Another chapter is here!
Naruto brushed the sweat from his brow using the sleeve of his shirt and stared at the bubbling pot in front of him while licking his lips. His kitchen had rarely seen use before July, but now the stove was on full blast and steam bubbled from his pots and pans, filling his home with a myriad of appetizing scents. The gnawing sensation in his stomach that they wrought silently willed the noodles to cook faster before he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned his head to the side.
Karin was standing there, holding a spoonful of broth with one hand underneath to catch any stray drops. She pushed it towards his lips and said, "Taste this and tell me what you think."
Naruto opened his mouth and in the spoon went. The moment the broth touched his tongue he could taste mix of flavors within the hot liquid. "I can taste the garlic and onion and chicken, but there's something else. It's kind of sweet, but spicy."
"The ginger gives it a tangy aftertaste," she said, running water from the faucet over the spoon and drying it on a towel before setting it down. She then crossed her arms as she looked over everything else. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing her bare arms and the bite marks that she normally kept hidden. "How's the pork belly coming?"
"Working on it," Naruto said as he looked down to the cutting board in front of him and the knife in his hand. He was helping as well since it was a Saturday afternoon and one of the few days that they both had off to spend time together. Plus, he'd feel bad if he didn't do anything while she was cooking. That being said, he wasn't exactly the most proficient cook around. "Sort of."
Karin's brows rose at that and looked over his shoulder towards the meat. "You have to cut it more neatly. Let me show you."
She then positioned herself so that she was against his back. Her hands glided down his arms until they reached the back of his hands and grasped them firmly. From there she guided his limbs with her own nestled against them. "You can't treat it like a kunai or throwing knife. Use the points to carve into it in a single motion."
As she demonstrated, slicing the pork belly neatly a few times, Naruto caught a somewhat pleasant scent coming from her. Which was strange since she had been working on the broth since early morning and had been exposed to the heat the longest. "A…Are you wearing perfume?"
Karin released him and smelled herself, looking somewhat bothered. "That friend of Sakura's, the Yamanaka, apparently figured out we were dating, and one thing led to another. Since I figured I'd be sweating a lot, I thought it couldn't hurt… does it smell too strong?"
He shook his head and clarified before there was a misunderstanding. "I just noticed it smells like flowers." He looked back to the pot. "Still, I didn't think making Ramen was this hard or took this long."
Karin nodded as she began peeling the boiled eggs under the cold running water next. "My mother once said that you appreciate the food you like more when you put in the effort into making it. Besides, learning to cook on your own is good for when you live alone. It's helped me when I needed to pass the time back in Grass… that reminds me, what kind of cake do you want for your birthday?"
The knife in his hand paused its cutting at the mention. "Huh?"
"Your birthday is coming up, isn't it?" Karin clarified as she set the eggs down in a bowl and then turned to him again. "You're going to celebrate it, right?"
"Ah…" He set the knife down, sighed, and rubbed the back of his neck at that before looking away from her. "I don't usually celebrate it, given everything that happened that day…"
The day of his birth was also the day of the Nine-Tailed Fox's attack on the village. A lot of people died on that day, including the Fourth Hokage—who he had learned was his father. Being the one housing the Tailed Beast, the last thing people wanted to see running around was him, so he usually stayed out of sight with the exception of a few people.
It… it honestly hurt that day more than others. Years were spent where he'd just want to be acknowledged by the kids around his age, only to be shunned or ignored as he watched them go home to the people they loved while he only had an empty apartment waiting for him. And while the folks at Ichiraku's, the Hokage, and later Iruka made things better, at the end of the day he was still alone in the world.
Karin seemed to get what was being left unsaid as he trailed off. She brushed her hands clean on a towel and then pulled him into a hug. The wellspring of painful and depressing memories of birthdays spent alone in the past faded as she held him close.
"That was before now," she said softly in his ear. A sense of comfort blossomed in his chest between the warmth of her body and gentleness of her voice. "So many things have changed for you in the last few months, haven't they?"
Whereas before people would have ignored him, they cheered for him at the Finals. He'd made friends with his teammates, Konohamaru's group, and a bunch of other people. He found out the identity of his family and even found out he had a clan at one point, with Karin being part of it.
And he even became a Chuunin, moving him one step closer to his dreams. "…Yeah, you're right."
Hearing the more positive change in his voice, she smiled. "So, how about we have a small party with your friends and teammates that day?"
