A/N: Sorry about long wait. This was a hard one! I don't know what it was about it, but everything in the chapter was a huge pain in the ass to write, and I redid so many scenes!
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Lizard's tongue was tingling.
He shunshined straight to Danzo's feet, and pressed his knee to the floor, head bowed. God bless the call. Orders were like gravity: submitting was such sweet, restful relief.
Still, Lizard waited for the arrival of his partner, Snake. He was a quiet one.
Instead, someone else appeared, and he found himself feeling… something. He raised the head. He shunned the call.
"Danzo-sama," he began, the insubordinate question on his lips searing the skin off them like hot vomit.
Danzo lifted a soothing hand, and he felt better, so much better. "Snake is no longer your partner."
The weird feeling was back, like an uncomfortable itch. He wanted to ask questions. Bad feeling. Bow the head, god bless the call.
"You will maintain your post, Lizard," said Danzo, "And Owl will be your new contact. You will meet in the abandoned Uchiha North-East facility at midnight every week to share intel. At the end of the month, I will call you for report. Continue the mission."
"What is the mission?"
Lizard felt everything in his body shriek at that. A question? To Danzo? It was wrong, it was wrong, it was wrong. Owl was asking questions. His stomach felt like lead.
"To do what I say, when I say." Danzo's walking stick dug into the ground, grinding the stone like a mortar and pestle. "To be my ears, and my eyes, and my arms."
Owl said nothing, no affirmation, no bow, just knelt there, staring through the porcelain.
"And?" said Owl.
Wrong. No questions. Lead. Twist. Turn.
"Investigate the Hokage," said Danzo, lips wrinkled like an secret note, unfolded but still creased. "And report to me."
"Sakura," her mother called, "A letter came for you."
"I saw," she said quietly, half dressed, staring at the wall.
Her mother sighed. "You aren't going to write back?"
"Did you read it?"
A pause. "Sakura, I'm just worried about you, you know? What with this memory loss…"
"Kaa-san, you can't read my letters," she said, feeling tired even as she did. "Okay? No matter what you think."
"It's just because I'm worried, I would never-"
"Kaa-san," she snapped. "You can't do that."
Sakura's mother was quiet, and stepped from the door, with soft creaks of the hallway floor. The noises faded.
The air was hot and close like thunder today, and before she had spread the curtains it could have been midday or twilight. Her dream had glimmered for a moment behind her eyes, and for a moment she had lingered. Then the vision slipped away from her, she saw her ceiling as she pulled her eyes open like heavy shutters, and it was as if the dream had never been: she was Haruno Sakura again.
After she had read the letter, delivered by a messenger bird, she had left it on the table and returned upstairs for more sleep. But she didn't sleep at all, that faded paper still on her mind, no matter how long she lay there or how she tried to quiet her thoughts, so eventually she got up and began to pick her clothes for today.
Today was the day she started to shadow Ino. If nothing else, that was good news, because soon she would relearn her medical ninjutsu - that she had supposedly become very proficient at - and with the aid of muscle memory, it wouldn't be the most impossible affair in the world. Hopefully. That was at least how it was supposed to go.
But looking at her wardrobe, Sakura felt no more familiar with her lost world. Clothes she hadn't picked. Sizes she had never grown into. Shoes she had never broken in. It was all lost to her, but perfect for her.
Strange new world, she thought. But it's only strange to me.
"Seizures… right. Has anyone done a chakra scan on his brain? Honestly, sounds to me like maybe it's a tumour. Prolactinoma maybe."
"I'll contact Mizuno-san for the scan."
"Chiba's not in today?"
Ino sighed, leaning back in the doctors' seat. "I'll mindwalk, but, like, I'm not gonna find anything except brain damage. We need Mizuno, at least, for a proper assessment."
"Whatever you can do. His wife's in the waiting room."
With a soft pulse like a pebble in water, Ino swam into the mind of a sleeping young man. It was relatively normal; he was asleep, so there was little present bar sort of hovering bubbles full of strange, half-there things. It wasn't a very solid place, as was the case with sleeping people. Brain damage was usually found with places that had no solid shape or form, or strange irregularities - in one man, she'd found an entire hallway full of hotpot. Glitches.
Nothing, Ino decided, and as long as there was nothing obvious, it was a violation of patient confidentiality to invade the memories to double check for trauma and so on. If he didn't wake up in a week, sure. But it was generally a violation of her position to do it unless it was absolutely necessary.
So she withdrew, lifting from the mind like out of a very still saltwater pond. She opened her eyes.
"All clear?" asked the assistant nurse, scribbling.
"Yeah," she said, breathing slowly. It was always such a surreal experience. "Nothing that I could see."
She turned, world teetering just a little, like a boat on still waters. Then she was there. Sakura. She felt warm. Sakura.
"Sakura," she murmured, the still water below her rocking with a gentle wave. "Is emergency quiet today, or something? It's so good to see you."
The waters below her stilled yet more, and her eyes secured on Sakura's frowning expression. Her heart sank.
