I do not own Naruto. Nonlinear epilogue. Thank you for reading.

"What do you mean there's been an attack on Otogakure?"

The Hokage's office isn't like what it used to be when Sarutobi was in charge. For one thing, the papers are meticulously organized, though it is done by worn ANBU members and a weary Shizune instead of Tsunade herself. They come in stacks, bundles tied together with sealed tape, all sorted into separate cubby boxes. There's one for finance, for legislature, missions, and surprisingly enough, foreign affairs.

Another thing is that Tsunade, unlike her predecessor, doesn't care much for smoking, and had the walls scrubbed, along with new furniture moved in. Even the hanging scrolls had to be changed to get rid of the lingering scent of seasoned pipe tobacco. The yellow-stained windows were replaced with new glass from Wind—thicker, more resistant to shatter, and less likely to let out sound.

The last part he only figured out after he returned from the beach in Wind, and Tsunade spent three solid hours terrifying his genin team, laying out every charge they could have face and outlining the punishments in excruciating detail. Safe to say, Team Seven was grounded, village-bound for the foreseeable future. Not only were they assigned a massive amount of D-ranks (which the team viewed as a sort of soft vacation from insanity at best, and training for their creativity at worst) but they were also assigned gruelling hours of training, both by himself and Tenzō, and Lady Hokage as well.

Kakashi takes a sort of petty pleasure in knowing that as soon as his cute brats have been run into the ground by him, and then pummeled into paste by Tenzō, that the Hokage herself has been crushing them into a perfect, shinobi-sized shape. He saw Sakura burst into tears the other day after having to go over the trading contracts of the western section of the village, and Sasuke looked close himself, stuck with the unsightly details of civilian and shinobi relations.

Naruto, of course, was hopelessly lost, and his bruised clones occasionally, and spontaneously, combusted for no good reason at all. That boy was muttering legalese in his sleep, and even his healing factor couldn't help him with all the headaches he received from having to memorize every single tenketsu point in the human body.

Still, the office is spacey now, with less clutter than before. Yes, there are still papers lying about, and various stamps, brushes, seals, and weapons can be found on a variety of surfaces, but it seems that the woman in charge has a driving need not to let the environment around her fall into disorder, one that extends not just into her interior decorating, but her policies as well. She's learned her lesson from Danzō, and from Ryuishi. She needs to know what is where at all times, or someone is going to take advantage of her ignorance.

"I'm not sure how much clearer I can make it, Hatake," Tsunade says, leaning back in her chair, her hands steepled before her. "Otogakure was victim to an attack, and though Jiraiya reports the actual damage to the city was almost negligible, he says the danger to us is imminent."

Kakashi wants to groan in frustration, or maybe rip out his hair. It's been less than three weeks since they left the beach house, and Team Seven is as safe as can be, but Ryuishi, Ryuishi

That woman is a walking magnet for trouble and destruction. He knew he should have stayed and sent Tenzō back alone. There was hardly any trouble as it was, and his kōhai definitely could have taken those bandits without him. The team would have been fine, and he could have grilled Ryuishi about her strange knowledge, and Obito (and possibly the conflicting signals she was sending him).

"I can be ready in an hour," he says, his mind already cataloguing the gear he'll need. Overnight will be minimal, so that's good, however, he might need to break out his old armour. He doesn't relish the idea of being around so many big blades and sharp teeth without it. Also, soldier pills from the Akimichi, because he knows there's that chakra-eating sword involved in this somehow. He wouldn't put it past the Kisame to attack again, probably throwing some sort of fit. Obviously, she needs to punch him in the genitals more, probably until the swordsman goes impotent or gets the message and just leaves

Tsunade quirks her brow, smirking.

"That won't be necessary. The toad summons say that the attackers have already fled, and the village is secure. However, Jiraiya has sent an alert out to me, tipped off by Orochimaru," she says to him, her face growing serious. "As Sasuke's and Naruto's jounin-sensei, and a man bearing one of the last Sharingan, it pertains to you."

Kakashi puts his frustration and fear in the back of his mind, paying close attention. Anything involving both Sharingan and jinchuuriki has disaster written all over it, and most likely, Ryuishi's name somewhere off to the side.