"That… does sounds nice," Naruto admitted. "But I'm sure they'll be busy. It'd be a bit selfish for me to want to take up their time like that for myself."
"It's okay to be a little selfish." Karin leaned her head forward so that their foreheads were touching. A spot of crimson decorated her cheeks as she added, "I've actually been struggling to find a gift for your birthday too after that date you took me on, so I figured it'd be more fitting if I could instead make a great memory for you."
"Oh…" He hadn't realized that she was thinking that hard on it for so long, in-between getting her license and her own training. If it put her at ease and made her happy, who was he to argue? And, if he had to admit, it would be nice having a party with others if he could for once. "Well, if that's the case, I'll look forward to it."
Karin nodded in approval and pulled her head back as they separated. "I'll talk to Sakura and have her help me with the invitations. Depending on how many people there are, we may need to arrange to hold it somewhere bigger. And there has to be enough food and cake. What kind do you want?"
"What kind did you have for your last birthday?" he asked, only to see her expression freeze in place. "What's wrong?"
"…My last birthday wasn't too long before we met, but I didn't do anything special," she said, after a moment. "I was all alone and had to focus on getting ready for the Exams with my asshole teammates and…other stuff. I wouldn't have been in a position or have anything to really celebrate until I ran into you."
Naruto felt a smolder of anger stirring in his chest at that. Back then she was with Orochimaru and Kabuto. Knowing how scared she was of them, she would have been more afraid of dying than worrying about celebrating her birthday. As lonely as Naruto had been, he could still call this village home. She hadn't been so lucky.
"Next year then," he said firmly. The shift in tone was enough that Karin took notice. "Next year we'll do something really special for your birthday. I promise."
"…I'll look forward to it then." Karin turned towards the sink, hiding her face from his as she brushed her eyes with her hands. "Anyway, let's finish making the Ramen."
GRRRRRRR! Naruto's stomach quite loudly agreed with a growl that was audible above the bubbling pots. He felt a bit embarrassed as a result. "Um…"
It served to change the mood of the atmosphere at least as a good-natured laugh followed from Karin, leaving her shoulders trembling as she kept her back to him. Once she caught her breath, she turned her head around and gave him an earnest smile that made his chest feel lighter. "Just wait a little longer and I promise it'll be worth it."
With a nod, Naruto got back to cutting the pork belly. It took a bit more time, but they managed to finish the Tonkotsu Ramen ingredients and put it together. Karin had been right when she you appreciated the foods you like more when you put more effort into it, since it was easily the most delicious thing he'd eaten since he first tasted Ramen.
"Narue, open up!" said a masculine voice after a series of knocks against the wooden door leading to the basement. "The food's ready."
The sealing expert failed to register her boyfriend's voice as her eyes went over a copy of a layer of the Divine God sealing array on the paper in front of her. It was a thing of such beauty, with every curvature and line being done by the hands of what was clearly an unparalleled artisan, that everything outside of it and her were a black void. She couldn't help but admire it, with everything being done so meticulous and precisely that if she didn't know better she would presumed that this was the entire sealing array rather than merely a layer.
Such efficiency and skill must've taken a lifetime to hone. Years or decades must've been dedicated to carving it based on how many layers there were. If she had to guess, it was practically done as an offering to the god in question that was sealed within the mask.
The black void that was the world around her only came into color again when she felt something reaching out of it and grasping her. Her eyes shifted off the paper, tracing the source through the lenses of her glasses to find that Okei was now by her side in his cooking apron. The glint off his glasses hid his eyes, but she was fairly sure from his posture, and the way his fingers were curled around the handle of the ladle in his other hand, that he was annoyed.
"What's wrong, Hun?" she asked.
"We've been here less than a month and you've already covered everything in seals again." He adjusted his glasses as he looked around the basement to find that the walls and floor and ceiling had already been covered in variety of sealing arrays and script. "This is exactly why your landlord wanted you out of the last place, you know?"
"Hey, those seals did a great job in keeping that place held together." The skewer in the corner of her mouth shifted as her tongue lapped over it, savoring the lingering taste of the honey that had coated the snack. She had a bit of a sweet-tooth, so she was really giddy when he remembered to bring a few jars back from the Land of Honey during the mission he'd gone on with Naruto. The richness of the honey was just what she needed to get through the long hours of research into her work, though she would have preferred it if he hadn't gotten hurt in the first place. "Just because he didn't understand the merit of my additions doesn't mean I broke my leasing agreement."