"Oh," she said. She remembered: Sakura didn't. She didn't work in emergency anymore. She didn't remember any of that anymore.
"Ino," Sakura said, hesitantly. "First day shadowing, remember?"
"Ah." Lump in her stomach. Shake it off. Ino smiled back at her, shrugging off the awkwardness. "Sorry. I forgot. Just been doing clinical tests, nothing serious. Best you don't go to emergency, that's for sure. I still don't feel confident dealing with that."
"Oh," Sakura said. She supposed she must have been rather good at what she did.
"C'mon, let's get to basic fractures in the kids ward," Ino smiled. "Kids get so many breaks, and their bones are pretty forgiving. I'll fix any mistakes you make."
"Kids?" Sakura said, following after her. She'd never worn a medical coat before. No, of course she had. "I don't know, Ino…"
"Really, it's alright! Kids have got, like, softer bones, they're a lot easier to fix!" Ino said, waving her off with a warm smile. "Besides, your muscle memory might kick in. You were a serious pro."
Ino buzzed through one door, showed her ID at another, and then pushed open a door to the left. A young boy beamed up at her, eyes red-rimmed from crying. The room smelled sterile.
"Sakura-chan!" the child beamed, wriggling excitedly. His mother squeezed his shoulder tightly, looking mildly irritated but still nodding at Sakura with a smile.
"Now, Gonta-kun, you can't go moving around like that! Poor Haruno-san will have to deal with an even worse fracture!" She waved her finger at him, but turned back to Sakura and Ino, smiling. "Sorry about that. You know Gonta-kun is just so excitable… he got this fracture by falling out of another tree! And then he tells me he wants to be a shinobi! You aren't going anywhere if you keep hurting yourself, young man."
Sakura gave them her best warm smile, but her heart was going a million miles an hour. Ino gave her an apologetic look; could anything be worse than dealing with people who had no idea she'd lost her memory at all? People she actually knew?
"Actually," Ino said kindly, "I'll be helping you with this fracture today. Sakura's suffered a head injury and had a bit of memory loss, so treat her like a training nurse for now, okay?"
Gonta looked confused, frowning and looking at Sakura with that open, childish expression that kids have.
Ino tested areas of the leg, and at the kids complaint, she sighed. "Okay," she said, smiling at Gonta. "It looks like you've fractured it, definitely. But it's not too bad, so we're going to be using some anaesthetic, and performing a closed reduction. It might hurt a little bit, but afterwards, we're going to be putting a cast on it to keep the leg nice and stable. All your friends will be able to sign and draw pictures on it!"
"Did you hear that, Gonta-kun?" his mother said, smiling. "You'll be able to get whatever you want on it!"
Gonta shook his head, forehead creased, bottom lip trembling. He looked at Sakura pleadingly. "It's gonna hurt? I don't wanna get the- I don't want a cast. It really, really hurt last time, Sakura-chan."
Sakura felt like she was going to vomit.
"I don't think it'll be that bad," said Ino, comforting him with a smile. "The needle will sting, and poof! It'll all be gone-"
"I don't want a needle! Sakura-chan, I don't want it!" Gonta said, tears welling in his eyes, clawing for Sakura and trying to climb off the hospital bed. "Please, I really don't want it!"
She could feel her heart going a million miles a minute. She'd never met this kid, she'd never met him! Why was he talking to her like that?
Ino leaned forward. "Gonta-kun-"
Sakura backed away, heart racing, sweating, the mother was trying to hold the kid back.
"NO!" he screamed, launching himself onto the floor and howling in pain as his fractured leg hit the ground. "I don't want it! It's gonna hurt! It's really gonna hurt, please Sakura-chan, please tell her!"
Sakura fled from the room.
"Sakura-chan! Please, please please I don't want to! I don't want a cast, I don't want the needle thing, please!"
"Gonta-kun, you're going to hurt yourself-!"
Her heart wouldn't stop pounding, she could hear the mother desperately trying to calm the kid down, Ino trying to pick him up, she could hear him hitting the furniture, thrashing, screaming, that full throated sobbing that cute little kids do when you push their bones back into place-
"Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan, please, I hate needles! I'll do anything, please please please-"
She couldn't remember it, she knew that, she'd never seen that kid before in her life, she was absolutely certain of that, so-
The kid was sedated. She could hear the mum crying, little cracking sobs, deep breaths, hiccups-
No, she couldn't. That was her. She was crying. And she couldn't fucking stop.
Travel across the desert was taxing.
It took them three days to reach Konoha. The desert was like a mirror: the heat of the day was lost in its nights, and the chill of its evenings was lost in its days. It was almost impossible to dress for: on her first journey to Sunagakure, Satsuki had stubbornly refused the advice of Temari and the Suna nin. To her credit, she was fairly sure they were trying to make a fool out of her.
