a week ago—but she’s seen Sasuke in the aftermath, and it paints a pretty clear picture of what he’s capable of.

She heard what he did to Kakashi before running into Sasuke. If Kakashi goes after him, what’s to stop him from doing the same thing again? Or worse, actually killing him this time?

She wants Sasuke to wake up. She wants them to be a team again. But Kakashi is a part of that team. She doesn’t want him to get hurt, and if he goes after Itachi, he definitely will be.

But if he doesn’t… if he doesn’t, then Sasuke will be trapped inside a nightmare forever.

Sakura sighs, stopping for a moment to pull herself together. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, twisting her hands into the fabric of her shorts.

When she opens them again, Naruto is standing less than an inch away from her. His face is pushed forward, his nose nearly touching hers as he stares at her with narrow eyes.

Sakura makes a noise that is definitely not a scream, leaping backwards with wide eyes. “Naruto! What the hell, you idiot!”

“Oh,” says Naruto. He straightens, and the narrow-eyed look is replaced with a smile. “Hey, Sakura-chan.”

Hey?” she repeats incredulously. Resisting the strong urge to clonk him over the top of the head, she instead takes a deep breath. She presses a hand against her chest, where her heart is beating like a jackhammer. “What is wrong with you!? You scared me half to death, you jerk!”

“Sorry,” Naruto says. “I saw you just standing there. I thought you might be dead. Or sleepwalking.”

“Sleepwalking?” she echoes. She shakes her head, unable to unpack the huge amounts of idiocy in that comment. “Naruto, it’s three in the afternoon. And you just said that I was standing still.”

“Fine! Then I thought you might be sleep standing!”

Sakura rolls her eyes and steps around him to resume her walk. Naruto spins around and quickly falls into step beside her.

“Well, what were you doing just standing in the middle of the sidewalk with your eyes closed, then?”

Sakura feels herself grow slightly embarrassed, though she refuses to show it on her face. “I’m just coming back from visiting Sasuke-kun. I just got lost in my thoughts, that’s all.”

“Oh,” says Naruto, his voice strangely muted. Compared to his usual exuberance, his entire personality seems muted. Less loud than it usually is, less bright. “I was gonna go see him later. How is he?”

“The same,” Sakura answers, and Naruto’s face drops slightly. Sakura stares down at her feet as she walks. “He never answers, but… I keep talking to him. Telling him that I’m there.”

A small, confused frown forms on Naruto’s lips. “But then why talk to him? If he doesn’t answer?”

“I want him to know I’m there,” she explains. “And that I’m waiting for him to wake up. Kakashi-sensei told me that sometimes people in comas can hear what’s going on around them. If that’s true, then I want him to have something to focus on other than the nightmare he’s trapped in.”

She turns to find Naruto watching her, a strange expression on his face, and she blushes. She wonders how much of her feelings for Sasuke bled into her words—if Naruto can hear how much she yearns to have him open his eyes and look at her, for it to be her voice that draws him back, that wakes him up.

It’s a selfish thing to hope for. Sakura’s recently come to realize that a lot of things about her are selfish. She wants to change that about herself, but she doesn’t know how to start.

Naruto looks straight ahead, and his expression becomes resolved. “I’ll do that too, next time,” he says, and Sakura looks at him in surprise. “I’ll make sure he knows I’m there.”

There’s a brief silence between them, their feet brushing the concrete and the wind whistling by them, when Sakura speaks again.

“Has Kakashi-sensei said anything to you?” she asks. “About what he’s planning to do?”

“He said he was planning on visiting Tsunade-obaasan later,” Naruto answers. “He wouldn’t tell me what about, but it’s probably something to do with Sasuke.”

“You shouldn’t call Hokage-sama something so disrespectful,” Sakura chides. She frowns. “Do you think he’s going to ask permission to go after Sasuke-kun's brother?”

“Dunno. Probably. If he is the only one who can wake Sasuke up, then there’s no other option. He has to come back. He has to help Sasuke.”

Sakura bites her lip. “But he’s the one who did this to Sasuke-kun in the first place. Why would he help?”

“Because we’ll force him!” Naruto declares, teeth gritted and fists clenched. Sakura’s never seen this type of anger in him before; for a moment, she thinks she sees a hint of red in his eyes.

He really hates this Itachi guy, Sakura realizes.

After learning about who Itachi is, about what he did, it’s obvious that Naruto would hate him. It isn’t that Sakura isn’t just as angry as Naruto, because she is. But she’s never met Itachi Uchiha, so she can’t hate him the same way Naruto does. She doesn’t have a face to direct her rage at.

But Naruto does. Naruto was there when Sasuke and his brother fought—when Itachi destroyed him. Naruto saw it all.

Sakura looks at him hesitantly. She holds her words behind her teeth for a moment before she speaks them out loud.

“What was he like? Sasuke-kun’s brother?”

Naruto looks at her sharply, then turns his head forward again. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment.

“Cold,” he finally answers. Sakura waits, thinking he might elaborate, say more. He doesn’t.

They continue to walk. Sakura thinks about that name, running it in circles around her head. Itachi. It was familiar to her when Kakashi first mentioned it. Like a name you hear called on the street but quickly dismiss.

She knows she’s heard it somewhere before. Not from Kakashi. Not from Sasuke. From someone else. But where?

“Did Sasuke-kun ever mention his brother to you?” Sakura asks. “Did he ever talk about him?”

“Not—not really,” Naruto replies. “There was this one time—in the Land of Waves, after he jumped in front of me and nearly… he mentioned his brother then. He said he couldn’t die until he killed his brother. He told me…” Naruto’s face tightens, his blue eyes pained. “He told me to never give up on my dream.”

Sakura blinks as she listens to the words, her mind catching on part of them. “He jumped in front of you?”

Naruto looks at her. Slowly, he nods. “Yeah. When we were inside that ice prison—Haku was aiming at me. Sasuke… he saved my life.”

A week ago, Naruto never would have admitted something like that. Now, he just looks sad—sad and guilty.

“I never knew that,” Sakura says softly. She thinks about Sasuke and Naruto after that mission—the way they were towards each other. Snappish and antagonistic, more so than usual, unable to look each other in the eye. It makes sense now.

“I forgot about what he said,” Naruto continues. “Because—because I thought he was dead, and it didn’t matter to me. It wasn’t until Itachi showed up that I remembered.”

Sakura presses her lips together. “But you never heard the name Itachi?”

Naruto frowns at her. “No. Why?”

She shakes her head, asking herself, “But then where did I–?”

Realization strikes her, and she stops walking, her eyes widening.

(“You’re definitely his brother. If anything, your eyes are even keener than Itachi’s…”)

“Orochimaru,” she realizes.

Naruto blinks. “Huh?”

“Orochimaru,” Sakura repeats. “That day in the forest… he mentioned Itachi.”

Naruto’s eyebrows are furrowed in deep thought. He shakes his head. “I don’t remember that.”

“You were inside the snake.”

“Oh.” He shudders at the memory. “Right. Yuck.”

“Sasuke-kun nearly died then, too,” Sakura whispers. “That’s why I didn’t remember.”

“Sasuke really needs to stop almost dying,” says Naruto with a huff. “It’s starting to get real annoying.”

His tone is light, but Sakura can see the real concern in his eyes. She thinks about Sasuke in Wave Country, his lifeless body riddled with needles. She thinks about him in the Forest of Death, convulsing in pain from the mark on his shoulder.

She thinks about him on that hospital bed, and fear rises thick in her throat.

“I can’t lose him,” she says. “I can’t lose any of you.”

Naruto blinks at her, looking lost. His hands flutter around her awkwardly, as if he wants to hug her or place them on her shoulders, but eventually they drop back to his sides.

“You won’t lose us, Sakura-chan. Sasuke’s going to be fine. Kakashi-sensei’s going to bring back Itachi, and then he’ll wake up and it’ll all be okay again.”

Her eyes burn, but when she rubs at them, she’s grateful to find they’re without tears. “I’m sorry, Naruto,” she says. “I haven’t been the best teammate to you, have I?”

Naruto stares at her, looking almost stunned. “Sakura-chan…”

“But I’ll do better, I swear. I want to do better. I don’t want us to just be teammates. I want us to be friends.”

Naruto looks at her for a long moment. Then, a wide grin breaks across his face. “Don’t be silly, Sakura-chan,” he says. “We are friends.”

 


 

When Jiraiya spies Kakashi on his way to the Hokage’s office, Jiraiya follows him. He can’t fully explain why he does it; just some gut instinct that tells him he’s going to want to be present for the conversation.

Tsunade is sitting at her desk when the knock comes at the door. She looks up from her paperwork, setting down her pen. “Come in.”

Kakashi enters the room, closing the door behind him. Jiraiya settles himself on the sill of the window outside.

“Tsunade-sama.”

Tsunade’s face tightens when she recognizes her visitor. “Hatake. What is it?”

Kakashi looks at her levelly. “I’d congratulate you on your appointment, Hokage-sama, but it’s obvious we’d both rather get straight to the point. You know what I’m here for.”

“I do,” Tsunade replies. “And you know what my answer is already.”

She looks down, picking up her pen and returning to her paperwork. It’s a clear dismissal, but Kakashi doesn’t take it.

“Without Itachi, Sasuke doesn’t have a chance of getting better. He’s the only one who can break the genjutsu. You have to let me go after him.”

Tsunade didn’t look up. “I don’t have to do anything. Itachi’s taken you out before. Sending you after him by yourself would be a suicide mission.”

“Then don’t send me alone,” Kakashi argues. “Put together a team of jounin—”

“That would take up too many resources.”

“My student is trapped in a hellscape. Every second that goes by is another one that he suffers. I don’t care about resources.”

Tsunade’s head snaps up sharply. She slams her pen onto the desk with a loud sound.

“That’s exactly my point,” she snaps, and there’s real anger in her voice now. “Your judgment is blinded, Hatake. You’re too close to this. You can’t see the bigger picture.”

Kakashi seems to take a breath for a moment, to collect himself. When he speaks again, his voice is calmer. “And that picture would be?”

“That as harsh as it may seem, your value outweighs his. I want to save the kid as much as you, but I’m Hokage now, and I have to think about what would be best for this village. You’re too important of a resource to Konoha for me to risk losing.”

For a long moment, both of them are silent. Then Tsunade picks her pen back up, once again bending her head. “I’m sorry, Kakashi. But the answer is no.”

Kakashi’s visible eye is hard. The muscles in his jaw flex. He bows his head. “Hokage-sama,” he bids her, and the word sounds as if it was pulled forcefully from between his teeth.

He spins on his heel and exits the room.

That’s when Jiraiya enters, slipping in from the window and making himself known. “I’m disappointed in you, Tsunade.”

Tsunade shoots him a glare from her chair. “You’re not as sneaky as you think, you know. I knew you were there.”

Jiraiya steps further into the room, planting himself in front of her desk. “I know you did. Now what the hell was that about?”

Tsunade doesn't look at him. “What was what about?”

Jiraiya sighs. He thinks about a young blonde, sobbing over the bleeding body of her lover. Sobbing at her little brother's funeral. Two deaths that could’ve been prevented if the war ended sooner. If Konoha’s White Fang had only followed orders.

“Kakashi is not his father, Tsunade,” he tells her.

Tsunade tenses. Her grip on her pen tightens. “I know that.”

“Do you?” he asks. He raises an eyebrow at her. “If any other shinobi had made that request of you, you would’ve given them that mission.”

“That’s not true—”

“It is and you know it.”

Tsunade’s hand flexes, a muscle in her jaw jumping. Jiraiya sighs.

“I know you don’t know him well,” he says. “But I do. I practically watched that kid grow up. He’s one of the best shinobi I know. Don’t weigh something at his feet that isn’t his to bear.”

Tsunade is tense for a moment. Then she sighs, slumping slightly. “He just looks so much like him,” she admits.

“I know,” Jiraiya responds. He leans forward, places his hands on the desk. “Look, I understand your reluctance to send him. Itachi is stronger than him. But we can’t hang Sasuke out to dry. We need Itachi.”

“Then what do you suggest I do?”

“Send me with him,” Jiraiya suggests. “I can watch his back, and we can retrieve Itachi—”

“Or he’ll kill both of you!”

“Itachi retreated when he saw me at the hotel,” Jiraiya argues. “He’ll want to avoid fighting me, he knows I’m stronger.”

“The fact that you’re stronger won’t matter,” Tsunade says sharply. “He’ll still have the upper-hand. You’re trying to capture him—”

“You don’t need to tell me the risks. I already know them.”

“If you attempt to take him alive,” she continues, ignoring him, “then he will come at you with the full intent to kill. You’ll be fighting with a handicap. He won’t be.”

Jiraiya grins. “Then I guess I better make some crutches.”