"More like you put them everywhere without considering that not everyone liked having their walls covered in ink and writing. That's called vandalism." Okei rolled his neck as he let out a heavy sigh and then craned his head back to her. "Anyway, put your research away for an hour and come eat proper food."
"I told you I'd come out for dinner after you brought me lunch an hour ago."
His eyebrow and upper lip twitched. "Narue, that was seven hours ago."
"It was?" She peered towards the clock on the wall to see that it was just after 8 PM. "So it was."
"I swear, we rarely get time off together and you spend it in here." He had been taking more missions as of late since his arm had healed and she had been delving into her research with an unmatched zeal that could only be found in a truly passionate project after the last advancement was made.
"Don't be that way, Hun. I'm making some strides in—" Her voice died abruptly as a sharp sensation ran through her skull. Narue screwed her eyes shut and pressed her palm against her forehead. "Not… now…"
Whatever annoyance Okei had been feeling before had been replaced with concern as he looked on. "Is it another one of your migraines?"
"C-Can you go and make me some ginger tea with extra honey to settle it?" she asked, her voice soft despite the new information filling her mind. "I'll come out when it's done and eat with you. I promise."
"…Right," he said, before turning to leave.
The moment he was out of the room and shut the door, Narue rose to her feet and locked it. Then she placed her hand on the back of it and sent chakra into it. A hidden seal written in invisible ink activated and the sealing script on it rushed out and connected to several of the other seals scribbled about, forming an array that sealed the basement off from the outside by all senses and chakra.
That done, she went back to her desk and unlocked the bottom drawer, where she found that the summoning array on a slip of paper had been activated. An albino serpent was there, coiled up and flicking its tongue. She started down at it with as much contempt as she could manage. "What do you want, Yakushi?"
"Now, now. There's no need for the hostility, is there?" She shuddered as his voice left out of the serpent's mouth, goosebumps forming as they slid up her skin and slithered their way into her ears. "After all, I've been nothing but cordial since we've met one another."
"Cordial?" Tension threaded her body at that. Her fist balled up and she couldn't stop herself from gritting her teeth. Yet the words that managed to squeeze through came out loud and hoarse. "You call placing this seal in my head cordial!?"
Kabuto had seemed like a nice young man when he'd approached her, despite being several years her junior. She had been adamant in her studies into the Sealing Arts, partly due to her having spent some of her childhood in the Village Hidden under the Moon with a relative. It had enraptured her from a young age, mystified her with its workings. With ink and a brush, you could do so much with so little—you could bend the laws of nature, exploit the laws of space and time, or even perform what should have been outright miracles.
She could see the potential in it and wanted to realize it from even a young age. But to most others it was boring. You spent hours researching every line, every curvature, every script, experimenting on what changed what, working out the processes and how they were implemented. Not many shinobi were willing to put a lifetime of study into sealing work beyond the necessities that were useful on the field—storage and explosive seals.
So, when she was approached by Kabuto and he expressed an interest in her work, she was flattered initially. He came off as being a little shy, but charming. At the same time, she felt sympathy for him after learning he'd been the only survivor of the Battle of Kikyou Pass and proud that he wanted to learn more about medical ninjutsu so that others wouldn't die on the battlefield.
That was why she believed that he wanted to use her knowledge of Sealing Arts to help recreate something akin to Tsunade Senju's seal, which was said to allow the body to heal immediately after being injured. The sealing slips she'd made to house Yang Chakra were born of that effort, but the overall process was too complicated through the knowledge they'd had at the time. It still was as things stood, given the secrecy of the woman when it came to her skills and the fact that she hadn't been in the village in years.
Yet, she found herself amazed that a relatively unknown and young Genin managed to come up with the theories he did. At first, she ignored that someone with his skills and knowledge was so reclusive and merely brushed it off as him being shy. That was why she respected his wish to keep things quiet until they made enough plausible progress to release the information and possibly get funding for a project.
It was only after Kabuto had deemed her useful enough, and that she trusted him enough to follow him home, that she realized her mistake. He'd drugged her, placed a seal inside of her head while she was out, and then kindly explained the situation while she was tied down. With most of the other spies gone now after the failed Invasion and her current placement, it made her more valuable to him. But she didn't allow herself to be fooled into thinking that he wouldn't trigger the kill-switch in the seal the moment she went against him.
"My interest was genuine," he claimed. "After all, Sound prizes those as knowledgeable as yourself, and I'd like to believe that we both benefit from the arrangement. I even went out of my way to find that information you inquired about, providing you've done what I asked."