Tsunade sighs, looking tired. "It seems that Orochimaru has perfected the Second's infamous technique, Edo Tensei."

A shiver runs down his spine, because even though every village has its forbidden jutsu, this one is especially concerning. Not only because it reverses the way of things and subverts the natural order, but because of the possibilities and allure it presents. He doesn't know the details, but he knows that even he is enticed by the idea of seeing his departed loved ones again. To speak one last time with Rin, or to clear the air with his father… It's wrong, he knows that, but the temptation still exists despite that knowledge.

It seems, however, that the lucrative promise of cheap and effective military might is what he should be worried about.

"Uchiha Madara has been revived," Tsunade says abruptly, shocking Kakashi to the bone. "Not only that, but the summoner is a known enemy of the Konoha, and the instigator of the attack. An entity known as Zetsu, who apparently can create fully-functioning clones of himself, capable of mass combat. This alone would be terrifying, but apparently, the famed dōjutsu held by the Sage of Six Paths has surfaced from the history books, and is in the fugitive's possession. Your little girly wasn't lying about that one."

Kakashi cannot speak, as stunned as he is. He can only feel dread coil in his gut, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. Uchiha Madara was bad enough, especially if he is even one tenth of what the legends say, but Madara with the Rinnegan, and a seemingly subservient clone that can mass produce itself in great number, each one capable of fighting, and perhaps summoning the dead?

There are no words that can describe how dire the situation has become.

"And since she wasn't lying about that one, we can only assume that she was telling at least partial truth with her other information as well. Zetsu has the Sharingan, and he has a Rinnegan, and he's mostly going after the Jinchuuriki in order to revive the Juubi and whatever the hell Kaguya is," she says calmly. "All he needs is the power to get them."

He swallows, feeling like his anxiety has physically manifested and wedged in his windpipe. This is… huge. This is bigger than a single Bijuu or war. This kind of power could wipe everything from the map.

Training his team isn't going to be enough. Naruto can master the Rasengan a thousand times over, mSasuke can learn to summon a the greatest of hawks, and Sakura can dissect with all the grace of Tsunade and coldness of Orochimaru, but it's not enough to go against the Juubi.

It can't go that far. It simply can't.

"The other nations, they have to be warned…" he says, and it's a huge concession, but it needs to be done.

"Already done, but things are in uproar right now. Kumo, of course, is as taciturn as ever, but The Raikage didn't kill the messenger, which can only be good news. However, the Tsuchikage did kill his, and we can only thank the stars that he attacked the hawk carrying the slug first, and the real summon escaped. I'd have to kill him myself if he layed a finger on even the smallest piece of Katsuyu," Tsunade explains, ticking the leaders off her fingers as they go. "Presumably, the Mizukage and Kazekage have been warned as they are already in Oto—though what they have decided to do is yet to be seen—and that just leaves the jinchuuriki in Takigakure." Kakashi watches her lips thin out as she hovers over that last, raised finger, staring at it as if it frustrates her to no end.

"Unfortunately, the leader of Taki is a twenty-year-old brat named Shibuki, who became head after his father died from drinking the Hero Water. He sent a message back thanking us for the information, but the way he worded it was strange. There's something that stinks in Taki, Hatake, and I can't figure it out."

She flicks her finger down, looking disgusted, and the sigh she heaves out seems to carry the weight of nations. In this case, it might actually be so. Her hand raises to cover her eyes, and she leans forward again, bracing her weight against the desk, her elbows propping her up.

"And if that wasn't enough, Grass and Rain will officially be declared warzones within two years. As soon as the daimyo get their heads out of their collective asses and get over the fact that your nutjob girlfriend—"

"She's not my girlfriend," Kakashi insists.

"—Your nutjob not-girlfriend's people somehow killed one of them, they will probably try and send us out to find her too, regardless of the fact that Otogakure is technically the center of trade for the continent right now, and an attack on them is an attack on everyone. I bet they're already looking for loopholes in the treaties, trying to find a way to get rid of her without hurting their pocketbooks," Tsunade says scathingly, looking frustrated, her honey eyes glaring at him for interrupting her.

Kakashi, understandably, is concerned. He's already fought one war, and the idea of another is terrifying, especially with everything else at stake. He's lost too much as it is, and he will not see his team go through the same. Wouldn't wish it on any village at all.