“Dammit, Jiraiya, I’m serious! This is not some low-level criminal we’re talking about here, it’s Itachi Uchiha. That kid slaughtered the entire Police Force by himself—”

“I know what he’s capable of,” Jiraiya tells her calmly. “I read the reports. And even without them, Sasuke is proof enough. I’m not an idiot, Tsunade, I know what I’d be facing.”

Tsunade looks at him for a long moment. Finally, she sighs, cracking a small smile. “I don’t know about that. You’re definitely an idiot.”

Jiraiya matches her smile with one of his one. He reaches out to cover her hand with his. She looks up at him.

“I’ll be okay, Tsuna. Kakashi will watch my back, and I’ll watch his. Let me do this.”

She glares at him, though there’s no real anger in her expression. “Don’t call me that. Only my grandfather called me that.” She pauses, sighing, then says, “Okay, I’ll sanction the mission. The two of you can head out tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Tsunade replies. “Just don’t die. Either of you.”

 

Chapter Text

The answer is no.

Kakashi sits in that same chair in the hospital room, his elbows resting on his knees. He stares at his student, still in the bed in front of him, and his jaw clenches as the words run through his head.

Your value outweighs his.

From a tactical standpoint, it makes sense. And when he forces himself to think about it impersonally, he even agrees with it. He’s a former member of ANBU Black Ops; he understands the harsh reality of shinobi life. That they exist in order to act as tools—and that some tools are more useful than others.

As a resource to the village, Sasuke has the potential to become very valuable. But he is still just a child. War is on the horizon, all of them can feel it. And Tsunade can’t afford to think about in another ten years, she needs to think about now.

Kakashi understands the need for that type of mindset. And was Tsunade’s decision a strategic one, Kakashi might’ve forgiven her for it. But instead, she made it personal.

This isn’t about strategy. Isn’t about resources. This is about Sakumo.

Kakashi isn’t oblivious to Tsunade’s dislike of Sakumo, nor to how that dislike extends to him. For the most part, he doesn’t let it bother him; she has her reasons, and after two decades, Kakashi is far too used to being blamed for his father’s mistakes.

(Far too used to people calling them mistakes to waste any time trying to convince people they weren’t.)

Let them despise him. Let them shun him. They can call him his father’s son, and he will wear the accusation with pride. Because the angry boy who once spoke Sakumo’s name with shame is now proud to share his blood.

But receiving the blowback of his father’s actions himself is something he’s learned to accept; it’s another thing entirely when someone else is being caught in them. If the only one affected is him, then let Tsunade hate his father as much as she wants; but now it is Sasuke whom her grudge is affecting, and that isn’t something he can accept.

None of this is his fault, Kakashi thinks, hands clenching under his chin as he stares down at his student's closed eyes. You’re allowing his suffering to continue because of a piece of history he has no part in.

Kakashi is a Konoha shinobi at heart. He exists for the Hokage to command, and should she order him to die, then he will walk to his death. But this is one order that he doesn’t think he can follow.

How can he? How can he, when he promised

(“Don’t worry, Sasuke. I’ll protect you with my life.”)

Kakashi presses his mouth into a tight line, staring down at Sasuke’s face. He’s so still, not a hint of the mental torture he’s currently experiencing showing in his expression. Kakashi recalls feeling Sasuke’s fingers twitch just a few days ago, and he’s beginning to think he imagined it.

Kakashi tries to imagine the nightmare that the kid must be living in at this very moment, the battle going on behind his eyes that only he can see, and he experiences the same level of horror he felt when Tsunade first told him. He doesn’t quite understand how Sasuke can still be trapped in a genjutsu without Itachi present to hold the illusion in place, but it obviously isn’t a normal genjutsu; it doesn’t abide by the same rules. He wonders how time is working in Sasuke’s head; if it’s been the same amount of time in there as it’s been out here, or if the seconds are passing infinitely slower.

He hopes to God it isn’t the same for Sasuke as it was for him. Three days in a single moment. Because if it is, then Sasuke's a lost cause; death would be a mercy.

But no. Kakashi can’t let himself consider that. Tsunade tried to heal his mind, after all; surely she’d be able to tell if his mind felt that broken.

He hates just sitting here. He hates being so helpless. His student is being tortured, and all he can do is sit here and stare at him.

Screw that, Kakashi decides.

It’s a bad idea. Jiraiya already warned him against it. But Tsunade just shot down his best hope, and he’s desperate. If there’s even a slight chance of breaking his student free of Itachi’s grasp, then any risk is worth it.

He moves from the chair, kneeling on the floor by Sasuke’s bed. This close, he can see a faint scar he never noticed before, a slight line on his upper lip. It must be years old.

He reaches around his head and pulls up his hitai-ate. Obito's Sharingan, forever blazing, focuses on Sasuke immediately. With his hand, he gently pulls up one of Sasuke’s eyelids.

The hospital room falls away, replaced by a world of black, white, and red. It’s just like the dream-world Itachi placed him in, only instead of tied to a post, he finds himself standing in the middle of a street.

A familiar street. He’s standing in the Uchiha district.

The smell hits him first, even before the screams. The pungent, metallic scent of blood. It takes him back years, to waking up next to Rin's body, a sea of blood surrounding him.

It’s incredibly vivid and incredibly well-crafted. Usually sight and sound are enough to convince a person that the illusion is real; most genjutsus don’t bother with smell.

The screaming reaches him next, and he knows what this is. He knows before he sees the bodies falling, the blood splashing through the air, the weapons flying. He knows.

He watches as an image of Itachi brings his katana down on a screaming woman’s throat, and he thinks he might be sick. Sasuke isn’t just trapped in a nightmare, he’s trapped in a memory.

Kakashi tries to dispel it the normal way. Tries to grab onto the illusion and wrench it apart, but he can’t get a grip on it. He can’t even touch it.

He searches for Sasuke, trying to block out the screaming, even as the illusion tries to drag him in. It’s too bright, too real, and Kakashi fights to remember that he’s kneeling on a hospital floor, that there’s linoleum beneath his knees, not blood beneath his shoes.

Itachi’s voice rings through the dreamscape. It comes from nowhere, from everywhere.

“Run, run… Cling to your wretched life. Then one day, when you have the same eyes, come back and face me!”

The landscape warps and changes. Now he’s standing in a bedroom. A man and woman are kneeling as Itachi brings his sword down on their necks. Kakashi turns away before the blow lands, breathing sharply.

This isn’t real. None of this is real. Find Sasuke.

Sasuke is easy to spot now, and the sight of him breaks Kakashi’s heart. He looks the same age he was when this happened, and he’s curled himself into a ball in the corner. His face is buried in his knees, his hands pressed over his ears. When Kakashi walks over to him, he doesn’t react.

He’s so young and so scared, and for a moment, Kakashi can’t connect the child in front of him with his student, because Sasuke's never looked so fragile. For all the trauma that he’s been through, Sasuke's never once shown it, and the boy in front of him now looks less like his student and more like a stranger.

Behind him, there’s a loud thud as two bodies topple to the floor. Blood seems to melt from the walls. Kakashi forces himself to ignore it, even as he chokes on the iron in the air.

“Sasuke,” he says. Then again, more insistent, “Sasuke.”

Sasuke doesn’t respond. Kakashi reaches out slowly, placing his hand on the child’s knee. Sasuke flinches with his whole body, jerking back and slamming his head against the wall. A whimper escapes his lips, and Kakashi spots the glint of tears on his cheeks.

“Foolish little brother—”

The walls begin to melt away. Growing desperate, Kakashi grabs Sasuke by the shoulders.

“Sasuke! Sasuke, it’s Kakashi. I need you to hear me—”

“—you’re not even worth killing.”

The walls are replaced by the streets again, thick with blood and bodies. Screams fill the air, loud and sharp and terrified, all of them pleading for mercy, and Kakashi head spins with a panic that makes it hard to breathe—

“Sasuke—Sasuke, look at me—”

“Run, run… Cling to your wretched life.”

“Sasuke, it’s a genjutsu. It’s all in your head—”

“…one day, when you have the same eyes—”

“It isn’t real—"

Something seems to wrench him away, his entire body suddenly yanked. The screams and bodies and blood disappear abruptly, and he’s staring into a familiar face, hands tight on his shoulders. The floor is hard beneath his knees.

“—are you thinking? I told you not to do that!”

He blinks, screams still echoing in his ears. The face in front of him sharpens as it comes into focus.

“Should’ve known you’d try it anyway,” Jiraiya says. “You dumbass. You almost got trapped in there, didn’t you? I told you that you would.”

Kakashi sits there for a moment, gathering himself. The walls and ceiling and floor are white. The air conditioner is making a steady humming noise somewhere to his left. The room smells sharply of antiseptic.

He blinks a few times, his vision tinted the color of blood. His eye is burning in his head, and he realizes his Sharingan is still uncovered, rapidly draining his chakra. He quickly pulls his hitai-ate down.

“Are you alright?” Jiraiya asks.

The remnants of the illusion are still clinging to the fringes of his mind. It takes him a moment to focus. When he does, his gaze goes to Sasuke. His eyes are still closed; he appears to be sleeping peacefully.

Kakashi recalls the vivid image of his student, seven years old and curled up in a ball, and he feels sick. How can he look so calm, laying on that bed?

“Kakashi,” Jiraiya prompts, frowning.

Kakashi pulls his gaze from the bed to look at him. “The massacre,” he says. “That’s what he’s seeing. That’s what he’s stuck in.”

Jiraiya’s quiet for a moment. “Aw shit,” he finally sighs, and the words carry a heavy weight to them. “That’s just… fucking hell. Remind me to punch Itachi extra hard when we find him, would you?”

Kakashi stands up, and he’s still not fully there, so the words take a moment to process. He shakes his head, trying to rid his nose of the scent of blood. Itachi’s voice echoes in his head, cold and cruel.

“What?” he asks in surprise, once the sentence finally registers. “When we find him?”

“I talked with Tsunade. She’s going to authorize you to go after him, but I’m coming along.”

Kakashi blinks. He wonders what could have changed her mind, but so long as she did, he honestly doesn’t care. He thinks back to that small child in the corner, and his breath escapes him shakily, his chest tight.

“When do we leave?” he asks.

“Tomorrow morning,” Jiraiya tells him. “I hope you have an idea where to start looking, because I’ve got nothing.”

“I do,” Kakashi assures him.

He turns back to Sasuke’s prone form, remembering the illusion he just saw, and it feels like a hand has wrapped around his lungs, squeezing. Gently, he brushes a strand of hair from the boy’s face.

I’m going to get you out of there, Sasuke. I swear.

 

Chapter Text

“Naruto? Are you alright?”

Naruto blinks, looking up from the spot of the countertop he’s been staring at. “Huh?”

Iruka-sensei is looking at him with a concerned expression. So lost in his head, it takes a moment for the question to register.

“I asked if you were alright,” the teacher repeats. He’s frowning, peering at Naruto closely. “You’ve been staring down at that bowl of ramen for nearly five minutes now. You’ve barely eaten any.”

He stares down at the noodles in front of him, poking them with his chopsticks. It looks delicious, but the thought of eating it makes him feel queasy.

“Just not hungry, I guess.”

Iruka's expression quickly goes from concerned to alarmed. “Okay, now I know something is wrong.” He pauses, then guesses, “Is it Sasuke?”

Naruto grinds his teeth. He jabs at his ramen with more force than before.

Iruka sighs, his face softening with sympathy. “I know you’re worried about him,” he says. “I am, too. But there’s nothing—”

“Do you know what his brother did to him?” Naruto interrupts, anger in his voice. He turns on his stool to look at the chuunin, slapping his chopsticks onto the countertop.

Iruka's expression doesn’t flinch. “I saw him in the hospital,” he says softly.

Naruto’s hands are shaking. It isn’t enough, because those few bruises on Sasuke’s skin don’t come anywhere close to explaining what actually happened to him in that hotel.

“He was screaming,” Naruto whispers, and the memory makes him see red. “Sensei, he just started screaming…”

Naruto doesn’t know how to explain it—doesn’t know how to put into words how brutal it was, how horrifying it felt. Itachi Uchiha…

He shakes his head, clenching his fists as he looks at his old teacher. “What kind of person does something like that?”

Iruka-sensei's eyes are sad. “I don’t know, Naruto.”

Naruto remembers cold eyes and an indifferent expression, the sound of bone snapping. You’re in the way. What he said to Sakura yesterday comes back to him.

(“What was he like?”

“…Cold.”)

“Did you know him?” Naruto asks. “Itachi?”

Iruka shakes his head. “Only by reputation. And he picked Sasuke up from the Academy a few times. But I never actually met him.”

Naruto blinks in surprise. “He did? Really?”