She inhaled through her nose sharply, filling her lungs and holding her breath as she looked at the door and hesitated. It was treason considering what he'd intended to use it for, but she could push aside the threat of death from both sides for the sake of knowledge. What bothered her was the fact that she knew Okei would be devastated in doing so, being as loyal as he was to the village.
Perhaps sensing her hesitation, Kabuto asked, "Is your lover going to be a problem?"
Her eyes snapped back towards the serpent and fixed into an impressive glare. "You leave him out of this. I haven't forgotten how you had his arm broken!"
The serpent shook its head. "I instructed Mizuki to bring Naruto-kun to me alive, not harm his allies. Otherwise, he would have never returned from the Land of Honey. As long as I gain more from him alive than dead, his safety is assured as far as my influence goes."
In other words, as long as she was compliant he wouldn't be targeted directly. It was the 'carrot and stick' approach. If she helped when asked, she received knowledge and research to further her own studies. If she didn't, he could kill Okei and then her.
Narue pulled the seal that he asked for on a sheet of paper from a folder and showed it to the serpent. "That should dispel the seal on the Sealed Hall without triggering any of the alarms, and let you get whatever was inside of it out."
The snake's gaze looked at it carefully before nodding. Then it regurgitated a small scroll from inside of its belly. Thankfully it was waterproof, so it was easy to clean and unravel.
"This is the cipher for this layer?" She looked between the copy of the layer she had been studying prior and it. It was exactly what she requested. "Where did you find this?"
"I had it compiled straight from the source," Kabuto said through the serpent as it took what she had made and placed on the summoning array.
Her eyes froze in place and a weight fell into her stomach as the emotional part of her caught the underlying meaning to his words and hung on them. "You raised them from the dead, didn't you?"
He didn't deny it. "One should strive to attain knowledge no matter what it takes. That drive is the mark of a true researcher, after all."
Narue… couldn't say he was wrong. Not exactly. Regardless of how he got it, this was a piece of lost history in her hands. The potential good it could do and the lost knowledge they could regain outweighed briefly disturbing the eternal slumber of the dead…right?
Her musing on it was disturbed when she heard knocking on the door, signifying that Okei had finished the tea. He couldn't get in with the seal active or hear anything. But he would get suspicious if they carried on longer.
"I'll leave your seal undone until Midnight," Kabuto said through the serpent. "Have your report ready by then and we'll move onto the next assignment I have for one of your talents. You'll be working on undoing one of Jiraiya's seals this time, so I expect it to be a challenge but within your capabilities."
Narue pursed her lips at the thought of the challenge, but nodded her head. Even if she had regrets, it was too late for them now. Shutting the dresser and locking it again, she sealed away the evidence of her treason.
Time passed until it was a mere three days before Naruto's birthday.
Karin found herself absentmindedly tapping her pen against the clipboard in her hand while looking at the list of names written upon it. They were all the people who would be attending Naruto's birthday celebration, mostly his peers that Sakura had talked to about it and the three little kids that he played with occasionally—the adults would mostly be working, but promised to show up if they could.
"There will probably be about… maybe twenty people," she said to Ayame, who was sitting opposite of her. They were inside of the back of the Ramen stall at the moment, with Teuchi manning the front as the sun set in the distance and night closed in on the horizon.
"We'll probably need to make a second cake then," Ayame mused, before a thought came to her mind. "Then again, maybe we should probably make some lighter desserts for the girls instead. Just in case they're watching their weight."
Red hair lightly swayed as Karin shook her head and handed over the list to the older girl she'd come to regard as reliable. "Most kunoichi get enough exercise that they burn it off quickly, so you don't need to worry about that."
"That's convenient." There was just a hint of envy in Ayame's playful tone as she recognized one particular name on the list. "If Kiba-kun is there, Akamaru-kun will be too. The puppy has quite an appetite for meat."
"You're right, Inuzuka and their partners are usually inseparable…" Her frustration compounded when she looked over another name on the list. "And one of them is an Akimichi too, so he might have a larger than average appetite to compensate for his clan's techniques."
Karin bit her inner lip lightly at the oversights on her part as she added a note to compensate for the pair respectively. But it was a blunder that shouldn't have happened. To be safe, she ran her narrowed eyes over the list again frantically to ensure she had caught everything this time.