He feels helpless, thrown into this mess. He's just one man, and though he is a skilled shinobi, he cannot juggle everything.

And then he realizes that's the problem. Nobody can manage that much. Not Tsunade, not him, not the even the Sage himself. Upkeeping this all is not a task any one person can do, no matter what the nobles think.

"The daimyo…" he says, feeling treacherous even voicing that doubt, but Tsunade watches him carefully, and she nods, just once. There is silence as the realization that a conflict is arising on every single front, because the daimyo are upset about themselves and their troubles, and they will not hesitate to try and take advantage of the shinobi under their control to fight their wars for them.

But Tsunade, the Hokage, hesitates, because she is a leader in her own right. She worked to get where she is, fought on the frontlines and lost both her brother and lover to war. Kakashi doubts that she will put her village through another war for the sake of a foreign noble's death or her own daimyo's fear.

Before, he might have never questioned like he does now. Before, he may have followed his orders, obeyed the chain of command, but he realizes that he doesn't have faith like that any longer. He has seen what daimyo are, what the people they rule over are like, and he is torn because they are the heavenly rulers. They are birthed and taught, given instruction on how to best lead, and they should know what is correct. He is but a shinobi, and they are the kings.

But… but the shinobi villages arose because ninja weren't samurai. Ninja were not content to war at each other for the sake of their lords, for concepts like honor and divinity, squabbling over territory and stock for whoever paid the most. No, Senju Hashirama brought ninja together because he believed in peace, believed that he could do what was right for the people, regardless of what the Daimyo thought.

"I don't understand," he admits, because it's tangled, all the pieces coming together at strange angles. The conundrum he started after the mission in the Land of Rivers is convoluted and strange, far more complicated than he can conceive at this moment in time.

Tsunade snorts, raising her head and casting her eyes over at him. She's in a wry mood, despite her tiredness.

"Join the club," she says. "I started making charts and graphs to keep it all together, and honestly, I'm tempted to just let Watanabe and Orochimaru have their fun. If they weren't just attacked, I might have believed them to be some sort of vain, overly-callous and snarky brand of superhuman. As horrible as it is, hearing the news actually reassures me a bit, because it reminds me that they can fail as well."

He hesitates, wondering if his next question falls under the umbrella of professional discussion. Technically, he's still her handler, and ambassador, so it should be his business.

"Is she…?"

Tsunade rolls her eyes, shuffling a piece of paper in front of her to read. "She's not dead or gravely injured. Jiraiya says she arrived to the fight already damaged, bleeding from the eyes, and that Edo Tensei did something to her that he can't name. Almost like a leech or battery effect, but Orochimaru has officially declared her as severely chakra exhausted, having been dealt moderate injuries in the attack."

"Unofficially?" he prompts, reading between the lines.

"Unofficially, Orochimaru sent over some files for a long-distance consultation, and I do have to say that I have no idea how someone manages to literally hemorrhage their eyes till they bleed and not go blind or burst the eye. You reported something like this before, but the state of deterioration I saw was of a fully-fledged jounin Uchiha, not a woman from Kiri pushing mid-twenties. It gives even more credence to your weird report, specifically the living Uchiha members," Tsunade says with a scowl, flicking through the files in one of the bins. "To be honest, I was actually hoping it was all a drug-induced hallucination on everyone's part."

Kakashi closes his eyes in sympathy, because he understands. How could he not? The first time he ever met Ryuishi she shucked her shirt off and punched him in the face, and it only got progressively odder from there. It's been espionage and recruitment alongside strangely domestic sleepovers for years. He might understand even less now than when this all began.

"What do we do?" he asks after a moment.

Tsunade pauses, staring down at the pages, looking past the paper and the words. He feels like she's been asking herself this question for a while now. Her glossed lips purse, and he has to remind himself that the blonde in front of him is pushing sixty, nowhere near the barely thirty she looks.

"We do what we can," she answers finally. "Get Jiraiya back in the village, have him break out his fuinjutsu set for the first time in years, pass on what he can to his godson. We heighten border security, attempt to start producing our own food sources and textiles. Comb through our forces, and see what Tenzo can do with the remains of Root. Most of all, we keep our friends close, and our enemies closer."