Well, although they might have been teasing her for being a green little Konoha nin out of her favourable summer pond, there was no doubt they were right. Satsuki had ended up with heatstroke. Her clothes had been a stupid choice, let alone not putting any protective creams or oils on her pale skin. She'd been fried alive, and in the night, her cotton clothes weren't enough to keep her warm either. This time, she was wearing loose black clothes, and felt slightly less stupid for it.
They began setting up the tents again, as the sun kissed the horizon goodbye.
"Hey, Satsuki?" Temari began. She was smiling. Nope. Satsuki did not like that.
Satsuki gritted her teeth, snapping the tent poles together. "Don't."
"Remember that time you got heatstroke so bad you almost died?"
"And then we had to take you to the hospital and everything, and the nurses were like, 'You didn't put any creams on? No coverings? Are you an idiot?' And you had to be like 'Yes.'"
"I thought you were gonna commit honor suicide or something, it was that embarrassing."
"Temari." Satsuki dug the poles into the ground, extra deep. "Stop."
Temari snorted, smoothing out the creases in the tent. "Yep, that was pretty embarrassing. If you ever become famous, I'm gonna get them to put it on your Bingo Book entry."
Temari rolled out her own bed across the tarp bottom of the tent, shaking off any stray grains of sand with her palms as she settled in. Satsuki settled down too, unrolling her bed roll.
As the fellow travelling Sunagakure nin too settled down, Satsuki undid her hair outside the tent to shake off the sand, and Temari began wrapping her own curly hair in a scarf, as she did most nights. It was a strange thing, Satsuki thought, living among sand. Everyone in Suna had known it their entire lives, but she found herself unusually annoyed at the way it caught in her hair as they travelled the desert, or made her socks gritty and coarse on her feet.
"Am I still okay to stay at your place?" Temari asked, tying her wrapped hair back. "You still have a place, right?"
"Sure," Satsuki muttered, dusting the sand off of her clothes.
"Can we have a party?"
"Why not? Come on!"
"I'm not joking," Satsuki said, tying her hair back. "My bloodline would be cursed to find your lost clothes and nasty old noodle cups behind my couch for centuries."
"Buy a new couch," Temari said primly, rolling over with a huff. "Give away the old one! Problem solved. Curse averted. Some new family can be amazed by my free vest tops. Never thought about it like that before, huh?"
"Wow, free garbage." Satsuki nestled down into the warm fleece material, folding her arms and trying to gather some heat.
Temari huffed, but finished wrapping her hair and settled down in her sleeping bag.
"So who's waiting for you?" she said, stretching her arms and yawning as she spoke. "We never did talk much about Konoha, did we?"
Satsuki felt a distinct pang of pain. The night was getting quieter as everyone nestled down to sleep.
"It's not as easy to talk about myself as it is to talk about you," Satsuki said. "Or training."
Temari yawned, nodding in the darkening light. "Yeah, I get you. But I've never really shut up about much, except around Gaara when I thought he might kill me, or my dad when I thought he might order me to kill Gaara. It doesn't come so naturally to me, y'know?"
"Yeah." Satsuki stared at the vaguely whispering roof of their tent. "Sakura's meant to be there. But she's ignored most of my letters, and if she does respond, it's always weird, vague answers. And now she doesn't answer at all."
Temari stared at her, her eyes as grey as everything else in the dim desert light of the tent. "You never talked about that."
"I didn't want to."
Temari gave her another searching look. She looked a little pained.
"Well, you were making jounin too. People get busy."
"I wasn't too busy to write a fucking letter," snapped Satsuki, surprising herself with her tongue and feeling betrayed by the lump in her throat. "I don't even know if she's a jounin, or a chuunin, or whether she never did any tests at all. That's how little correspondence I got from her. You get it? She didn't want to talk to me, she's not waiting for me, and- my teacher hasn't responded either, so, I'm- I'm not sure anyone's waiting for me at all."
There was an unwanted crack in her voice there, and Satsuki felt angry tears fall free.
She hadn't cried at all in Suna: it was a thankfully impersonal place. Still, these were silent tears, and she was relieved by the darkness of the tent, reassured that perhaps Temari would never know she had shed a tear at all.
Temari took her hand in hers in that darkness, as Satsuki buried her face in the fleece of her bed. She did not see her face, but felt the relieving circular motion of a thumb on the back of her hand, drawing invisible shapes she could not appreciate until they were both lost to sleep.
The Land of Wind was fierce winter and blistering summer all at once. Here, the land knew neither.
In the Land of Fire, it was sweet spring. The fresh blossoms of its inward path and lush green trees greeted Satsuki with soft, enthusiastic waves: the wind pushed through the trees like an invisible finger through thick green fur. It was home like she had never known it, to see life so arrogant. Life in Suna was cautious, and knew the value of shelter and water. Konoha's trees had water to spare, and the ground was soft with it. Konoha's nature wore its jewels: Suna's nature stowed them away.
"Tired," said Temari, adjusting the large fan strapped to her back. She wasn't wearing eyeliner on account of the long journey; her eyes looked softer. "Still okay if I sleep on your couch, Satsuki?"