Ayame set a hand on her shoulder, causing her eyes to snap upwards. "Calm down. You're doing more than enough."
"…I just want to make sure that it can be as close to perfect as possible to make up for the date he took me on," Karin confessed. "If I don't put everything into it, it'd feel like I wasn't doing enough."
"Naruto wouldn't be happy if you overdid it and stressed yourself out for him," Ayame said in turn. "It might just make him feel guilty. Believe me when I say you've done enough at the moment and that he'll be happy with things as they are."
Karin took a moment to register Ayame's words. Then she sighed and set the list down on her lap. "You're right. Thanks for that… and helping with this."
"I've been meaning to give catering a try for a while now, so it'll be good practice," Ayame said, putting on a smile before she stood up and stretched her arms. "We can start the day after tomorrow, so why don't you head on home and relax for a bit."
Karin nodded and brought the meeting to a close, but her destination wasn't her own home. It was Naruto's. She wanted to at least tell him that the location was set and everyone who planned on coming.
However, when she checked to see if he was inside with her Mind's Eye as she neared the building, Karin noticed there was familiar chakra signature in there with him. Jiraiya, or a Shadow Clone of him at the very least, judging by the amount of chakra he possessed. Curious, but not wanting to really eavesdrop on them, she instead knocked on the door and announced herself. "Naruto, can I come in?"
"Yeah, just a second," was the response through the door. It was more like five seconds though before the lock clicked open and the door followed. Naruto gave her an infectiously warm smile and stepped aside for her to enter. "You've got really good timing, Karin-chan."
"I do?" She looked over to the Toad Sage sitting at the table with a cup in front of him. Maybe he was the original and the Shadow Clone was off doing something else? "What's going on?"
"I originally came here since I figured you'd be here at this time," Jiraiya said. "We've managed to work out how to get the Cursed Seal off your leg."
Surprise blossomed on her face at that. "You have?"
He nodded and gestured for her to take a seat. Once she did, he began an explanation. "The Cursed Seals have always been something of an enigma when it comes to Orochimaru's work to us. It simply did too many things—acting as secondary chakra source, the changes to the body and mind, the difficulty removing them, and so on. But there was one thing that was consistent with all of them so far: the method that he used to implant them."
"You mean through a bite?" she asked.
"A snakebite to be specific. But yeah." He took a quick drink of whatever was in his cup before he continued. "Orochimaru, myself, and Princess all have contracts with the Snakes, Toads, and Slugs respectively. Each of them has certain secrets arts unique to them, but they're at least aware of each other to some extent. So, after a little work, I managed to figure out that Natural Energy was involved."
Karin's brows folded in at that. "I don't think I've heard of that."
"It's sort of like chakra that the world itself gives off," he said, simplifying it to a great extent. "The Snakes and the Toads draw it into themselves to become stronger, and Sage Training allows shinobi that meet the requirements to do the same. Somehow Orochimaru injected foreign cells that passively take in Natural Energy and that basically serves as the keystone behind the different aspects of the Cursed Seals—the transformation, the additional chakra, and everything else."
"But the body should reject foreign cells, shouldn't it?" At least that was what she knew from the medical courses. "Foreign cells, foreign chakra, those sorts of things are rejected by the body over time, with the more radical changes resulting in more violent rejections. Even Medical Chakra has to be regulated properly to avoid that happening to a patient."
Jiraiya frowned, but didn't deny it. "That's part of the reason it has such a high fatality rate for the stronger Heaven and Earth seals. But if the body can handle the implantation process, it combines with the chakra inside of the seal's base and gives them varying stages of strength, feeding off their chakra and replacing it with Sage Chakra that comes from mixing Natural Energy with normal chakra. For the weaker seals, like the Seal of Subjugation, the Natural Energy just anchors it and allows the seal to carry out whatever function it's supposed to do. And because it can take in that energy passively and convert it into chakra over time, so long as the seal's output doesn't surpass the amount taken in and stored over time, it lasts until their death."
Karin had grown increasingly uncomfortable after she listened to the explanation. Tension threaded her body, leaving her fingers balled tight in her lap. "But you can remove it now, right?"
"The procedure to remove the Cursed Seal can be done as early as tomorrow, but it'll take a few hours and we've got to pretty much block off your chakra network so that the chakra present within the seal doesn't leak into it," he said. "And we'll have to drain the chakra naturally present within your body too, so it'll lose its healing properties until it naturally stores up again. But once we purge the Natural Energy and then surgically remove the foreign elements, you'll be up and moving within a day and that excess chakra can be stored away for emergencies."