Naruto casts his mind back over five years, to sitting on that swing and watching his classmates with their families. But he doesn’t recall who Sasuke walked home with. Naruto didn’t start paying attention to him until after the massacre.

He wonders what the two of them were like back then. Was Itachi always so cruel? Had there been a time when Sasuke loved him?

Naruto stares down at the ramen in his bowl, twisting it around his chopsticks but never bringing them to his mouth.

“It’s my fault,” he admits.

Your fault?” Iruka repeats in surprise. “What is? Sasuke? How could that possibly be your fault?”

“They were after me,” Naruto says. “After what’s inside me. That’s why Sasuke came. To protect me from his brother.”

Alarm flashes across Iruka’s face at the news that they were after the Kyuubi. “They were after you?”

Naruto winces slightly, wondering if that was something he wasn’t supposed to share. Oops.

“Um,” he says. “Yes.”

Iruka struggles to collect himself. “Okay, but that… that doesn’t make it your fault. Even if Itachi hadn’t been after you, Sasuke would’ve run after him anyway. It would’ve ended the same way.”

Naruto looks down at his food, finally slurping some of his noodles. It’s probably the truth, but it doesn’t make him feel any better.

Stupid Sasuke, he thinks. Always saving me. Who does he think he is?

“You should listen to him,” a familiar voice says.

Naruto turns around. Kakashi stands slightly behind him. He's sporting his usual slumped posture, hands tucked deep into his pockets.

“Sasuke’s one goal in life is to kill his brother,” Kakashi continues, coming around to stand on Naruto’s left. He leans his hip against the counter of the ramen stand. “Maybe he did run after Itachi to protect you. But from what you described to me, Sasuke was running on blind rage. Even if you hadn’t been there, he still would’ve attacked.”

Naruto looks down, remembers how Sasuke rushed into that hallway. Remembers the furious look he gave Naruto when he tried to help. Don’t butt in! Mind your own business! Maybe Sasuke did run after Itachi to protect Naruto. But when he activated that Chidori, he was aiming to kill. Fighting to avenge, not to defend.

(“I’ve waited my whole life for this day… this moment. This fight is mine!”)

No. Sasuke wasn’t fighting for Naruto. Not then.

He was fighting to prove himself.

“Listen to your teacher,” Kakashi says. “It wasn’t about you. Don’t blame yourself.”

Naruto nods, recalling the way Sasuke kept getting up. Over and over again. Trying to make his brother look at him—to see him. He thinks he gets it now.

“You’re right,” he says. “It wasn’t about me.”

Maybe it was at first, when Sasuke first charged after him. But that changed the moment he saw Itachi’s face in that hallway.

Naruto looks up at Kakashi, the memory still bright behind his eyes. “We’re doing something, right?” he asks. “We’re going after him?”

We are not doing anything. Itachi came here to capture you. Now you want to go looking for him? You’d be handing yourself right over to the Akatsuki.”

It takes Naruto a moment to place the name. Right. That’s who Itachi and that other guy said they worked for.

Naruto won’t lie and say it doesn’t scare him. If the rest of these Akatsuki guys are as powerful as Itachi and his partner, then Naruto doesn’t stand a chance. The thought terrifies him.

But he has to do everything he can to help Sasuke. He can’t let him keep suffering like this.

Kakashi seems to remember that Iruka’s sitting there, because his eye widens slightly, his posture straightening.

“You weren’t really supposed to hear that…” He laughs nervously, rubbing the back of his head. “If you could just forget that last thing I said…”

“It’s fine,” says Naruto. “I already told him.”

“You what? Naruto!”

“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to!”

“It’s fine,” Iruka-sensei says, raising his hands. “I didn’t hear anything. In fact, I just remembered I have somewhere to be.” He reaches over to ruffle Naruto’s hair. “Hope you feel better, Naruto.”

He stands from the stool, leaving Naruto and Kakashi alone to speak freely. Naruto turns back to the jounin, picking the conversation back up immediately.

“But what about Sasuke? If Itachi’s the only one—"

Kakashi holds up a hand to silence him. “That’s why I’m here,” he says. “Tsunade-sama's sanctioned the mission to go after Itachi. I came to tell you I’m leaving.”

Naruto jolts in his chair at the news. “You’re going after him, really?!” He pushes himself eagerly from the stool. “Let me go with you—”

“Did you listen to nothing I just said?” Kakashi asks. “I’m not taking you right to the people who want to capture you. Use your brain, Naruto.”

Naruto feels indignant at the words. “Hey!” he yells. “You’re the one being stupid! Or did you forget how quickly Itachi took you out last time? Yeah, I heard about that!”

“That’s exactly my point,” Kakashi responds, not missing a beat. “This is already going to be extremely dangerous. If you came along, I’d have to worry about protecting you, and I can’t have my focus split like that. You understand?”

Naruto clenches his teeth, because yes, he understands, and he hates that he does. He doesn’t want Kakashi to be right. He wants to go with him. But as much as he wants to punch Itachi in the face, he’s not stupid enough to believe he stands a chance against him.

But apparently, neither does Kakashi. Naruto doesn’t know the exact details of the fight, but apparently Itachi dropped him hard last time. Which was a shock to hear, because Kakashi-sensei’s always seemed so powerful.

“But what about you?” he asks. “You can’t go after him alone! He could kill you!”

“Who said I was going alone?”

Naruto blinks, confused. “Huh? But you just said—"

“I said I didn’t want you coming because I don’t want to worry about protecting you. I never said I was going by myself. Jiraiya’s agreed to come with me on this one.”

“Pervy Sage?” he exclaims in surprise. Amusement flickers through Kakashi’s eye, and he nods.

Recalling how quickly Itachi and Kisame fled once Jiraiya showed up, Naruto finds himself very reassured. He also recalls what Jiraiya said later about taking on Itachi and Kisame—not without destroying myself—but that was when he was fighting alone. With Kakashi backing him up, surely the two of them would hold the advantage.

“Well, okay, if Pervy Sage is going with you. Itachi seemed pretty intimidated by him, because he left pretty fast once he showed up…”

But not before taking the time to give Sasuke a beating, Naruto thinks, anger surging just beneath his skin. Remembering the way Itachi turned to look at his brother, as Sasuke stood and faced him with blood-red eyes.

(This fight is mine, Sasuke had declared.

Itachi had sighed, clearly only humoring him. Very well.)

Naruto turns his attention back to his sensei. “You’re leaving right now? Do you even know where he is?”

Kakashi hesitates before he answers. “There have been reports of Kisame in Iwagakure. Itachi hasn’t been sighted, but he’s not as notorious as Kisame is. From what little we know of the Akatsuki, they seem to always travel in pairs. They’ve most likely moved on by now, but if they were there, it’ll have been recent enough that my ninken will be able to pick up their scent.”

Naruto takes in this information. He frowns as he recalls Pakkun following Sasuke's scent through the forest. “They can do that?” Naruto asks. “I thought they had to be familiar with a scent or something like that…”

“They’re familiar with Itachi’s,” Kakashi says shortly. Naruto opens his mouth, but the jounin quickly holds up a hand, interrupting, “No, I can’t tell you how, don’t ask me.”

Naruto huffs, crossing his arms, but he recognizes the tone of Kakashi’s voice. It’s the tone he gets when something is Off Limits, and no amount of prying is going to loosen his lips.

“Fine, fine. Have you told Sakura-chan? She’s been worried about you a lot.”

“I have,” Kakashi replies. “Just before I came here.” His eye curves up in a smile. “And don’t worry, I’ll be careful.”

Naruto feels himself flush in embarrassment at how easily the man saw through him. “I said she was worried about you, not that I was!”

“Of course, of course.” Kakashi’s visible eye is amused. “Well, tell her, then.”

He gives Naruto a farewell wave, and then he’s gone in a gust of wind and leaves.

 


 

After saying goodbye to his students (an unconscious Sasuke included), Kakashi meets Jiraiya at the village entrance.

“Ready to go?” the Sennin asks.

“Ready,” Kakashi replies.

And he is. He won’t lie and say he’s not apprehensive about confronting Itachi, especially so soon after last time—he still can’t close his eyes without finding himself back in that red and white dreamscape, a sword being pushed into his gut—but after what he saw yesterday, his own fear is irrelevant.

Seeing inside Sasuke’s mind, witnessing the torture he’s currently experiencing… it filled him with a cold resolve. That resolve fills him now, chasing away any reluctance he feels.

Seeing Sasuke so vulnerable left him shaken. Over twelve hours later, the image of that helpless child still clings to his mind. Of that seven-year-old boy, curled up in a corner with his face buried in his knees.

He’s unable to forget it. He doubts he ever will.

Jiraiya must see some of these thoughts reflected on his face, because the corner of his mouth pulls down. “I know you’re angry. And you have every right to be. But we can’t rush onto this. You have to keep your head.”

Despite knowing Jiraiya is only being cautious, Kakashi can’t help feeling as if the words are a slight to his skills as a ninja. He tries not to feel too offended.

“You don’t have to worry,” he says. “I know how keep my emotions separate from the mission.”

He wouldn’t have lasted ten years in ANBU if he didn’t.

“I know you do,” Jiraiya responds. “I’m not contesting your capability. But I know how much you care about that kid.”

Kakashi looks at Jiraiya a bit sharply. It’s an astute observation, considering how little interaction the two of them have had recently. “Is it that obvious?”

Jiraiya’s face becomes less serious, a hint of a smile curving his mouth. “I don’t see you care about much. It’s hard not to notice when you do.”

Kakashi doesn’t know how to respond to that. Instead, he turns away, back toward the gates. “Let’s get going. If we make haste, we should be able to make it to Iwagakure in two—”

“ETERNAL RIVAL!”

Kakashi and Jiraiya both freeze. Kakashi watches Jiraiya’s face drop, even as he groans internally. Behind him, there’s the sound of someone landing loudly on their feet.

Maybe if I pretend he’s not there, Kakashi thinks hopefully, then he’ll go away.

“My soul is crying out!” Gai yells passionately. “For I was just given the most shocking of news! Tell me it isn’t true!”

Kakashi sighs. Slowly, he turns to face Gai. He doesn’t waste time playing head games with his rival; he wants to leave now, which means quickly powering through this unwanted conversation.

“If you’re talking about me going after Itachi, then yes. It’s true. And I’m in quite a hurry, Gai.”

“But you can’t!” Gai protests. “After before—you still haven’t completely recovered!”

Jiraiya cuts him a sharp look when he hears this, and Kakashi grinds his teeth, resisting the urge to glare at the green-clad man. “I’m fine. And I’ve got Jiraiya with me. How did you even find out?”

“I went to see Lee at the hospital!” Gai explains. “Your student was there visiting him, and she told me when I asked about you! Since you didn’t tell me—"

Kakashi sighs. Sakura. He resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“Look, Gai,” he attempts to explain. “I would have told you. But I knew you would only try to stop me—”

“You can bet I would have!”

“—and I have to do this,” he says. He looks Gai in the eyes, allows him to see the resolve in his gaze. “I have to do everything in my power to wake him up. I know you can understand that.”

Gai watches him, slightly more subdued than before. “At least allow me to come with you!” he says.

Jiraiya shakes his head before Kakashi can refuse him. “Absolutely not,” he says. “We’re going for subtlety here.”

“I can be subtle!” Gai yells.

Jiraiya raises his eyebrows, as if to say, case in point. Kakashi sighs.

“I need you here,” he says. “I need you to look after my students while I’m gone.”

Gai doesn’t like it. It’s obvious he doesn’t like it. But with a reluctant sigh, he acquiesces. “Fine. But I’m still irritated you didn’t tell me!”

“Great,” says Jiraiya, voice laden with sarcasm. “Can we head out, now?”

“Yeah,” Kakashi replies, “We can head out.” He turns toward the gate, then looks at Gai one last time before he crosses through it with the Sannin. “I’ll see you soon, Gai.”

Gai looks at him, uncharacteristically serious. “Be careful, Kakashi.”

Kakashi’s eye curves up in an expression meant to be reassuring. “I always am.”

As he and Jiraiya both use a shunshin to flicker away, Kakashi hears Gai’s last words, carried to him on the wind. The man's voice is heavy with worry.

“If only that were true…”

 

Chapter Text

“We should wait until the girl leaves,” Kidōmaru says. “We can sneak in and grab Sasuke then.”

Tayuya feels a burst of irritation toward her teammate. Her hands tighten on the rail in front of her, staring down at the hospital window below them. Inside, a pink-haired kunoichi is sitting by Sasuke Uchiha’s bedside.

“She’s just some stupid girl,” she snaps. “Even Jirōbō could take her out.”

“Thanks,” Jirōbō says in his deep voice. Then he seems to realize he’s being insulted, because he scowls. “Hey.”