Satsuki had a couch still, she thought. A couch, a kitchen, a bed, a home. It had been a while since she had seen them, and the bed would need to be shook down for dust and the couch wiped down for it, and no doubt some blankets in the cupboards would be musty with age now. But it was still there. A gift.
She nodded. "Yeah. Almost there."
"Thank god. I'm exhausted. Let's hurry it up, everyone."
A hum of affirmation rippled through the crowd. Satsuki breathed in the effervescent smell of life as they approached: she could hear the town even now.
The Sandaime's home was about what Satsuki had expected.
The walls were ornamented with treasures, lined with bookshelves stocked with old scrolls and books innumerable. It smelled like tobacco, and paper, and a bit like dust, but also something warm and cinnamon-like. It was traditional, but lived in and loved.
Satsuki had come at his request, and she saw all these things clearly: but they were as far off to her as a painting of the ocean. The concept of calmness and comfort stood before her, but it did nothing to ease her. She was here, it was there, and that was that.
Sarutobi took a puff of his pipe at his window, sighing out a plume of tobacco. His hat was set aside: he looked odd without it, and the top of his head was bald and peppered with sun spots. But the way he pulled on his pipe was all the same. There was a gentle fire burning in his stove, and he sat by Satsuki quietly in a lush armchair, the flames crackling before them. An iron kettle hung above the fire, dark metal cast in floral patterns.
"Who do you live with?" she asked, quietly. She had seen two pairs of shoes by the door.
"Ah, the shoes." Saruto smiled with a warm, but sad twist to his smile, and he tapped the ash from his pipe into a small tray. "My wife. She has long passed on. Just after you were born, actually."
"The shoes are just a charm," he reassured her. "I keep them there so that she is welcome to come back any time. Of course, it's probable that she has passed on to another place entirely."
He leaned back, puffing again, and chuckled lightly. "But it also helps me remember our time together, as well. Superstition is a good comfort to the living."
Satsuki felt herself sour at that. It was a distant, acrid anger, like a fire burning a few streets away. She couldn't imagine any superstition that could fill the void where everybody she knew and loved once resided: grief was as sure, as identifiable a truth as the gravity that sank her knees into the mud as she prayed by their headstones. It was a weight that told her, reassured her, that nothing would ever be good again.
Superstition didn't hold a candle to that burning truth: the principality that was absence and death.
"So am I supposed to put 60 pairs of shoes by my door?" Satsuki said. "Will that change what happened? Huh?"
Sarutobi tapped his pipe into an ashtray again, and looked at her gravely. "Satsuki," he said. "Nothing will ever change what has happened. You must know that."
"Of course I know that, you stupid old man! So what's the point in shoes?!" she spat, despite herself, digging her fingernails into her palms, feeling like every pacifying word was a splash of acid in a seething, hot wound. "What's the point in comfort if nothing changes?!"
As the room fell silent, Satsuki realised that her ears were not ringing, and the kettle was in fact boiled, hot and whistling throughout the room.
The Third Hokage looked at her with a deep sadness in his eyes. He placed his pipe to the side, smoke still wisping gently from its end, and them he stood from his armchair and kneeled beside the fire with her. He grumbled a bit as his knees dug into the pillow on the tatami, a bone cracking here and there, but then he placed his hands in his lap, and cleared his throat.
"My wife, Biwako, was a gentle woman at heart, though she had a strictness to her," he said, reaching for a thick cloth. "We had two children, Asuma and Haruka. But I was a cold father, no good with children at all, and I was often researching, or training, and eventually, working as Hokage. She was the warmth of their lives, and mine."
Sarutobi pulled the kettle off the burning fire, and began infusing tea, thick green leaves with pink blossoms in the mix. It smelt sweet.
"She was a midwife, all through the years," he went on. "I supported her, and we married young, but she was committed to carrying on the trade. Her mother had been a midwife as well, and she found midwifery to be in the sweet spot of rewarding and challenging. But her hours were often unexpected, and midwifes are preferred over medic nin because of the risk of blood poisoning, so we rarely made plans that worked for both of us. She was lonely, somehow, as was I."
He stirred it, tapped the spoon, and closed the lid, leaving it to stew. "Still, all through my long years as Hokage I promised her. When I retire, I'd say, we will spend all the time together in the world. We will visit every country, every beautiful spot, we will taste every spice in the Shinobi Nations, and bathe in every hot spring. In the last few years of my Hokage rule, we often planned spots, or wrote down tips from friends on the better foods, hot springs, or scenery. I still have the list, in fact."
He reached beside the stove for small cups to serve the tea in. "At long last, I retire. But Biwako has a couple of women she is still helping, and one is a kunoichi who is, to simplify, vulnerable during her pregnancy. Biwako decided to stay on for her birth, in a week or so. We registered to leave the village on our trip. We decided where we would go, and how to get there. And I waited at home, as she must have waited for me so many times, in the short times she was away. I saw the Fourth Hokage inaugurated, a child I had an affection for. Everything was well. After the birth, we would begin our journey."