It's a vague outline, but better than nothing. He doesn't miss the fact that a large part of her attention is going towards self-sufficiency and military strength.

Which means that the next generation is going to have to train harder than before, and his own is going to do everything in its power to keep them off the battlefront for as long as they can.

He only has two more questions: How will his team react to the news? And why does Ryuishi, with all the clues and puzzle pieces that just won't fit, seem to have been planning for something like this since the beginning?

Itachi doesn't plan on sticking around long, especially not when security is tightening in like a noose and every person is being screened. He never knew a sweep of this magnitude could be issued, let alone effectively carried out.

He has twelve hours, max, to get out of the village and get started. He planted a seed this morning, a tiny one, but he's sure that the word of the androgynous figure dressed in Watanabe's standard clothes running across rooftops and assisting with the evacuation is sure to spread. At first, he might be just a clone, but as long as he keeps it up like this, he'll find his way toward infamy.

But rather than a random figure, he's going to need to be the Rakki Ryuu, and for that, he needs one last thing. The bun he can do, the elaborate tattoo he can fake, but the pin is unique. The pin is a known entity, a staple of the position, and he needs it.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have time to wait for Watanabe to retrieve it from her ward. He's just going to have to do it his own way, and steal it from the boy's things.

It's hard, with the legions of patrols and random, wary citizens. Everyone is tense and on high alert, waiting for news, eager to know what happened to their homes and property. The collective mood of the people is unsettled, and they wait in the safehouses and bunkers, only emerging as shinobi and kunoichi come to tell them it's safe. Only a few groups at a time, of course, to avoid stampedes and riots, or even worse, looting.

The foreign diplomats' quarters aren't as guarded, which is logical, seeing how most everyone who was boarded inside of them is either powerful enough to hold their own, with someone of that power level, or currently being treated in the medical facilities. Still, Itachi has to dodge a squad of roaming Kaguya clan members, who guard the premise watchfully, almost as if they are daring intruders to tempt them into violence.

It can't be easy, to build a new home after being run from their last, and to have no target when it is attacked.

Still, the once-nomadic clan members native to Rice seem to calm their Water brethren, and Itachi slips past them in the undergrowth, casting a split-second genjutsu as a distraction and sliding underneath the ground. Doton techniques aren't his forte, and he has to go deep to avoid the sensor, but he manages. He always does.

He emerges outside their visual range, chakra concealed and presence smothered, and he makes it past three more such rings before he's near the visiting quarters, usually reserved for cousins of nobility, or Kage and their immediate family. He knows the Suna siblings he met are stationed in this building, and one Yuki Haku.

Nobody told him this. He can feel it, see their chakra lingering on the walls from where they were first startled by the explosion and the alarms. He can almost hear the sand grains underneath his foot, and the air stinks of medical herbs that can be turned to poison.

He lingers there in that hallway for just a moment, closing his eyes and touching the wall. Nothing like this was supposed to happen. The Akatsuki at least had a plan to wait for two years before they began picking off jinchuuriki. This was so that once Ame opened it's borders, it wouldn't be immediately implicated in the thefts.

Now there is no wait. No watching or slowly preparing. The world is being thrown headfirst into a new age, and as he struggles to meet the demands of the situation, in some ways, he sees others regressing.

The Kaijuu are made anew. Not what they were, but something else. He saw Samehada in her hands, saw her cling to it despite the damage it caused. He saw Watanabe's fingers go white around Momochi's, witnessed her snarl and spit at Orochimaru and Jiraiya, and dare the Kazekage and Mizukage to defy her with her gaze alone.

No—like the Sannin are reborn, so are the Monsters of the Mist. Old teams are coming together again to forge new paths, and in the shadows, leaves turn over new sides to adapt.

He opens his eyes again, slinking into the room. Itachi is a master at what he does, the pinnacle of everything a shinobi should be. It is nothing to steal a single hairpin.

But Yuki Haku is no green genin, and can hardly be called chunin anymore. He's unaffiliated, not tied by nations or creeds, and he has been waiting. He knows his mother, knows that she will come to carry him to safety, to guard him from harm. Knows his father will attempt to stoically shield him from violence, turn his eyes from things he must see in the same way his water clone tried in the early morning.