“Orochimaru-sama said no witnesses,” Kidōmaru reminds her. His tone is a shade disapproving, and Tayuya feels her temper flare in response.

“I know that, shithead,” she snarls. “But the damn bitch isn’t moving. We’ll be sitting here all day if we wait for her to leave.”

Tayuya,” Jirōbō says with a frown, drawing her name out slowly. “Women really shouldn’t use words like that. Especially to describe other women.”

Tayuya snaps her teeth, not looking at him. “Shut up, fat ass.”

Beside her, a familiar laugh rings out. Either Sakon or Ukon. She can never tell which; their laughs sound exactly the same.

“But Jirōbō,” one of them says, and she can tell that it’s Sakon now by the condescending tone. “That would imply that Tayuya is an actual girl, which we all know she’s never been—”

Tayuya sees red. She snaps her head toward her conjoined teammate, her eyes flashing. “Shut up, you piece of shit!”

He just cackles, and she whips her head away, her bottom lip curling. Sometimes, Tayuya wonders if she’s the only one of her teammates with an actual working brain.

Her and Kimimaro, of course, but his death is quickly approaching. Ukon and Sakon have already started calling them the Sound Four instead of the Sound Five.

“Tayuya's right,” Sakon tells Kidōmaru. “Let’s just kill the girl and grab the Uchiha brat. I can do it myself. Ukon's running low on patience, and you know how he can get.”

Tayuya looks over her shoulder at the other half of Sakon's body. But Ukon’s face is tilted down, shadowed completely by his hair.

“Besides,” Sakon continues, and his turquoise lips curve into a smile, “I’m the leader, so all of you have to do what I say.”

Tayuya feels indignant anger burst inside her at the claim. “What? You’re the leader? When the fuck did we make that decision, because I definitely wasn’t there!”

“Kimimaro is dying,” Sakon says. “He has weeks left, maybe less. It falls to the strongest of us to take his place—”

“And you think you’re the strongest!?”

“It certainly isn’t you,” he replies, lips twisting. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the way I shoved your face into the dirt inside that gladiator ring.”

Tayuya feels herself flush with a combination of anger and humiliation. “Shut your mouth! I’ll cut out your fucking tongue!”

She will never forget the shame of that moment—surrounded by the dozens of other prisoners as Sakon pressed her face against the ground. The gravel had been rough against her face, and she had choked on the dirt in her mouth; Sakon's breath had been hot against her ear as he had pinned her body beneath his, whispering, I win.

Orochimaru-sama saved her from that hell. She gave up everything to leave that place behind and gain the power he promised her—even her own freedom.

If Sasuke Uchiha is smart, he’ll do the same.

“Both of you be quiet,” Kidōmaru says, casting them a chiding glance. “Security is lax, not nonexistent. You’ll give us away.”

“All the more reason why we should just grab the kid and go,” she snaps. “Kill the girl, knock her out, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been standing here way too goddamned long.”

“I agree with them, Kidōmaru,” Jirōbō tells him. “Let’s just kill the girl, grab the kid, and get out of here.”

Kidōmaru’s lips become thin, but Tayuya sees the moment he reluctantly acquiesces. “Fine. But we’ll wait a few more minutes. It looks like she might be leaving…”

 


 

Sakura holds Sasuke’s hand as she sits next to him. In the week that he’s been here, he hasn’t moved at all, and Sakura’s heart breaks every time she looks at him.

She doesn’t know how long she’s been here, but it’s long enough that her throat has begun to tire from speaking for so long. Her muscles begin to cramp, and her grip on Sasuke’s hand grows uncomfortable and sweaty. Her parents are probably looking for her.

Still, she's reluctant to leave. She doesn’t want to leave him alone.

She knows that it’s silly and childish. That there’s no way he can know that she’s there. But it’s comforting to her to imagine that he does know; that somewhere beneath the genjutsu, he can sense her presence.

Maybe he’s clinging to her voice right now, struggling to drag himself out. It’s a foolish hope, but it keeps her talking to him, even after she’s run out of things to say.

“And Kakashi-sensei left this morning,” she continues to speak to him. “Though he told me he came to see you, so I guess you already knew that.”

She stares down at her thumb against the back of his hand. Her hand fits in his so easily, as if it’s meant to be there. For some reason, this thought causes her to blink back tears.

She moves her gaze from their hands to his face. Her eyes trace his features, lingering on his closed eyelids. There’s a small scar on his upper lip, a faint line that looks years old. She wonders how she didn’t notice it until now.

What’s it from? she wonders, resisting the urge to reach over and trace it with her finger. She wishes more than anything that she could ask him.

It’s just a small scar, completely inconsequential, but to her it’s just a reminder that she hardly knows anything about him. That she never made any effort to try.

And now, she might never get the chance.

Don’t think like that, she chides herself, forcing away the sharp spike of fear in her chest. Kakashi-sensei’s going to find Itachi. He’s going to fix this. He promised.

Sakura sighs and reluctantly pulls her hand away. She stands from the chair, her muscles slightly sore from not moving for so long. She stares down at Sasuke for one last moment and wonders what he’s seeing—wonders what horrors his brother’s genjutsu are showing him.

“We’re going to wake you up, Sasuke-kun,” she says. “Just hold on a little longer.”

She struggles to pull away, to take those final steps out of the room. A sudden knock causes her to finally pull her gaze away from Sasuke, turning it to the door.

“Ino,” Sakura says. She quickly gets over her surprise, moving closer to Sasuke’s side and grabbing his hand again. Her eyes narrow. “What are you doing here?”

Ino steps into the room cautiously. She looks as pretty as she always does, which serves to irritate Sakura. She knows how worn and tired she must look in comparison.

It makes her hate Ino more than she already does. Sakura’s world is falling apart, and Ino still looks perfect.

“How is Sasuke-kun?” she asks. “Asuma-sensei told us he’s in a coma. Is it true that there’s nothing being done?”

Sakura feels her heart constrict painfully. She tightens her grip on Sasuke’s hand possessively, her gaze steely. “Do you care?”

She knows she’s being a bit unfair. Ino did ask her about Sasuke a few days ago, and she sounded genuinely worried. She sounds worried now, too. But she also looks so unaffected. She’s perfectly put together where Sakura is falling apart, and it makes Sakura feel weak. It makes her feel like she’s losing.

After their match during the preliminaries, she thought she was done losing to Ino. She thought she was done feeling lesser than her.

“Of course I care!” Ino yells. Her expression twists into something more familiar as she glares. “You’re not the only one who cares about Sasuke-kun, Forehead Girl!”

Sakura feels herself go red. “Shut up, Ino-pig!” she snaps. It’s so easy to fall back into their old pattern. As if their match during the Chuunin Exams never happened. “It’s been over a week! And you’re only coming to see him now?!”

Ino opens her mouth to snipe back at her, but then she pauses. Something flickers in her eyes, and she sighs, the fight seeming to drain out of her

“Can we not fight, please?” she asks. “That’s not what I came here for.”

Her voice sounds suddenly tired. Sakura pauses, watching her face. Her expression seems sincere, but Sakura isn’t sure if she can believe her. It’s been so long since she and Ino talked civilly.

She presses her lips together tightly. “Fine,” she agrees, her expression cautious. “What did you come here for, then?”

Ino hesitates. There’s an unsureness to her that’s at odds with her usual personality. “I—”

The hospital window shatters. Sakura shrieks in surprise, ducking down and protecting her head with her arms. She slams her eyes closed, feeling shards of glass cut into her skin.

“What the fuck, you moron!” a female voice yells. “You’re going to bring the guards right to us!”

“It wasn’t me, it was Ukon! I warned you he was getting impatient!”

Sakura blinks spots from her vision. She’s on the ground, glass all around her, and her mind spins, trying to process what happened in the last couple of seconds. She tries to push herself up, but the glass slices into her palm, sharp pain shooting through her arm.

There are four people in front of her, who just smashed through the window. They look older than her by a few years; Sakura doesn’t recognize any of them.

“So much for being inconspicuous,” one of them says. The one with dark skin. “Orochimaru-sama isn’t going to be pleased.”

Orochimaru. The name startles her, and that’s when she notices the hitai-ate one of them is wearing. Otogakure. They’re Sound ninja.

Sakura feels fear shoot through her. She looks behind her immediately, realizing their target. Sasuke-kun…!

Doe!”

One of her ribs snaps sharply, and she’s propelled into the air by an invisible force. Sakura gasps, her vision going white. She chokes on the cry that tries to leave her mouth.

“Sakura!”

The voice is Ino's, but Sakura can’t respond. The pain is sharper than anything she’s ever felt, and it narrows the world down so that it’s the only thing that exists.

Ray!”

Again, she feels bone snap, the world spinning. Her lips are wet, and she chokes on blood.

Me!”

She slams into the ground as a third rib breaks, and she huddles there, curled in on herself. Her chest is on fire, and there’s blood forcing it’s way up her throat, and each time she coughs her vision goes dark around the edges.

For a moment, she blacks out. Only for a few seconds. The agony pulls her quickly back.

One of the Sound ninjas is standing in front of her. His turquoise lips are quilted in a sadist smirk. Terror explodes in her gut, but she forces herself to breathe through it.

She can’t move. Trying makes her vision go dim. But desperation burns in her chest, stronger than the agonizing pain, and she drags herself across the floor. Blood dribbles past her lips.

“Your bones play a lovely tune,” the blue-haired Sound ninja says, but the words distort in Sakura’s ears.

She grabs the sheet of the hospital bed. Her chest is on fire, she can barely breathe, and her vision keeps going black. But she pulls herself in front of Sasuke anyway, shielding him.

You’re not going to take him, she thinks desperately. The metal frame bites into her back. I won’t let you take him…

With a playful smirk, the blue-haired ninja kicks at her knees. Sakura falls, but she grabs Sasuke’s arm, her nails digging into his skin. She blacks out again, the word spinning, but she clings to his arm and anchors herself back.

She shakes as she struggles not to collapse—weak, pathetic, useless—but she puts her body in front of his and refuses to move.

I won’t let you take him.

“Oh, for fuck's sake!” the female voice yells.  “Just kill her already! Stop playing around, you shithead!”

The Sound ninja in front of her smirks. “You’re right, Tayuya. She’s too weak to have any fun with, anyway.”

A hand reaches down. She’s yanked into the air by the front of her shirt, away from Sasuke. Her ribs are jostled, and her vision goes dark. A pain shoots through her, sharper than before, and she gasps.

“Don’t touch her!”

The voice is familiar, and Sakura knows she should know who it is. But pain sends her mind quickly falling into darkness.

 

 

Ino knows it will leave her body defenseless. She knows if she does it, she’ll be killed the second they notice what she’s doing.

She doesn’t care. Seeing Sakura about to die ignites in her a fury she didn’t know she possessed.

Shintenshin no Jutsu!”

Fighting through the webs trapping her arms, she brings her thumbs and two forefingers together, focusing on the female ninja behind Sakura’s attacker. She leaves her own body behind, catapulted into someone else's.

Transferring minds with someone else can be disorienting, but Ino doesn’t hesitate to move. Using hands that aren’t her own, she grabs the back of the ninja holding Sakura.

Gross, Ino thinks. Is that another head? On one body?

The blue-haired ninja drops Sakura in surprise. “Hey! Tayuya—”

Ino throws him over her shoulder, then delivers a solid kick that sends him flying through the broken window.

“Sakon!” one of the others yells. The chubby one. He pins his gaze on his female teammate accusingly. “Tayuya! What the hell?”

“She’s a Yamanaka!” the other one yells. He spins around, a kunai suddenly in his hand, and he spins for Ino's prone body, aiming for the throat.

Ino panics. She releases Tayuya from her Mind Transfer Jutsu. Inside her own body again, she jerks her own head up wildly, but she’s defenseless to do anything against the strike.

She stares as the kunai comes down, her own heartbeat roaring in her ears. A thousand memories flash through her mind in the space of a single second.

Sakura. I’m sorry—

A green blur comes out of nowhere. Ino blinks, and suddenly her attacker is on the ground, his neck twisted at an impossible angle. She stares at him with wide eyes, then lifts her gaze to her rescuer.

“Fear not!” Might Gai says. He strikes a fierce pose that would be comical if Ino wasn’t so stunned. “Konoha's Blue Beast has arrived to protect you!”

Ino struggles to catch her breath, her eyes darting back to the body on the ground. The two Sound ninja remaining stare at their fallen comrade in shock.

“You bastard—!” the female yells. Her face contorts with rage. She throws herself at Gai recklessly, eyes burning, but her heavier companion catches her around the waist, easily restraining her.

“Tayuya! Tayuya, stop! We have to go!”

“He killed Kidōmaru!” she screeches, struggling desperately to free herself from his arms. “I’ll kill him! I’ll fucking kill him—!”