Satsuki didn't know how to interrupt, so she stayed quiet. The Third chuckled solemnly, and poured the tea at last, slowly and carefully into two cups, and pushed one toward her with his old, lightly shaking hand. "It wasn't to be. She died."
"Died?" Satsuki asked, taken aback. "She just… died?"
Sarutobi shook his head. "No. She was killed."
"To be honest," he said, something honest and raw in his voice, "I think it may have been my old student, Orochimaru. I denied him the title of Yondaime, and perhaps then he killed my wife… I even wonder if he was responsible for the freeing of the Nine Tails, the thing that killed the Yondaime. Perhaps it was all his doing, somehow. No doubt, I will pass before I know for sure. I doubt I will ever see Orochimaru again.
"But," he went on, weary, "I never knew for sure who it was. Nobody did. She was killed, as was the woman she helped. That night, the Nine Tails attacked, and we were barely keeping the village in one piece. There was no time to mourn for me. Then the Yondaime passed sealing the Nine Tails away, and I had to take up the mantle of Hokage once again. No one else was suitable, or willing."
He smiled at her then, a worn smile, and he ruffled her hair. Satsuki hated that, but she let his hand run through her hair all the same: something about it was familiar, like an aunt pinching your cheeks even when you tell her no.
"Sometimes in life," he said, "Shinobi are told that they cannot mourn. And lots of the rules that shinobi live by tell us we cannot cry, or remember the dead. That is not true. A shinobi is a shinobi as long as she endures. Satsuki, if you must cry for your family, do so. If you want to visit their grave everyday with flowers and food and incense, do so. Do whatever you must to remember and respect them, because by extension you are respecting yourself. You must live, and live happily, if you want to remember your family with no regrets."
Satsuki felt her eyes fill with those angry tears at last, and she lashed her cup aside into the fire. The tea soaked the flames, smothering the stove with a harsh sizzle. Ash kicked up onto the tatami. "Don't screw around! How can I live without Mom and Dad?! How can I live happily when I know they died while I threw shuriken in the woods?! How do you think I can live without regrets when my brother did it all right under our noses, and I- I couldn't do anything but cry?! Don't- Don't screw with me! Don't…"
Sarutobi was embracing her. Incense. Tea. The smell of cinnamon. It wasn't anything like her mother's smell. It was then that Satsuki realised that she couldn't imagine her father's smell at all, and she cried.
Later, Sarutobi led her to the Hokage tower, and she followed like a zombie on her feet, every step heavy and her eyes dry and swollen with her tears. It all felt so pointless. What was the point, she thought, of being ashamed of her behaviour when Father would never scold her for it? Never again would he tell her to be stronger, to take herself in hand and endure. How she'd resented it once. Now there was nothing but the remnants of people who had cared.
They climbed those long stairs to the office, which was stacked with paperwork from the desk to the floor. He summoned his assistant. Sorting was done. It flowed past her.
"Satsuki," Sarutobi coughed. "Listen carefully."
She looked up. Her nose was running, so she wiped it discreetly. He slid forward a piece of paper, written by hand and with his signature and stamp. There was a small space for her signature.
"This is for you," he said, and he motioned a wrinkled finger to the third line. "This is your new home. I have assigned you an apartment in the center of Konohagakure, near the Academy, and the Hokage Tower if you ever need me. For anything. I have waived the rent indefinitely. The city of Konoha will pay for your new home. The Uchiha district will be preserved and maintained after the investigations have ceased, if you ever wish to return. I have assigned Junko-san, a chuunin I trust, to go with you tomorrow to collect your belongings for the move. You will receive a stipend for food, tools, and anything else you will need, but you have inherited your family's wealth as well."
He looked her in the eyes. They held a stern promise.
"You shall never want for anything, as you did not before, Satsuki," he said. "Konoha is your home. Its residents are your family. We will care for you."
Satsuki felt a lump in her throat. "I don't need to be taken care of," she choked out, her eyes hot with tears. "I don't need a new family. I'm Uchiha Satsuki, of the proud Uchiha clan, and I… I…"
"Yes, you are Uchiha Satsuki, of the proud Uchiha clan," Sarutobi promised, lifting a calligraphy pen from its pot and pushing it toward her. "Your family served Konoha tirelessly. Now let Konoha repay at least one of those many, many debts."
Satsuki shook herself back to reality. Temari was beside her.
"Yeah," said Satsuki, frowning. "Sorry."
"Don't get in the habit of thinking too much," Temari said, hoisting her bag further up on her shoulder. "Ninja don't live by overthinking, I'll tell you that."
"That's terrible advice."
Satsuki strolled up those same old steps. The paint was a little more worn on the handrail, grime here and there on the windows. Looked dusty inside.
She had a weird urge to knock, before the familiar habits kicked in and she fumbled for her keys, scraping them awkwardly on the lock before she managed to hook it in.
Temari stood behind her, saddled with clothes and tools in a big satchel. At last she pushed forward and the door opened wide to her home.