He's not a child, but not an adult. He isn't ready to join them side-by-side in their separate arenas, not yet, but he's too old to keep being coddled. At fourteen, his mother was building kingdoms, and his father was a hunter-nin and part of the Seven Swordsmen. This morning, he watched a boy two years his junior lift wagons into warehouses and put out fires with titanic walls of sand. He watched a girl his own age talk circles around the guards, going on about legalities, customs, and combining forces until her bladed tongue got her what she needed while Zabuza clone kept him back.

He's been raised enough, more educated than any noble's child, and more groomed than either of them. He can't stay where his caretakers will guard him forever.

Uchiha Itachi is an unexpected guest as Haku floats in the mirror, solemnly contemplating. He watches him enter warily, and search the room with his eyes before pinning the ice-covered glass with a hard stare.

At first, Haku thinks the obvious. That the Uchiha dressed in his mother's clothes is there to bring him to her, because if anything, the man has been constantly courteous to her, but then he follows those eyes to the bone white pin in Haku's hands, and the Yuki knows that the answer is far from what it first seems.

They stand in silence, watching each other, and Haku's thoughts race. The pin is a crown, meant for only one thing, and the fact that Itachi-san is mimicking his mother's looks can only mean that he wishes to dethrone her in some way.

He readies himself, knowing he will be fighting a losing battle, but ready to try anyway. He will not win, but he can last long enough to—

"An heir," the Uchiha says quietly to the mirror, and the reflection staring out. "To a legend she wants to live on."

Haku's fingers close around the adornment, and he grinds his teeth. He is the heir, has sat in on the lessons, learned the trade and how it all interweaves. This other man is nothing but a usurper. He may trump Haku with force, but the legend's hands are supposed to be loving, not distant and callous. They have to care.

"Not you," Haku calls back, his voice warped by the glass and cold. "Me."

"Perhaps at one time," Itachi allows softly, his eyes trying to communicate something, a change in plans that makes his heart ache.

Haku smiles, but it is not a kind thing. It is like the mirror, all sharp edges and hoarfrost, cutting and cold, and it sits as pretty as belladonna on his shapely face. The Uchiha thinks he's being gentle, being kind, but this one doesn't know kindness. He knows battle and struggle, but not peace, not acceptance and understanding.

"Me," Haku repeats, more forceful this time. "You may dress like the Rakki Ryuu, may emulate it, but you don't know it. You didn't grow up in hard places in hard times. You have not struggled to eat, been degraded for your birth. You know nothing of the garden she planted, and you will sterilize it with your systematic, callous implementation."

The other man stares, not answering, and Haku figures there is a way to get what he needs, a teacher who will be impassive and impartial. Uchiha Itachi is well known for being fearsome and skilled, a prodigy with his bloodline and an embodiment of the renegade shinobi. He knows how to fight, how to hide, and how to survive, but does he know what products to move where, or how to relate to a worker who has been looked down on their whole life? Can he blend in with a ramshackle town, adopt the local fashion and slang?

Does he know of the inner workings? The subtleties Haku has been surrounded with?

"The game is played forward, not back," Haku recites, quoting something Ryuishi once said. "All you know is killing and dying, Uchiha-san, but I can teach you more if you will teach me."

Itachi doesn't move for a second, but then he tilts his head a few centimeters to the side, and he nods just once, as if he is listening.

Haku smiles, and in his heart, he knows that his family will forgive him if he goes. He will always have a home to return to, and he can consult his parents with messengers along the way. It's not like he's leaving forever, or even going without some sort of contact to his loved ones. He just needs to create himself, to learn and grow.

He wants… no, he needs to be the inheritor of his mother's kingdom. He needs to carry on a legacy that means so much to so many, that means so much to him personally. He knows it won't be easy, that there will be troubles and problems.

Still, he thinks he should probably avoid an in-person meeting for some time. He'll be running drills for days without rest if they ever get their hands on him. Yes, it's better to let them cool down first. Only a year, of course.

Haku packs his bags, thinks some more, and winces. Maybe two.

"Your children are gone."