“Do you know who he is? We have to go now—”

Fuck you, you worthless piece of shit—”

With one last look at Sasuke’s unconscious form, and a heartbroken look at the body of his comrade, the heavyset Oto-nin wraps his arms tighter around his screaming comrade, then drags her through the window.

Ino can still hear her screams after they’re gone.

She lets herself breathe, her body slumping in relief. I’m alive, she realizes, and she feels like collapsing.

The relief is short-lived. Sakura, she remembers not even a second later. Panic fills her chest, and she rushes to her rival's side falling to her knees.

“Gai-sensei—” she calls, but the green-clad man is already there, scooping Sakura up into his arms. She doesn’t stir.

Fear clogs Ino's throat. “Is she—will she—"

Gai looks down at the pink-haired girl in his arms, frowning. “She will be fine,” he says, after what seems to Ino like forever. “Nothing Tsunade-sama cannot fix, but I must get her to her immediately.”

Ino nods. She has a thousand questions, but the sight of Sakura looking so crumpled makes all of them flee her mind at once. She blinks tears from her eyes

Gai looks down at her thoughtfully. After a moment, he settles a hand on her shoulder. “You did good here,” he says, unusually subdued. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”

Ino shakes her head, remembering the way Sakura fought through her pain to drag herself in front of Sasuke—defending him to what she thought was her last breath. Her throat burns.

“I didn’t do anything,” she says.

“This won’t happen again,” Gai promises. “There will be ANBU posted by all of the entrances. Someone will be by to clean up this mess. Are you unhurt?”

“I’m fine,” Ino answers. She’s shaken, and she can’t get her hands to stop trembling, but aside from a few scrapes, she hasn’t been harmed. “I’ll stay here until then.”

Gai leaves with Sakura through the broken window. Ino collapses in the chair by Sasuke’s bed. There’s a dead body three feet away from her, and she can’t stop herself from glancing at it. She remembers the blue-haired ninja she tosses out the window, and she presses a hand over her mouth.

Is he dead? she wonders, and fights the urge to be sick. Did I kill him? I've never killed anyone before…

She buries her face in her hands, her entire body shaking. She’s still sitting like that when Asuma-sensei finds her twenty minutes later.

 

Chapter Text

Sakura Haruno has three cracked ribs and a punctured aorta. Tsunade spends two hours kneeling by the girl’s side, painstakingly healing the damage.

When she’s finished, the feel of blood on her hands causes her chest to tighten in panic. Her breathing becomes short. She shoves her shaking hands under the faucet, struggling to banish the memory of her palms pushing against Dan's chest, his life slipping away beneath her hands.

Disgust at her own weakness surges within her. What kind of medic falls apart at the sight of blood?

This is why she left. This is why she ran. She was afraid of the ghosts she had left behind her.

Dan. Nowaki.

(Orochimaru.)

She pulls herself together, drying her hands and forcing them to stop trembling. She shuts it down and locks it away, donning the face of a Hokage as she exits the hospital’s restroom.

Sasuke Uchiha’s room is just down the hall from where Sakura has been placed. When Tsunade enters, Gai is leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. He’s frowning down at the blood and glass on the floor, his expression troubled.

“Did you talk with Sakura’s parents?” Tsunade asks.

Gai pulls his gaze around to look at her. The shoulder of his green jumpsuit is stained red. “Yes, they’re with her now. I also talked with Ino about what happened before I arrived. She said that the attackers were trying to capture Sasuke, not kill him.”

Tsunade’s lips thinned. “Orochimaru.”

Gai nods, his face grim. “Yes. She said one of them mentioned his name.”

Tsunade grits her teeth. Her nails bite into her skin. Stupid, she berates herself. I should have placed a guard on him.

She knew about Orochimaru’s interest in the boy. She knew about the curse mark and the kidnapping attempt by Kabuto Yakushi. She was briefed on the situation when she was inaugurated as Hokage. She should have predicted that the Sound would make another attempt. She should have put safety measures in place.

But she didn’t. She didn’t, and two children nearly died because of it.

“How is Ino?” she asks him. “You’re sure she wasn’t hurt?”

He shakes his head. “No, nothing beyond a few scratches. She seemed alright when I spoke to her. A bit shaken up, but mostly just worried about her friend. Asuma is with her.”

Tsunade nods, relief allowing the knot in her chest to loosen. She’ll have to pay Asuma a visit later; he no doubt has questions about what caused his student to nearly get killed.

Gai sighs heavily, looking toward Sasuke on the bed. He was completely undisturbed by the earlier attack. Tsunade doesn’t thing she’s ever seen a genjutsu so powerful.

“I should have been quicker to arrive!” the taijutsu expert says, his jaw clenched. “What am I going to tell Kakashi? Now two of his students are in the hospital! I promised to watch out for them while he was gone!”

Gai’s eyes are practically flaming with self-recrimination. Tsunade purses her lips.

“You did watch out for them. If you hadn’t been there, Sakura and Ino would have been killed, and Sasuke would be halfway to Otogakure by now. It’s my fault. I should’ve placed this room under watch.”

She presses her lips together, still kicking herself. Her eyes move over the room, and she grimaces at the broken window. Her gaze falls to the floor littered with shards of glass, lingering on the smears of blood on the white tile.

“I’m having Sasuke moved to a different room,” she decides. “And I’m posting four ANBU at his door at all times. Something like this will not happen again.”

Gai nods. “I’ll watch over him, too. Kakashi asked me to, and I’m here with Lee most days, anyway.”

Memory sparks at the young boy’s name. A young genin laid up in the hospital a floor down, fighting against his own broken body.

“About Lee,” she says, and Gai looks at her with a spark in his eyes. “I’ve been exploring more options for his surgery. I believe I might have found a way to increase his chances.”

Gai straightens, his slumped posture disappearing. “Really!?”

“Not by much,” she warns him, before he can get too excited. “There’s still going to be a big risk involved. But I think I may be able to give him more than a fifty-fifty chance of survival.”

“Any improvement is enough!” Gai proclaims. “Oh, to know that Lee might still get the chance to continue in his springtime of youth—! It is wonderful news! Thank you!”

Tsunade rolls her eyes, but her lips quirk slightly. “You’re welcome. I’ll keep you updated on any progress I make.”

She leaves before he can start making her ears ring.

 


 

When Sakura wakes up a few hours later, Ino is sitting at her bedside.

Bright light assaults her eyes, and her head spins. She blinks her eyes rapidly, staring at the slumped girl in the chair. Her thoughts are so hazy and confused, it takes her a moment to make sense of what she’s seeing.

“Ino?” she questions, her eyebrows furrowed.

Ino’s head snaps up, her body straightening out of its slump. “Sakura!” she says, her eyes flooding with relief. “You’re awake!”

Sakura blinks, pushing herself up into a sitting position. Then suddenly there are a pair of arms around her neck, a body pressed against hers. Sakura’s eyes go wide in surprise. Ino’s hair gets in her mouth.

Ino’s hugging me, Sakura registers, frozen in place as her mind struggles to catch up. Why is Ino hugging me?

Ino pulls back quickly, looking almost embarrassed by the display. “Sorry,” she says. “I’m just… I’m glad you’re okay.”

Sakura stares at her, then begins to take in her surroundings. She’s sitting on a hospital bed, but she doesn’t feel hurt. Slowly, previous events catch up to her.

“Sasuke-kun!” she exclaims, once she remembers. Her eyes go wide, her heartrate picking up. “Is he—?”

“He’s fine,” Ino assures her. “Gai-sensei got there just in time. He saved us. They’re moving Sasuke-kun to a new room. I think I heard Godaime-sama say something about guards.”

Sakura remembers how to breathe. She presses her hand to her chest, recalling the terror that filled her as she crawled across the floor, dragging herself in front of Sasuke. She recalls the taste of blood in her mouth, choking her. The sharp snap of her ribs…

She shudders, a wave of fear crashing over her. I nearly died…

Sakura’s been close to death before. The Land of Waves. The Forest of Death. Gaara. But for some reason, this time it really hits her. She’s never felt more aware of how fragile she is. How easily her bones can break, her life can slip away.

The beat of her heart is steady beneath her palm. She holds her hand there, allowing it to reassure her.

“Are you okay?” Ino asks. Her expression is creased in worry. “You look really pale. Should I get a nurse?”

Sakura shakes her head. “No, I’m okay.” She remembers Ino, calling out to her just before she fell unconscious, and she frowns. “Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“I’m okay.”

Sakura nods, reassured. Her chest feels slightly sore, but she doesn’t seem to be injured anymore. Tsunade-sama must have healed her.

“Do my parents know?” she asks.

“They were here earlier. I saw Tsunade-sama talking to them in the hallway, but I don’t think they’re here anymore.”

Sakura processes this, and decides she should probably go looking for them. Despite her close encounters with death, she’s never been injured like this before. They were probably terrified when they heard.

A lot of the time, Sakura feels guilty for neglecting her parents so much. But they don’t understand what shinobi life is like. They don’t understand her.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Ino says. “I was so scared for you.”

Sakura looks at her in surprise. “You were?”

Ino nods, and Sakura sees a glimpse of her old friend reflected in her eyes. The one who pushed her bangs back and taught her not to hide behind them.

“I missed you,” she admits quietly. “That’s why I was at the hospital. I wanted to see you. I wanted to try and be friends again.”

Sakura stares at her in surprise, her lips parting silently. She doesn’t know what to say. It wasn’t too long ago that she and Ino left their friendship behind, but it feels like a lifetime. She never expected that Ino might ever wish to rekindle it.

(She never considered that, deep down, Ino might feel the same way that she does.)

“But… but what about Sasuke-kun?” she asks.

Ino straightens confidently, and she looks more like herself. “He’s still going to be mine, of course. But I don’t see why that should have anything to do with us.”

Sakura’s first instinct is to snap back at her. Sasuke will be hers, not Ino's! He’s barely ever even spoken to her!

But she bites her tongue, holding the sharp words behind her teeth. Because she does miss Ino. She misses talking about boys with her, and braiding flowers into each other’s hair. She misses sleepovers, and laughter, and the reassurance of knowing she has someone standing beside her.

She misses her friend. She has Naruto and Sasuke, but it isn’t the same.

“I think I’d like that,” she says softly.

Ino smiles. She leans forward to hug Sakura again. This time, Sakura hugs her back.

“But Sasuke-kun’s definitely mine, not yours,” she can’t resist adding.

Ino pulls back quickly, her face twisting in a familiar expression of anger. “He is not! Just because you’re on the same team as him now doesn’t mean—"

There’s a loud bang as the door is thrown open. Naruto stands there, his blue eyes wide. He looks as though he’s been running.

“Sakura!” he yells. “There you are!”

“Knock much, Naruto?” Ino says, scowling. Naruto ignores her.

“I heard you were attacked by Sound ninja! Is it true they were after Sasuke? Are you okay?”

She and Ino share a look. Ino sighs.

“I’ll just go now,” she says. “Asuma-sensei is probably looking for me. I’ll see if I can find your parents to tell them you’re up.”

She slips out the door behind Naruto. Sakura turns her attention to her teammate.

“I’m okay, Naruto,” she says. “Tsunade-sama healed me.”

“What happened? I heard Choji and Shikamaru talking—they said you and Ino were almost killed!”

Sakura winces. “It was Orochimaru. He sent a group of ninja to kidnap Sasuke-kun.”

Naruto blinks. “Orochimaru?” Anger flashes across his face at the mention of the man who killed the Sandaime. “What does he want with Sasuke?”

Realization hits Sakura, and her eyes widen. He doesn’t know, she realizes. Sasuke made her promise not to tell him about the mark on his neck, but Sakura assumed that Kakashi must have told Naruto at some point.

She wrestles with herself for a moment, unsure of what to do. She made Sasuke a promise. But Naruto deserved to know…

Sakura sighs. “Let’s take a walk, okay? There’s something that you should probably know about…”

 

 

Orochimaru did what?!”

Sakura winces at Naruto's volume, as several people on the streets turn their heads to look at them. She waits until they turn away to respond.

“Gave him a curse mark,” she repeats, casting him a careful look. “Keep your voice down. I don’t think anyone is supposed to know about it.”

You did,” Naruto says, shaking his head. His teeth are clenched. “Kakashi-sensei did.”

“I only know because I was there when it happened,” Sakura tells him. “I saw…”

Sakura trails off, remembering that horrible moment in the Forest of Death. She has nightmares about that day; about Sasuke’s body covered in black markings, a cruel smile on his lips as he snapped the Sound ninja’s arms.

She shudders and forces the memory away. Whatever that thing was, it wasn’t Sasuke.