She had the bizarre notion of being taller, because, of course she was. She was standing taller, and everything was just that bit lower. It had been a long while. Of course it was all smaller. That was natural.
With the feeling of a too-old child playing with a too-small fort, Satsuki placed her things down. Temari, naturally, had lashed everything she owned at the foot of the bed and laid down spread eagle on it.
"It is nice! Child you had expensive tastes! That's one comfy bed."
Satsuki felt a pang at that. "I didn't buy that. The Sandaime did."
"Oh. The dead one?"
"Most of them are dead."
"Don't get me started on dead Kazekages! We didn't even find the third one. Maybe he died taking a shit in the desert or something." Temari sat up, rubbing her eyes and cracking her shoulders. "Anyway, sorry. That's rough."
"Yeah," she said, slumping onto an old dining room chair and dropping her bags. She relaxed at long last. "It was."
It was his final night as himself, and Kimimaro had nothing left to impart.
If Naruto was here, he'd thought, no doubt Kimimaro would have an exciting last night. Naruto frustrated him beyond belief, and constantly bugged him with stupid ideas. Half the time, Kimimaro was sure Naruto was just saying literally everything that came into his mind. But sometimes, Kimimaro could tell that Naruto was trying to make him smile.
That irritated him more, because Kimimaro wasn't sad, and wasn't pitiable. He was dying because he had served his purpose, and as he told Naruto, he had no regrets about how he lived his life, and he had no reservations about his death.
Kimimaro had said it because it was what he had always believed. He had never cared whether he lived or died, but what he did know was that he was tired of the ceaseless, meaningless violence his family had lived upon, which he had been forced through the threat of death himself to do. He'd killed people he hadn't known, for no reason than to not be murdered himself.
Meaningless death was the lifeblood of the Kaguya clan, and Orochimaru was antithetical to death without meaning. Everything Orochimaru did was to preserve his life, was to preserve knowledge - artifacts of others' lives. That was different. It was different to what his family had done.
But Naruto had made him think about death again. He was cheerful. He asked him about Orochimaru and whether everything he was doing was right, and Kimimaro couldn't say with absolute certainty that it was. Kimimaro wasn't sure what Orochimaru had done in Konoha, but he knew that it was enough that he could never go back. And it wasn't like the victims of crime, or the relatives of the dead, cared about the reasons they died, unless they died a hero.
Once it had occurred to him, Kimimaro realised that he couldn't quite reconcile that line of thought. But that didn't matter now: he'd made his choice. He couldn't back down now. Orochimaru was absolute. He was happy to die this way.
Even so, he'd be lying if there didn't feel to be a desperate value in his last day. He felt there were many things to be done, things to be said, things he wanted to write down. But truthfully, Kimimaro didn't want anyone to read his words after death, or admire his philosophy. He wanted to be forgotten entirely.
"Juugo," he breathed.
Juugo. Juugo. He hadn't even thought about Juugo, the gentle soul. He'd been cursed to follow Kimimaro everywhere he went, or be incarcerated. Right now, he was incarcerated, and given Kimimaro was ending his life here, Juugo would never let himself go anywhere ever again.
Kimimaro would be lying if he said that wasn't something he regretted, and he shuffled beneath his bedsheets, the thought uncomfortable.
He got up, getting a calligraphy set that Naruto had gotten him. It was his only possession, besides the slightly sticky stack of ramen coupons Naruto gave him for the ramen place in Otogakure's town. He'd given him that before, when Kimimaro hadn't held any hope for leaving his bed again.
That was a different time.
Even so, Kimimaro took his calligraphy set, the pot and the brush, and put them on the sterile steel medical trolley, sitting above them in the dim candle light. He painted flowers, camellias, and he wrote a few things to Juugo.
Just things he wanted to say, jittered by the moving metal of the tray.
Knock knock knock. Click. Creak.
The room was filled with light, and Kimimaro's mood soured. It was just like Kabuto, that knock, the way he opened the door anyway. A completely fake man.
"Kimimaro-kun," said Kabuto, a purr in his voice and the glint of his cracked glasses obscuring his eyes. "Are you ready for the transfer?"
Kimimaro looked at his letter. It was done.
"Yes," he said at last, feeling his heart racing for some reason. Wasn't he resigned to this? Wasn't this the end he had been waiting for all this time?
"Good." Kabuto stood back, letting the hallway light pour in, and it made Kimimaro wince. "However, we are performing the transfer outside of the base."
Kimimaro frowned, and gently put his wet brush back on the steel trolley. It had ink on it, but, well, that didn't matter now. "Why?"
"A prisoner has been let free," Kabuto said primly, with a twitch in his smirk. "During a transfer, a guard failed to keep him restrained. Consequently the entire base is compromised. We cannot risk this security failure with Orochimaru-sama so vulnerable, so we are performing the transfer outside with the Sound Four as his personal guard. It will be much easier to keep him safe outdoors, where they are much better able to use their techniques."