She does not flinch or look away from him, her gaze level and cool. She does not bow her head in shame, or wince at the verbal blow, nor does she tremble at the physical pain she is in, her hands and chakra reserves still mending. She has changed, this little project of his. Colder now, more directed and contained.

"I am aware," she says simply.

"Young Haku is under the eye of a man who holds him as you hold his brother. The Kazekage has taken his son under his personal tutelage. Jiraiya returns to pass on his knowledge to the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, and the Mizukage is not ignorant to the sword you carried that morning, nor am I," Orochimaru says, coldly stating facts.

"I am aware," she says again, unruffled in her appearance, eyes meeting his. Her sclera are beginning to clear from their hemorrhaging, but even he does not know if they will be the same as they were. He refuses to heal her, and is reluctant to have her stand before him. The link in her mind is a dangerous thing, and her wounds should be constant reminders of her choices.

"There is the seedling of war, and though it is contained for now, it will spread with the help of Madara and Zetsu. Lightning is gathering its forces, and Earth is waiting for an opportune moment. Fire, Wind, and Water country are allied with us in name, but hold no trust in their hearts. Sound does not have enough forces to defend itself should they attack. It may take half a year, it may take three, but it will come," he continues, striking harder.

She does not waver.

"What is it you plan to do?" Orochimaru asks her, growing bored.

"I don't know."

He blinks, registering the words and frowning just the slightest. He taps his finger just once on his armrest and views her through half-lidded eyes. Her features are cast in stark contrast by the sconces on the wall, and should display any tells that she has, but there is nothing. Not a change in her eyes, or a tug at her lips. Her posture is the same, ever so defensive and predatory, seemingly lackadaisical and yet anything but.

"You lie, child," he says coolly, feeling the words seep like venom from between his teeth, because she must be lying. She has to be.

She has plans, always has plans. She had plans for her little swordsman, the proof is in the white flesh that holds his chest together. She has plans for the man who called himself her leader, and yet came running like a dog when she was in danger. Scheming is what they do. It's how they account for every stray strand of fate that crosses their path, and weave it to their own ends.

(And it's irksome that she refuses to let go of some of those stays. She made him choose that morning—cut down a nuisance, or hunt the ones who attacked his city. It was a flawless deflection on her part, and now he has not seen the sword or its wielder in weeks. Just as long as her hands have remained wounded in penance.)

"I might be lying through ignorance," she agrees. "But I do not know what I will do next."

He doesn't answer, but his mood drops. She is truly admitting her ignorance and inability, not playing any part. She's distancing herself from everything, including him.

"I don't know what's best for the world. I have trouble figuring out what's best for me, Orochimaru. It was foolishness to think that I could impose morality and culture onto a world that already had its own. All I've done is made an ambiguous situation even more muddled."

Orochimaru allows a small hum to sound through the chambers. It echoes off the stone walls melodiously. In the end, they both know what he thinks. The lines between them have always been clear, just as visible as the scar around her throat. Emotional dissonance does not matter, in the end.

"You will remain as long as you are more useful than detrimental," he says, the words calm and ever so soft. It is a dare, a goad to see if she really means what she says. Before, she would visibly strain under the explicit order, but now she does not move.

"I will not leave you," she agrees calmly. He wants to detest it, the arrogance behind it all, but this is her confession. This is her statement of loyalty. She may have reclaimed some things, but she is not unaware of the one who has always been there. She will not run away and abandon her work, or her partner.

He doesn't give anything away, but silently, he approves. Gold meets coal and the two stand in silence, an understanding passing between them. They know that in truth, he has barely touched upon the troubles she has.

Ryuishi does not say it, but she is thankful. She does not need to hear them to know.

Zabuza has white flesh inside his chest. Getting rid of it requires healing that can only be done by one woman, and their son is out gallivanting with Uchiha Itachi. Kakashi is angry at her, deserves to be angry at her, and he's far away where she can't fix what's between them, with a team that has already been influenced by her too much. Kisame is an asshole, repentant but problematic, and she has to punch him in the dick a thousand more times when he gets out of his sword. Misaki and Kagami are locked in verbal combat somewhere in Kumo, and the sects of what is left need a guiding hand.