“I saw it,” she repeats. “I don’t know how Kakashi-sensei found out. He just seemed to know. Sasuke-kun didn’t want anyone else to know. He asked me not to tell you.”

Sakura shifts as she remembers her promise, feeling guilty. She knows that telling Naruto about the mark is probably the right thing to do; but she hates that she’s betraying Sasuke-kun's trust.

Please don’t be angry when you wake up, she pleads.

Naruto huffs. His blue eyes are bright with annoyance. “That bastard! We’re supposed to be a team, dattebayo! We can’t be keeping secrets—"

He cuts himself off abruptly, a strange emotion flickering across his face. He looks almost abashed by his words, followed by an expression of extreme discomfort.

“What?” Sakura asks.

“Nothing,” he says quickly. He runs the back of his head and smiles nervously. “I mean, I guess secrets aren’t always bad. We need secrets. Secrets are—secrets are good sometimes, ya know?”

Sakura frowns at him for a long moment. Naruto fidgets as they walk down the street, refusing to meet her eyes.

“You’re being weird,” she tells him.

“No I’m not! What’s with this curse mark thing, anyway? Why Sasuke? What’s Orochimaru want with him?”

Sakura easily recognizes the words as the change of subject they’re meant to be, but she allows it. Whatever Naruto’s being so strange about is probably something stupid, anyway.

“I don’t know. He said that Sasuke-kun would come looking for him in search of power.”

Naruto frowns for a moment, then shakes his head. “No way! Sasuke would never do that! He’s already really powerful!”

Sakura swallows, and thinks about Sasuke in the Forest of Death. She thinks about black marks decorating his skin, about the cruel smile pulling at his lips as he snapped that Sound ninja’s arms.

“Yeah,” she says, and tries to sound like she believes it as much as he does. “Of course he wouldn’t.”

Orochimaru must see that now, she tries to convince herself. Otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to kidnap him…

The both of them are silent for a few moments as they walk. The day is bleeding into evening. She should really go see her parents and make sure they know she’s okay. They’re probably worrying themselves sick.

“It’s getting a bit late,” she says. “What are you going to do now?”

Naruto shrugs. “I don’t know. Go home, I guess. Iruka-sensei’s been too busy to hang out today. And Pervy Sage and Kakashi-sensei are both gone, so…”

Sakura watches him, and something about his face feels wrong. He’s smiling widely, like he always does, but the look in his eyes doesn’t match. They aren’t as bright as they normally are.

It hits her, quite suddenly, how lonely he must be.

“Naruto,” Sakura says hesitantly. “I was going to go home to have dinner with my parents. Did you… maybe want to come with me?”

He stares at her, his face dumbfounded. And it makes her even sadder, because he shouldn’t look so surprised by someone asking him over for dinner.

“Really?” he asks, eyes wide.

“Really,” she affirms.

And Naruto’s answering smile is brighter than the sun.

 

Chapter Text

Fifty-five percent.

Tsunade stares down at the papers of research in front of her, the end of her pen held between her teeth. She frowns down at the calculations that she’s marked in red. 

Fifty-five percent chance of survival. That’s only an increase of five percent. If Lee chooses to undergo this operation, then he still has a forty-five percent chance of dying.

Not good enough. I can do better.

Her teeth bite down harder on the end of her pen. Leaning forward, her eyes zero in on some of the newer calculations she’s made up. If the problem lies in Lee’s body not being strong enough to hold up during the procedure…

The sound of the door opening interrupts her concentration. Her head snaps up, prepared to snap at whoever it is for entering without an invitation, and then she freezes, her pen still in her mouth.

“Danzo,” she says in surprise, pulling the pen back from her mouth.

“Tsunade,” the man responds, leaning heavily on his cane. “I see that chair is treating you well.”

A frown pulls at her lips. She knows that Danzo has been a longtime campaigner for the Hokage’s seat, and she doesn’t appreciate the undercurrent she hears in his voice.

She watches him warily. She knows he was an honored friend to her sensei—and to her great-uncle. But she doesn’t trust him. She never has.

“Was there something you needed?” she asks.

Danzo turns, walking steadily toward the window. He braces his hands on the window sill, looking out over the village. “You can say that.”

He doesn’t look at her when he speaks. Tsunade feels herself bristle at his complete lack of respect.

“I’m concerned about the recent mission you sanctioned,” he says. “The capture and retrieval of Itachi Uchiha.”

Tsunade tenses very slightly. She doesn’t know how he’s obtained this information so fast, but she doesn’t like it. Especially since she’s been trying to keep quiet about it.

Something that she’s learned since taking up the position of Hokage is that the Elders are notorious busybodies. They just don’t know when to keep their noses out.

“I don’t believe that’s any of your business,” she tells him. 

Her voice skates thinly on the line of still being polite. He turns from the window to face her.

“Itachi Uchiha is one of the most dangerous shinobi that Konoha has ever produced. The decision to try to bring him in alive is a foolish one.”

Tsunade’s irritation grows at the way he speaks—as if he is the one in the room with the power, not her. Her jaw tightens.

“You must have heard about Sasuke Uchiha’s condition,” she says. “Attempting to capture Itachi is a risk, but it’s our only option. I won’t stand by and watch an innocent child suffer.”

Danzo’s expression doesn’t change. There isn’t so much as a flicker in his eye. “Sasuke’s situation is unfortunate. But his life is not worth the lives of two of our most valuable resources.”

Tsunade’s mouth twists slightly, imagining how Jiraiya would react to being referred to as such. “Those resources volunteered for the mission themselves. Why are you so certain they will fail?”

She will not lie and say that she has not feared the same; that Kakashi and Jiraiya will be killed, and that she’ll have to send out a member of ANBU to dispose of their bodies. But fear can often times be irrational, and she knows how powerful Jiraiya is. And Itachi may have a leg up on Kakashi, but she knows that his strength is nothing to scoff at, either. He’s one of the best jounin Konoha has.

They will succeed in this. If she didn’t believe that, then she never would have agreed to send them out.

“If the mission succeeds,” Danzo says, ignoring her question, “then what will you do with him, after he wakes his brother? Kill him?”

“He’s a member of the Akatsuki,” Tsunade responds. “The information he carries is invaluable. Killing him would be an utter waste of resources.”

It’s a risk, of course. Keeping an enemy alive, instead of executing them at the earliest opportunity, always is. But war is steadily approaching them, and their enemy is an organization that is nearly completely unknown; they need all the information they can get.

Danzo’s eye narrows, his gaze sharp. “Do not be a fool, Tsunade. He’s not going to give you anything.”

“He’ll be interrogated by T&I,” she says firmly. “He’ll cough up every shred of intel he has, or someone will dig into his mind and rip it out. And they won’t bother to be gentle when doing it.”

“You forget, Itachi was ANBU. They are trained to resist such methods of interrogation.”

“Everyone breaks, if you apply the right pressure. Even Itachi Uchiha.”

Danzo’s mouth becomes slanted, the expression pulling at the x-shaped scar on his chin. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Tsunade. I hope you’re prepared to deal with the fallout.”

Tsunade narrows her eyes dangerously. “Meaning?”

“Simply that you’re known for losing most of your gambles.” He turns around abruptly, walking back over to the door. “Be wary of the threads you choose to pull. You might just spell Konoha’s destruction.”

With those parting words, he pulls the door open and exits the way he came. Tsunade is left staring at the place where he was standing, something dark and suspicious curling in her gut.

What are you up to? she wonders, her eyebrows furrowed. How does Itachi Uchiha fit into this for you?

She sits there thinking about it for a long time. She’s left with a dozen half-formed questions, and not a single answer for any of them.

 


 

It doesn’t take Itachi long to realize they’re being followed.

Kisame doesn’t notice. He’s too busy keeping up a steady stream of chatter about the bounty mission they’ve just completed. Itachi tunes him out, his senses honing in on the chakra signatures tailing them.

He can’t tell if they’re familiar or not. They’re keeping a distance of at least a quarter mile, and Itachi isn’t a sensory type; he can’t sense them well enough from this far away. Their chakra is only the slightest brush against his awareness.

“Stop,” Itachi says, his mouth pulling into a frown.

Kisame halts immediately, in both his movements and his speech. He looks at Itachi in question. “What?”

“We’ve picked up a tail.”

Kisame frowns. He turns to look over his right shoulder. “I don’t sense anyone.”

“Maybe you would if you learned the importance of stilling your tongue.”

His partner casts him a look of mild offense. “Rude. Do you recognize who they are?”

Itachi stretches his senses out as far as they go, trying to get a better read on them. But it’s no use; their chakra brushes against his mind like a static shock, purposefully muted. He can’t glean anything from it.

“No, they’re too far away.” He presses his lips into a thin line. “You go deliver our package to the Tsuchikage. I’ll go investigate.”

The ‘package' Itachi is speaking of is the powerful nuke-nin the Akatsuki is being charged by Iwagakure to capture. He’s currently unconscious, thrown carelessly over Kisame’s sword.

Kisame looks displeased by Itachi’s proposal. “By yourself?”

“We need to complete our mission quickly, before Leader-sama contacts us again,” Itachi reminds him. “And you’ll draw too much attention. If you come with me, we’ll just end up in a fight.”

Kisame bares his teeth in a shark-like grin. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“It’s unnecessary. I’m not in the mood to indulge your whims.”

“You rarely are.” His partner sighs, hefting Samehada higher on his shoulder as their package threatens to slip off the end. “Well alright, deal with them then. I’ll go on ahead and collect the bounty.”

Kisame leaves. Itachi stretches his senses out again, latching onto the two distant chakra signatures. He debates sending out a crow to scout them first, but decides that would take too long. Pain is expecting them soon.

He pulls his chakra tightly around himself, making his own signature as small as possible, and he manipulates some of the chakra at his feet, making his footsteps soundless. It’s not true cloaking, but it’s the closest that a ninja can manage without a seal.

The thick forest he’s in provides him with excellent cover. The chakra signatures are still about five hundred yards away. It appears that they have stopped briefly.

Resting? Itachi wonders. If they are, then that implies that they’ve been following him and Kisame for a quite a while. And I only just noticed them.

Whoever they are, they’re skilled. Highly trained in the art of stealth. Even now, their presence is difficult to sense.

He hears them before he sees them. Their voices are quiet, but they still carry through the trees.

“—need a game plan. Attacking both of them at once is suicide.”

“This entire mission is suicide.”

Itachi tenses at the voices. One of them is much more familiar than the other, but he recognizes both of them immediately. Kakashi. And Jiraiya.

Itachi tightens his jaw, reassessing his options. He wasn’t expecting one of the Sannin.

He doesn’t move out any further, just presses himself against the trunk of a tree. He listens to their conversation, hoping it might reveal what they’re doing out here. If they came on some fool's errand to capture him, then he can just shake them off his tail without confronting them.

Still, he can’t make sense of why they would even try it. He already took Kakashi down once. Why risk it?

(And why would the Elders let them risk it? They would never want him captured—not when it would be so easy for him to reveal all their secrets.)

“—one who agreed to come along,” Kakashi is saying. His voice is less than five yards away. “Don’t tell me you’re backing out now?”

“Of course not! You think I’m scared of some teenage brat?”

It takes Itachi a second to realize that the words are referring to him. He wonders if he should feel offended.

“That teenage brat is also an S-rank criminal who slaughtered one of the most powerful clans singlehandedly.”

“Semantics,” the Toad Sennin replies. After a pause, he sighs. “Alright, I get it. Don’t look at me like that. I was the one who warned you to be careful, remember? I want to help Sasuke as much as you do.”

Itachi startles slightly, reacting without meaning to. The iron-clad control he has over his chakra slips for the briefest moment, and he quickly clamps back down on it, praying neither of them noticed the slight flare.

He hasn’t thought about Sasuke since he left him behind at that hotel ten days ago. Hasn’t thought about Sasuke because he can’t think about Sasuke, because that road leads straight down a proverbial rabbit hole he can’t let himself fall into.

He flexes his fingers at his side, caught in the memory of fist against bone. The feeling of it ghosts across his knuckles.

(A sharp snap—skin beneath his fingernails—)

He bites hard on his tongue, and the pain causes the memory to dissipate. His focus sharpens. What does Sasuke have to do with this?

“I know how dangerous this is,” Kakashi says. “Trust me, I know what he’s capable of. I felt it. But right now, he’s Sasuke’s only hope. Without Itachi… he might never wake up.”

The words slam into him like a sledgehammer. Never wake up? Alarm shoots through him. Surely his brother has woken up by now?

Tsukuyomi is a vicious technique, merciless in the way it tears through its victims minds. But he used it on Sasuke before, when he was seven. He was fine, then. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be fine now, and even if he isn’t—even if Itachi damaged his mind somehow—

Itachi calculated the risks. He predicted the outcome. He can’t have miscalculated—he never miscalculates—

Jiraiya and Kakashi continue to speak. They’ve moved on to talking strategy, and are now trying to figure out the best possible way to separate him and Kisame. Their conversation becomes background noise.