Kimimaro felt a little taken aback by that. That was unusually messy of the guards, and to be honest, most prisoners he encountered were docile through the pain, the medications and the torture and fear. Of course there were exceptions, but this was exceptionally bad timing.
"Kimimaro-kun, are you going to keep me waiting?" Kabuto sneered. "I'm more than willing to become Orochimaru-sama's vessel myself. He could do without garbage like you."
Kimimaro was quiet.
"Well?" said Kabuto, impatient.
"As Orochimaru-sama's future vessel," said Kimimaro, rolling up the scroll slowly, "It's my last wish for this to be delivered to Juugo of the North Base."
Kabuto said nothing, but stood back to leave the door wide open.
Kimimaro stood up, the long seals draped down his neck and arms as he stepped towards the door. Kabuto held the door open, and he felt a brief, and maybe final, wave of hatred for the man. A lawless tool with no respect for anyone or anything.
"And Uzumaki Naruto?"
Kabuto raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"What did you do with Uzumaki Naruto?" Kimimaro repeated, feeling a strange anger coming over him. "Did you deign to keep him alive, Kabuto?"
Kabuto gave him a long look.
"Don't worry, Kimimaro-kun. I'm sure that will become clear soon enough."
Otogakure had an unusual variety of birds.
Naruto had never noticed this himself. Kimimaro had told him so: the rice paddies were laden with small, dusty coloured finches who perched on the long grass and pecked the surface for bugs and flies.
He imagined Kabuto had known maybe every bird in this country, but the weird thing about it was that Kabuto didn't seem to care about them.
In this sense, Naruto differed from the Kabuto face. When Kimimaro told him about the paddy finches, Naruto felt in a strange way like his world was bigger. All of a sudden they were in every bush and long grass, dipping their heads below the water with a little plip. Knowing they were there made him more careful, more aware, even as he just walked through the woods.
To know as much as Kabuto knew, and to care as little as he did… well. Naruto couldn't imagine it, but he considered that a good sign. But it did make Naruto think that his ignorance armoured him, and if that maybe he knew too much about the world, he might struggle to live his life at all.
Despite it all, the moon was pale in the sky, unassuming and faded in the overbearing evening sun. Naruto made some Kabuto-faced clones beside him.
It was strange to be finished with it all, he thought dumbly, and though there was incredible cause to celebrate, he felt as though he would do well with just a nice long sleep.
His bespectacled clones set to work. The first clone headed to town: the second clone headed into the fields: the third clone headed into the base, and on a second thought, Naruto sent another one into the base as well. Down into the dark they walked.
Then, he too went down. He walked the familiar path, left right right left right left left and then, opened his door.
Wasn't much. Ramen stickers for an Otogakure ramen bar who gave him free ramen out of fear, a poster with a cute girl on it, and lots of orange yukata so he didn't have to wear the purple, which was just terrible on his colouring.
He also had the necklace.
He didn't like to wear it too much. No one really wore things they cared about here. It wasn't the right place for it: if Naruto wore it too much, Orochimaru would probably figure out he still cared about something, and use it against him. But, perhaps not wearing it was the source of all of his poor luck as of recently.
As Naruto thumbed an Otogakure-made pin, local craftsmanship tossed to him for free out of fear, the smell of gasoline wafted down the halls. He frowned. Hopefully Kimimaro would leave without too much question.
He tossed his things onto a scroll, sent a smudge of chakra into the paper, and then slipped into the dimly lit hallway, squinting through the dark. Kimimaro's door was closed, which was a good sign. Naruto headed out, back along the path.
Right, left, left, right, left, right, right.
The bricked halls lit warmly, comfort was before him. Blue spilled in. Then the sky.
It was sunny, and Otogakure was breathing a great sigh of relief, freed of its plague. There was a light breeze carrying west, which made for a nice fresh feeling to the day's end. He breathed it in, deeply: spring was almost here, and the cold was almost gone.
Kimimaro was waiting, still, sat beneath a tree in the grassy clearing. His fingers were loose around crumpled fistfuls of grass, but the kisses of life were about him, his hair ruffled and a smile still creasing his face, like ink smears on the opposing page. At the site of Kabuto, Kimimaro smoothed out his expression back to nothing, to stillness.
He stood up, long paper seals hanging like a cloak: when the breeze came through, they crackled like whips.
"Where is Orochimaru-sama?" murmured Kimimaro, green eyes sharp and astute with dislike. Yes, Kimimaro did dislike Kabuto, and not just because Kabuto jealously disliked him and coveted his talents.
Kabuto sat on the grass. It was blue, certainly, but violet was coming, the night was pushing the day out and the sun was setting behind them. Naruto, not Kabuto, certainly liked this day most.
"Orochimaru-sama is being assisted out of the base," said Kabuto. "I have some clones accompanying his exit."
Kimimaro stared. Naruto could see that twinkle of suspicion in his eyes: he knew something was wrong.
Kabuto stepped forward, and Kimimaro watched that stupid nerd's face split into an uncharacteristic grin as he leaned into the entrance. "Everybody done?"