That's not even half of them. Probably not even a third. She could go on, about the projected outcomes that are all ordered in descending order of fucked up. She could start a segment on how she has no clue about her own interpersonal relationships anymore, or how she's pretty sure the Void inside her has gained ground after years of being held back. She could wax poetic about how Obito and her have become less 'he' and 'she', more of 'they'. About how the ember of self that sustained her after death, as hard and solid as diamond, melted away and became something else.

Years ago, she was born into this world. Back then she was sure, so very sure, that she could shape it into something better. That she could change things that needed to be changed, inject her new ideas into the system, morph it like that. Hell, not even a full month ago she was convinced she just needed to control it better, to reign like a dictator.

She's not done. Not with the paperwork from the evacuation, not done cleaning up the mess that is trade, not done trying even though a part of her wants to be. She's tired, physically, mentally, and emotionally. A piece of her wants to lie down and quietly give the rest of herself to the Void, dragging Obito's parts with her. It thinks that they are ready for eternal non-existence, that they made a mess they can't clean up, and the next step is to leave it to somebody with a better chance of repairing it instead of fucking it up further.

But then, she did okay in some areas. People are alive because her, new children and seniors grown, adults who learned to read at twenty eight, and learned to write at twenty nine. There is art, literature, science and math spinning in every direction; advancements that both benefit and harm. Zabuza and Haku live, The Akatsuki has been set back years, and Gaara and Naruto have friends and family; social circles to depend on outside of her.

Her mind is so ready, finds it so easy to paint it in black and white, but it's never been so. It's always been colors, so many colors and shades…

Orochimaru stares at her, and she doesn't know why, but she smiles. It's the barest twist of her lips stretching across her face, a mimicry of something that goes unnamed. Perhaps it is sadness, or a tiredness that goes bone deep. Maybe it is the rage or fear that lives inside her heart that makes it's way to her face. It could even be gratefulness, relief, or most unbelievably of all, joy, that pulls the corner of her lips upward.

Orochimaru smiles back, and his expression is just as vague as hers.

Zabuza is quiet as he stares down at the carefully inked lines of the drawings she made decades ago, taking in each face as if it is the first time he is seeing them, and the portraits haven't hung in their house since the start. The paper is brittle against his fingertips, yellowed by the years and worn by the abuse it saw before it was put somewhere safe.

"Dead," he says finally, breaking the silence. It's just one word, but it hangs heavy, a tangible weight among the three of them.

"Died," she corrects tiredly from beside him, leaning back against the pillows.

He is tempted to ask what the difference is, but his chest twinges as if to remind him of the spiralling Void inside of her, the one that took away his pain and sang out to bring him home. That nothingness is death, and it exists inside her, but it isn't who she is.

"And that's how you…?" Kisame trails off, subdued. His frame is still a bit small from the chakra drain, lightly muscled and a bit bony. It makes it easier for him to fit on the cushion with them all, at least.

"Yes," she says finally. It's only taken her twenty four years to come clean. Or, sorta clean.

She supposes at this point it helps that it has been empirically proven that she's linked to death. Nobody else in the world could act as a funnel for Edo Tensei.

It also probably helps that her unit, for better or worse, is stuck together now. It's not healthy, not in the least. She could point out a thousand flaws between them all, from degrading commentary to physical violence, but it wouldn't make them any less of a team.

Zabuza grunts, leaning back and tossing the picture gently onto the table, never taking his eyes off of it. He's been a bit more withdrawn and stressed since they received Haku's crow, but he's recovering well. Or, as well as he can be.

Kisame looks like he has a migraine, his jaw clenched together in a poor effort to hide it. She can tell that he has a lot of questions he can't word just right, but they are past the event horizon now. There's no turning back alone, and that is… it's…

It's more comforting than she can express.

Ryuishi leans her head against Zabuza's shoulder, lazily bumping her thigh against Kisame, who wordlessly nudges her back. It's been a long, long road, and nobody has made it out unscathed.

They are monsters, each and every one of them, but they know that. They have seen the worst in the world and in each other. From Kisame's inadvertent torture, to Zabuza's merciless possessiveness, and Ryuishi's incredible selfishness.

They aren't ignorant of what they are, of what they can do to each other, and yet here they are.

It's a choice. Maybe not a good one, but it's theirs.