For a moment, Itachi is frozen, wrestling with indecision. His desire to avoid a fight wars with his need to know what has happened to his brother (what he’s done to his brother). He hesitates, caught between logic and emotion.

(“… he might never wake up.”)

Itachi activates his Sharingan. Pushing aside the branches concealing him, he steps forward.

 

Chapter Text

When Itachi comes walking out of the trees, Kakashi and Jiraiya are expecting him.

They knew Itachi would sense them following him. That was part of their plan. Stop to rest, allow him to sense them, and draw him out into the open. They prepared measures beforehand, knowing they would have to fight him; Jiraiya had already planted chains in the ground beneath them.

Even mentioning Sasuke was a calculated move on their part. Itachi is an expert at concealing his presence. It was impossible for them to know for sure if he took the bait, but speaking Sasuke’s name resulted in a brief flare of chakra that allowed them to pinpoint his location.

Kakashi knows Itachi will come alone. He won’t want to start a fight unless absolutely necessary, and Kisame’s presence will only incite conflict.

So when Itachi comes through the trees, his Sharingan already blazing, Jiraiya and Kakashi aren’t caught off guard. They’re already on their feet.

“Kakashi-san,” Itachi greets them. “Jiraiya-sama.”

It bemuses Kakashi how unerringly polite Itachi is—even when plunging a katana repeatedly into Kakashi’s gut. In most ways, he’s completely unrecognizable from the young boy Kakashi once knew. In other ways, he hasn’t changed at all.

Remembering those days makes Kakashi’s chest ache. For Sasuke, it must be agonizing.

“Why are you following me?” he asks. “And what does it have to do with my brother?”

Straight to the point. Kakashi expected nothing else from him. He directs his gaze to the space just left of Itachi’s face; he isn’t going to make the mistake of looking into his eyes again.

“Your brother is in a coma,” Jiraiya answers. He, too, is being careful not to meet the Uchiha’s gaze. “It seems that genjutsu of yours did more damage than you intended.”

Neither Jiraiya or Kakashi are certain if that last part is true. It’s possible that trapping Sasuke in the genjutsu was exactly what Itachi intended. He’s certainly cruel enough for it.

But Kakashi doesn’t think so. It doesn’t make sense for that to be the case. Kakashi doesn’t understand why, but Itachi has spared Sasuke’s life twice now. He wanted to hurt him, not kill him.

And this genjutsu will kill him eventually. The mind can only take so much pressure before it shatters.

“Not even Tsunade can do anything for him,” Jiraiya says.

A flicker of emotion passes through Itachi’s eyes, the smallest crack in his unfeeling countenance. But it’s gone before Kakashi can identify what it is.

“I fail to see what that has to do with me,” he says coolly. “If a medical genius the likes of Tsunade-sama can do nothing—”

“He’s under your genjutsu,” Kakashi interrupts him.

Itachi’s words falter. “What?”

Once again, the smallest flicker of emotion makes itself known. Kakashi latches onto it, to the smallest hint of proof that Itachi feels, that Sasuke means something.

“That genjutsu you put him under,” Kakashi continues. “The same one you put me under, wasn’t it?”

Itachi doesn’t respond, and Kakashi takes this as confirmation.

“He’s trapped inside it,” he tells him. “You never dispelled it. Over ten days. Over ten days being trapped inside that same memory, living in a never-ending nightmare.”

And for a single moment, the briefest moment of time, Itachi’s mask falls away completely. Too shocked, too stunned, to even try to hold onto it, the coldness in his expression fled, and the emotion in his eyes is crystal clear.

Absolute horror.

The emotion in his eyes is so raw, so absolutely horrified, that it makes Kakashi’s breath catch in his throat. He realizes he’s been looking into Itachi’s eyes, has been for a few moments now, and has to tear his gaze away sharply, hoping he hasn’t already been trapped in a genjutsu.

(Itachi doesn’t look like he’s in the state of mind to cast a genjutsu right now.)

When Kakashi returns his gaze frontward, not meeting Itachi’s gaze but close enough to see his expression, the emotion is gone. It’s been locked away behind steel doors and iron bars.

“That was never my intention,” Itachi says. There’s the smallest thread of emotion in his voice, giving him away, but it’s not enough for Kakashi to be able to grasp. “However, I still fail to see what it has to do with me.”

Jiraiya’s face is hard, his jaw clenched. “It’s your genjutsu. You’re the only one who can break him out of it.” Something flashes over Itachi’s expression, but he doesn’t respond, and Jiraiya's eyes spark with anger. “That kid is your little brother. Do you really not care for him at all?”

“He’s a nuisance not worth my attention,” Itachi replies. “The fact that he cannot break out of the genjutsu himself is only proof of his weakness. If seeing him suffering upsets you so much, then I suggest you put him out of his misery. He holds no interest for me.”

Itachi’s voice is colder than Kakashi’s ever heard it. It’s almost enough to make Kakashi forget the clear horror he saw in his eyes a moment ago.

Almost, but not quite.

“I don’t believe you,” Kakashi responds. “He means something to you. I don’t know what that something is, but it’s something. You wouldn’t have spared him otherwise.”

Itachi’s expression doesn’t change. “He means nothing to me.”

Kakashi clenches his jaw. He remembers a twelve-year-old boy who once claimed the exact opposite, his face filled with a deeper love than Kakashi had ever seen.

(“He means everything to me.”)

Kakashi wonders what happened to that boy. What happened to the boy who loved his brother more than anything, more than life?

He can’t be the same person standing in front of him now. He can’t be.

“You’ll come with us,” Kakashi tells him. “Or we’ll take you back by force.”

Itachi raises an eyebrow at him. “You’re so certain you can defeat me? Was one sojourn in my Tsukuyomi not enough to prove it useless? Are you really so eager to suffer it again?”

Kakashi doesn’t wince at the memory of the torture he endured, though it’s a near thing. Instead, he reaches up with his hand to push up his hitai-ate, directing his gaze just to the left of Itachi’s eyes.

(Absently, he files the name away to look into later. Tsukuyomi.)

“Not really,” he replies. “But I’ve got a student that’s counting on me. And I never make the same mistake twice.”

Itachi’s eyes narrow. His gaze darts to Jiraiya for a moment, almost uncertain, before it returns to Kakashi, the emotion gone.

“Very well,” he replies. “If you are really so confident.”

He lunges, low and fast. His speed is incredible, untraceable, but Kakashi knows this game. He trained with the Yellow Flash, after all.

He matches Itachi’s speed with his own, kunai already flashing out to deflect another, but Itachi shifts his weight back sharply, sliding feet-first under the whirling leaves of Kakashi’s shunshin.

Kakashi’s Sharingan catches the movement, and he changes direction in the same instant. His kunai slices through empty air, a fourth of a second too slow, then his head snaps up just in time to spot the clone dropping down from below.

One hit from a shuriken, and the clone bursts into a dozen cawing crows. The birds obscure his vision for a moment, and Kakashi weaves the seals for a substitution as he spins around, ducking a grab. Itachi twists around his kick, lashing out with a kunai only to hit a log instead.

Kakashi flickers behind him, and Itachi spins, his kunai flashing up to parry Kakashi’s. The blades meet with a loud clang, and the blow is actually enough to drive Itachi back a step.

Across their blades, Kakashi smiles at him. It’s not a nice smile; it’s sharp, razor-edged. “You’re not going easy on me, are you Itachi-kun?”

Itachi’s eyes narrow. “Only because you haven’t given me a reason to try harder.”

Using their locked blades and the ground at his feet as momentum, Itachi leaps, twisting his body over Kakashi’s head. His hand lands on Kakashi’s shoulder to give himself enough leverage to complete the flip, and Kakashi is already spinning to face him as his feet touch the ground behind him.

Itachi skids backwards, his hand movements a blur even to Obito’s eye. A fireball roars through the air, and Kakashi slams his hands against the ground, a wall rising up from the earth.

He can feel the heat of the flames as they strike the barrier, and he uses the brief moment to glance behind him, weaving the seals for a clone as he does. Jiraiya is gone, as is the plan. All Kakashi needs is to keep Itachi’s attention focused on him.

If he notices Jiraiya’s absence, then it will all be over.

Itachi is behind the wall before the flames have even died away, and his katana—when did he even have time to draw it?—cuts through the air.

The clone pops, and the plumes of dust momentarily obscure Itachi’s vision. The earth beneath him erupts, and Kakashi grabs Itachi by the ankles, wrenching him down.

Another clone. Itachi’s body disappears in a murder of crows, as Kakashi expected it would. He reforms in front of him, and Kakashi doesn’t pause; he ducks a kick to the chin and drops, his own fireball expelling from his lips—

Itachi slides under the flames, close enough that Kakashi sees the ends of his bangs catch fire. He spins around so quickly that the air puts them out before they can even burn, and his katana slices through the air, but Kakashi is already gone. He appears behind him in a whirl of leaves, his hands flashing as lightning sparks in his palm.

Raikiri!”

Itachi’s head jerks to the side, narrowly avoiding the fatal blow. His katana slides back into its sheathe, and he grips Kakashi’s arm at the elbow. His other hand grabs the back of Kakashi’s head, yanking him close.

Sharingan meets Sharingan, their gazes locking for the first time.

“Jiraiya, now!” Kakashi yells, just as Itachi’s Mangekyou activates.

Kakashi whooshes away in a whirl of leaves, just as blood begins to trickle from Itachi’s right eye. Itachi’s eyes widen, his head snapping around so fast it’s a wonder his neck doesn’t break—

It’s a ruse. There’s no one there when Itachi turns his head, and Kakashi uses the divert in his attention to skid around to his left side, his hands flashing through seals as he does.

Jiraiya appears then, dropping down from the trees, and Kakashi knows its a clone. The Jiraiya clone lands on Itachi’s right side, opposite of Kakashi.

Both of them reach down and grab the chain they implanted in the ground before Itachi appeared. The chain comes up and circles the body within it, and Kakashi and the clone pull it taut.

Itachi’s eyes widen in surprise as the chain wraps around his body, restraining him. The shadow clone Kakashi called up before appears in front of him, lightning sparking in his palm—

Unable to form hand seals, the three tomoe in Itachi’s eyes morph into a curved shuriken.

Amaterasu!”

The shadow clone catches fire, black flames burning it to ash before the Chidori can make contact. Blood now dripping from both of his eyes, Itachi wraps his hands around the metal chains encasing him and pulls.

The chain shatters beneath his strength, clearly increased by infusing his own hands with chakra, but it’s too late. The real Jiraiya appears, erupting from the ground behind him.

Realization flashes over Itachi’s face, but his reaction time is slowed by the backlash from using his Mangekyou. Jiraiya slaps the cuffs around his wrists, and his arms are yanked forcefully behind his back, the two cuffs pulled together like magnets.

Itachi’s Sharingan deactivates immediately. Itachi falls to his knees, and Jiraiya steps back. A smug smile curves at his mouth.

Jiraiya and Kakashi walk around to stand in front of him. Itachi pulls uselessly at the cuffs.

“My chakra…”

“Those are chakra-inhibiting handcuffs,” Jiraiya explains. “They stop the flow of chakra completely. It’s useless to try and escape them, so don’t waste your time trying.”

With the cuffs around his wrists, he can’t even activate his Sharingan. Attempting to call on his chakra will only result in intense pain. Itachi knows this very well; it was something often used in ANBU when holding prisoners.

To his credit, Itachi accepts his defeat with grace. He bows his head, his hair falling over his face.

“So you caught me,” he says. His voice is as unreadable as always. “I’m impressed. What now? Drag me back to Konoha?”

Jiraiya’s face twists in disdain. He walks around to stand at Itachi’s back, yanking the teenager harshly to his feet.

“Get up,” he snarls. “Don’t think I’m taking my eyes off of you for a second.”

“I would think you a fool if you did,” the Uchiha replies.

The Sennin's face becomes pinched. He looks much like he’s resisting the urge to throw a punch.

He doesn’t drag Itachi with him, because Itachi goes willingly. Blood staining his cheeks like tears, his hair half falling out of its tie, he walks with his head held high, his face blank and his eyes cold.

“Time to go home, traitor,” Jiraiya says. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your time away.”

And Jiraiya doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see it because he doesn’t know Itachi, not like Kakashi does.

Kakashi thinks back to their fight, and already, he can think of at least seven different moves that Itachi could have used to avoid this outcome. Instances where he should have been faster, should have anticipated better. As much as Kakashi wants to believe he bested his former subordinate, he knows Itachi. He knows how the boy fights.