A clone cheered back. Kimimaro gave him a look, and Kabuto clapped, grinning even wider, and he turned back to the wood.
The prisoners had fled, mostly. Some people still hung around the trees, some had almost certainly ran for their lives. But some stayed with that morbid curiosity. Where were the Sound Four? Hidden, probably. Ready to kill him. Best to keep Kimimaro close.
So Kabuto stepped back to just above the base, on top of the ground where the entrance tunnelled below. Kimimaro was watching him, unsettled on the grass.
He clapped three times, loud and clear. Then, clap. Clap, clap, then a chorus, then a cacophony: there was clapping all through the halls of the base. Applause ricocheted through the halls, and for a second afterwards there was an orchestra of echoes.
Then there was a strange noise, like the way wind gets caught in a window frame, or the way it whips past your ears with a deafening whoosh.
Naruto had heard that noise, but it had been a while now.
He'd heard it, from her, from others too he supposed, but never had he heard it pulled through hallways like water through a sucked straw. It consumed air and demanded more: he could hear doors giving way distantly. Closer and closer it came, a hot air pushing forward like he was at the basin of a volcano.
"Kabuto," Kimimaro said, almost a demand, the hot air pushing back his hair and streaming it backwards like a bedsheet in the breeze.
Hotter and hotter, the air was, the roar of something getting louder and louder-
"Answer me," Kimimaro snapped, eyes bright with daylight, unblinking and filled with anger. He pulled his spine out and cracked it straight with a snap of his wrist, its point at his throat. "Where's Orochimaru-sama?"
Naruto laughed then, because that was all he could do, at all these serious faces in the bushes and Kimimaro's cold fury. He laughed and laughed, taking in a glorious breath of air as he heard the fire burning up.
He heard a scream, then he remembered being burned alive: he heard a scream, then he remembered his eyes sizzling: he heard a scream, then he remembered pink ash like stars and jellyfish. Naruto laughed. It was frightening. It was as he wanted. It was ready.
"This is it!" he screamed, laughing and raising his arms up as Kimimaro's spine dug into his neck. "Suck it, you old snake bitch!"
The base exploded.
A wall of fire rushed out of the only exit like breath from a dragon. The sunny blue sky became dark for just a split second, the green trees turned orange with flamelight. Ash as big as bricks sprayed up, out, and into the ground.
Then they appeared.
Sparks spattered out of the hallway limply, but more distant in the wood, something squealed into the sky. Kimimaro launched himself back, pulling his spine back to his side like a longsword, looking upwards with fear in his eyes. The light of the fire burned in the eyes of the audience, and then the pinprick shattered.
Pink. Then red. Then purple and green and blue. Rockets exploded into massive, gunpowder dandelions in the sky. The sun was quiet behind them, the stars were nothing. Ash scattered across the wood like dandelion seeds. A fleck of burned paper stuck to Naruto's cheek.
Smoke billowed across the quiet, tortured inmates of Orochimaru's base, and Naruto let his transformation billow away too. His face was his once more, and he bared his back to Kimimaro as he turned away from him to watch the sky.
Green dandelion - a second later, the heart-shuddering boom. Pink dandelion - a crack. Whizzling lights soared up from the ground, spraying sparks behind them. Great purple rockets shot up high into the sky before they split apart, thousands of pieces, rattling the ground beneath them as the ash came down, as smoke billowed across them like an ashy morning mist. Around them, trees went up in flame. It was all hot, all ash and smoke, all bright light. It was all burning. Naruto felt nothing short of elation as he watched everything he despised, hated, and tolerated burn away into something gorgeous, then disappear. The fireworks were beautiful, and then they were gone.
He sucked the smoke in through his nose, closing his eyes. He heard Kimimaro fall to his knees.
All that was left now was the ash, the fire that burned through the hallways, no doubt Kabuto and Orochimaru's corpses too, and Naruto sat back in the grass as the pillar of fire burned before them. He felt the sun on his face, the fire at his feet, and the all of nothing before them. The nothing of death, of fire, of desecration: of burned, fertile land. There was nothing. Now, it could be anything. Naruto laughed, running his hands through his hair and curling his toes.
"Naruto-kun," Kimimaro whispered. Naruto closed his eyes. Maybe Kimimaro would kill him. That'd be fair, he supposed. But Kimimaro said nothing, did nothing, was quiet. Naruto rolled onto his stomach and reached into his pocket.
"Kimimaro-kun," Naruto said, purring his best Kabuto impression he could as he lifted those prize glasses onto his face, the crack running down Kimimaro's face like a single tear. "Orochimaru-sama can take care of himself, you know. He hardly needs a fragile pawn like you."
The glasses were coated with the falling ash now, tinging the view with smoky black smog.
He snorted at last, barely able to get his words out through the laughter. "God! All those years of listening to that shit, no one could spot the fucking difference! Not even Orochimaru! Aha, ahahahaha!"
A/N: Birds, or snakes? Choose wisely.