This wasn’t the extent of his power. Not even close.

Kakashi looks into Itachi’s emotionless gaze, and even though he can’t understand why, he knows with a stone-cold certainty that Itachi let them win. Itachi let them capture him.

Jiraiya doesn’t see it. But Kakashi does.

Itachi Uchiha is only in chains right now because he wants to be. The moment he decides he no longer does, he’ll be gone.

 

Chapter Text

He didn’t plan this.

Perhaps it’s a stupid thing to fixate on, given what he just learned. But the thought keeps running through his head, refusing to let him go.

He didn’t plan this.

There’s a dull ache in Itachi’s shoulders, and the restraints around his wrists chafe against his skin. His left eye still burns from using Amaterasu, and his vision is blurry around the edges.

He should probably be more concerned about that than he is. But given the recent revelation, his possible encroaching blindness doesn’t really rate.

Ten days. Ten days inside the Tsukuyomi.

The reality of the words—what they mean—sinks into his bones. He feels like his mind should be spinning, but instead it feels oddly frozen. The implications of it are too horrible to comprehend.

Sasuke.

The single thought is filled with such a deep emotion that he feels like he can’t breathe. He hears the echo of his brother’s screams in his ears, feels the splinter of bone beneath his hand. He sees the blood on Sasuke’s lips, the emptiness to his eyes, the heavy thud as he hit the floor—

Itachi pulls at his wrists inside the cuffs, causing a sharp flare of pain to shoot up his arm. It cuts through the fog in his brain, focusing him.

Ten days.

God, what has he done?

The Tsukuyomi was meant to be fuel to Sasuke’s anger. A necessary push to strengthen his hatred, to harden his resolve. Pain for the purpose of making him stronger

(“You are weak.”)

His fingers itch with the need to hurt, to ground himself somehow. He digs his nails into his palms.

Stop. Focus.

Kakashi and Jiraiya are standing only feet away, speaking to each other in low voices. Every once in a while, one of them will glance back at him, making sure he hasn’t moved. Even as he watches, Jiraiya turns his head to pin him with a narrow glare.

They needn’t have bothered. Itachi has no plans to go anywhere. He placed himself in this bind, after all.

(He’s fairly sure Kakashi suspects this, which is… unfortunate. He probably should have fought a bit harder.)

It was the only thing he could think to do, forced to adapt to the situation. He couldn’t reveal the truth to them. He’s soaked his hands in too much blood to abandon his plans now. But Sasuke

Ten days. It was only supposed to be one.

(And god, how awful is that? That even now, he’s still justifying his torture of his brother. Because ten days is unforgivable, but a measly twenty-four hours is just fine, right?)

Outwardly, he keeps his expression blank. But it’s taking every ounce of control he has to keep his emotions from his face.

Ten days.

Itachi digs his fingernails deeper into his palms, breaking skin. The sensation is sharp and stinging. He clings to it.

He remembers Sasuke screaming, his hand wrapped around his throat. He remembers how fragile his skin felt beneath his fingers.

(Screaming screaming screaming. His name—a plea, a prayer a curse—)

“Itachi.”

Itachi doesn’t let himself be startled by the voice. He looks up from the ground in front of him. Kakashi is standing only a couple feet away; he didn’t even hear the man approach.

(Careless. When did you get so careless?)

“Kakashi-san,” he responds. He glances behind him, where Jiraiya is standing just out of earshot. “Finally moving out, are we? Kisame will come looking for me if we linger too long.”

Kakashi watches him with an expression Itachi can’t read. Slowly, he crouches down, so he and Itachi are eye-to-eye.

“I see what you’re doing, you know. I might not understand it, but I still see it. You let yourself fall into our trap on purpose.”

Itachi thinks about denying it, realizes quickly that it would be pointless. “And if I did?”

“If you did, then that would certainly be interesting,” the jounin replies. His eye curves up into the approximation of a smile. “Considering you claim he means nothing to you.”

His tone is light, almost amused, but beneath it there’s a hardness to his voice that’s like steel. Like graphene. And Itachi remembers, suddenly, that the man in front of him was an ANBU captain.

(His ANBU captain, but that’s irrelevant.)

He’s not to be underestimated.

“I fail to see what you hope to accomplish here,” Itachi tells him. “On what basis do you think I’ll agree to help him?”

Kakashi doesn’t blink. “You’ll help him. For the same reason you let yourself be captured. Because you care about him.”

There’s many responses Itachi could give to this, ranging from outright lies to shaded truths, but it doesn’t matter. Kakashi saw the horror in his eyes earlier. Just a glimpse behind his mask, but he’s taken it for the proof that it is.

Itachi looks at him, at the deceptive affability to his expression. A hint of a smile flickers over his lips. “There’s nothing I can say that would convince you otherwise, is there?”

Kakashi stares back, his eye still curved, voice still like steel. “Absolutely nothing.”

Itachi keeps his expression unreadable. The faux smile falls from Kakashi’s eye, leaving behind a deadly expression. It’s the expression of the shinobi who was famed for being cold-blooded—whose hands are coated in more blood than maybe even Itachi’s.

“I believe you care about him,” Kakashi says. “Even love him, in your own screwed up way. But attempt to harm him again, and I will take you out.”

Itachi doesn’t answer. He takes Kakashi at his word. He knows from the look in his eye that he means it. With these cuffs locked around his wrists, Kakashi would probably actually succeed if he tried.

Kakashi stands. He grabs Itachi by the arm as he does, and Itachi pushes himself to his feet before he can be yanked there.

“Come on,” Kakashi says. “We’re heading out.”

Itachi goes the way he’s led, ignoring the ache in his shoulders. He forces his mind away from his brother—away from the torment he’s currently suffering.

He wonders what Kisame will tell Pain when they meet. He wonders if Madara will guess what has happened.

He wonders how long it will take the Akatsuki to declare him a traitor.

 


 

It takes them three days to reach Konoha, even at their fastest pace. Three more days that Sasuke is stuck inside the Tsukuyomi.

They pass through the gates and make for Hokage Tower. Itachi counts the seconds that pass, his nails gauging marks into his already abused palms.

It feels strange to be back in the village, even though he and Kisame were just there. It feels like returning home, but at the same time, it doesn’t. Familiar and foreign at the same time.

His vision is still blurry in his left eye. Itachi is starting to give up the hope that it will ever go back to normal. It seems he did permanent damage to it this time.

(Once again, he should find this more concerning. But Sasuke is so prominently in his thoughts, everything else falls to the wayside.)

The Godaime's gaze is hard and cold as she appraises him, eyes flickering from the blood on his face to the cuffs on his wrists.

“You’re going to fix whatever you did to your brother,” she says, without preamble. “And then I’m placing you in a cell.”

Itachi doesn’t respond.

When they reach the hospital, Jiraiya and Kakashi’s eyes still sharp on him, Itachi doesn’t let them see his hesitance. He follows Tsunade into the hospital room.

Naruto Uzumaki is sitting at Sasuke’s bedside. His eyes immediately fill with fire when he sees him, and he jumps to his feet.

“You!”

Itachi watches him calmly. “Naruto-kun.”

Naruto glares at him. Hatred burns in his eyes. “Don’t address me so familiarly, bastard!”

Itachi observes the boy’s reaction. Not confusion and fear, like before. Now, he’s greeted with outright hostility. It’s to be expected.

“You’re going to fix Sasuke!” the jinchuuriki yells. His fists are clenched, his teeth gritted. “You’re going to fix him right now, you heartless piece of—”

“Naruto,” Jiraiya interrupts. “Leave.”

Naruto makes an outraged face. “But—!”

Now.”

Fury in his expression, the genin looks to Kakashi, clearly hoping his sensei will contradict this order. But Kakashi just jerks his head toward the door.

“We’ll talk later,” he says.

Fuming with indignant fury, Naruto stomps over to the door, throwing it open. He throws Itachi a hateful glare before he exits.

Itachi watches him leave, a strange feeling in his chest. He remembers the boy standing in that hallway, screaming Sasuke’s name. The raw fear in his eyes.

It seems his brother has found a friend, even amidst his isolation from the rest of the world.

Naruto Uzumaki. Itachi wonders if Sasuke will be able to kill him, when the time comes.

(“You must kill your closest friend. Just like I did.”)

No. No, Sasuke could never.

Itachi turns to the body on the bed, and his heart catches. Sasuke is so pale that he almost blends in with the sheets, and it only makes the dark bruises on his skin stand out even more sharply.

Right now, Sasuke is watching their parents be murdered. He is watching Itachi butcher them, over and over and over.

Itachi did this. He trapped him inside of a living hell.

And the very worst part of it, the most horrible, is that he can’t even regret it, not completely. He regrets that it went wrong, that he wasn’t more careful, but he can’t regret the act itself.

Not when he has a plan to carry out. Not when he needs Sasuke to gain the Mangekyou, needs him to kill Madara—

For a moment, he hopes that maybe this incident was enough to awaken it. A second later, he feels sick with himself. What kind of person has he become, that his brother lies tortured and broken, and still all he can think of are his plans?

(How long can somebody wear a mask, before it begins to mold to their face?)

“You’ll have to let me out of these restraints,” Itachi says, “if you expect me to help him.”

Itachi feels Jiraiya and Kakashi trade glances behind his back. Jiraiya looks to the Hokage.

“Do it,” Tsunade says, her lips a thin line.

There is a moment of hesitation. Then, a slight pressure on his wrists, followed by a soft click. The cuffs don’t come off, but they do fall apart, no longer pulling his arms magnetically behind his back.

The seal inscribed on the metal loses its effect when the cuffs are no longer linked. Itachi feels the moment he regains the use of its chakra, like a lock falling free from a cage. It pulses and flows within him, once again unrestricted.

He rolls his shoulders slightly, wincing from the ache in his back. The cuffs still scrape against his wrists, but it’s relieving to finally be able to move his arms.

All three of them watch him warily. But Itachi’s attention is reserved solely for the boy on the bed.

He kneels down by the bed, his eyes tracing the features of his brother’s still face. It’s been so long since they’ve been this close, five years, and their confrontation at the hotel didn’t exactly give Itachi the time to look at him.

(Hand around his throat. Leaning in close, a cruel smirk pulling at his lips. “You don’t have enough hatred—")

His face is so still—almost peaceful. No hint of the horror unfolding behind his eyes. It’s somehow worse than if he had looked to be in pain.

Itachi's gaze catches on the black tattoo peaking out from the collar of Sasuke’s shirt—the same one he caught a glimpse of two weeks ago. His jaw tightens.

Anger flashes through him, but he quickly pushes it away. Orochimaru is a problem for a different time.

Itachi's Sharingan activates. He sees Kakashi tense at his left, but Jiraiya places a hand on his shoulder.

He lifts his brother’s eyelid. Preparing himself for the scene he knows will greet him, his Sharingan whirls, then locks with Sasuke’s eye.

The hospital room falls away, and the familiar landscape materializes around him. Wooden floorboards beneath his feet, the smell of blood strong in the air. His parents kneeling, their heads down.

“Foolish little brother—”

Itachi barely resists wincing at the sound of his own voice—cold and cruel and echoing. He blocks out the sounds behind him, doesn’t flinch as he hears the bodies thud against the ground. He looks for Sasuke.

He’s sitting in the corner of the room, seven years old and not a minute older than he was on that night. Itachi ignores the brief stutter to his heart, the sharp pain in his chest, and walks over to him.

He lowers himself down in front of him slowly, as if approaching a skittish cat. Sasuke doesn’t react. He doesn’t even seem to see him.

It takes a mere thought from Itachi to halt the reenactment behind him. His parents' bodies fade away, leaving only an empty room.

Sasuke’s eyes don’t so much as flicker. There are dried tear tracks on his cheeks, but he isn’t crying, not anymore. He just looks blank. Vacant-eyed.

The expression causes a sharp fear to flare in Itachi’s heart. Thirteen days. What if it was too much? What if he’s too late?

This isn’t what he meant to happen. He wanted to push Sasuke to the edge—he never meant to shove him over it.

The mask falls from Itachi’s eyes, revealing the sorrow beneath. His brother’s eyes are dull and lifeless, and somehow it’s even worse than that night, because at least there was a fight in him then. There isn’t now.

Thirteen days.

Itachi looks at the young version of his brother—so heartbreakingly familiar—and the anguish in his chest burns so brightly that it chokes him.

“Sasuke,” he says softly. “I know you won’t believe me. But I need you to know…”

Fingertips reach out, brushing the tears gently from the child's cheeks. He places his hand beneath his brother’s chin, guiding his gaze up.

“…I’m so sorry I ever did this to you.”

The tomoe in Itachi’s eyes morph into a curved shuriken. Itachi grabs hold of the genjutsu, and he rips it apart.