"…I'll go through with it tomorrow, after I make sure we get everything we need for Naruto's birthday," Karin decided, after some thought. While she could wait until after Naruto's birthday, getting rid of it as soon as possible was better since it wouldn't be a constant weight on their minds.
"I'll make the arrangements in your place and foot the bill for everything," Jiraiya said, rising out of his chair and to his feet. "Just focus on getting a good night's sleep, and we'll have Anbu pick you up in the morning."
After that, Jiraiya bid them goodbye and then departed to handle other business. He'd been busy as of late, according to Naruto. That left the two of them alone in Naruto's apartment.
Naruto shut the door softly and then turned to her, asking, "You sure about doing this so soon?"
"The sooner its gone, the easier it'll be for me to relax." She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "I don't want to be helpless again because it can be turned on at the flip of a switch."
"Yeah, that's definitely for the best," Naruto agreed. "Plus, the fact that they can remove it from you means they can remove it from Sasuke too. He's been stuck here as long as we have because it, so he'll probably be happy to know that much. I'll have tell him the good news."
"When you do, remind him to show up at the party too," Karin said, recalling why she came in the first place. "Sakura managed to get Team 8, Team 9, Team Gai, and Team 10 to agree to come, along with your little friends and Ayame. The adults were busy, but said they'd come by if they could make time. It'll be held at the training field where we had our date."
That place held a lot of meaning for her, and the memory of it was still vivid in her mind. If she could make it so he felt even a fraction of the happiness that she felt that night, then she'd call it a success. But it'd be better if she could return it tenfold.
Naruto's expression softened. "So, they're really coming for my birthday?"
"Of course they are. They're your friends after all." She rose to her feet and replaced her glasses before approaching him. Then, leaning in slowly, she moved her face close enough to feel his breath washing against her skin and pressed her lips together in the telltale motion for a kiss.
Naruto tensed at first in anticipation, a blush forming on his cheeks. But the tension faded the moment her lips gently pressed against his cheek. And in its place, a pleasant warmth melted his mind.
Karin felt the same euphoria rolling through her body as she lingered for a moment and the temptation bubbled up again. But she fought the compulsion to down and pulled back, settling for asking, "I'd better head home and get to sleep early. Will you walk me?"
Naruto bobbed his head in a slight daze, the hint of a reddish hue coloring his cheek now spread throughout his entire face, until he managed to snap out of it and followed her out. Midway there, he remembered he should tell Sasuke the good news and sent a Shadow Clone to do so for him.
Torches illuminated the hidden space beneath the Naka Shrine, a hideaway meant to be a shelter from prying eyes and discuss important matters involving the Uchiha Clan. Privacy was essential for Sasuke, more than ever before. He didn't want to be disturbed or overseen as he underwent the process of elevating his Cursed Seal to next stage.
Orochimaru's instructions within the storage scroll he'd been given had taken time to get through and practice. More so given that he had to do so alone and failure meant death. But, as he slid the lid off of the coffin, Sasuke stood straight while the markings of the Cursed Seal spread across his body and then encroached further.
His dark hair took on a different hue as it wildly spilled down his back. Pale flesh was now charcoal in tone from head-to-toe. Broad and massive hands jutted out of his back like a set of webbed pinions, each flexing with as much effort as he would his own fingers.
Sasuke felt… powerful. The secondary source of chakra stemming from the seal now was so much more potent than before, a world of difference really. He felt like he could even take on Itachi in his current state, despite the difference in ability displayed when they'd last encountered one another…
No, he told himself. He wouldn't allow himself to fall into that trap again. Itachi's death would come, but not before he was assured that he could compete with him. There was still time and he needed to use every last minute of it to prepare.
After spending a few moments more getting accustomed to his new form, Sasuke released the transformation and reassumed his normal form. There was a chill on his back that he noticed as he left out of the secret panel, stemming from the new pair of holes that had come from where the wings had sprouted from unexpectedly and pierced through the fabric, leaving only ragged scraps hanging down. He made a mental note to wear removable shirts in the future as he made his way back to his home.
It was night at this point. The expansive veil of darkness draping the district was far more pronounced due to the fact that lights were largely unnecessary. The buildings were all empty save the one that Sasuke called his own, their occupants having been murdered by his brother years ago.
Yet, there was a single, familiar voice that called out of the darkness from near the main road of the district as he neared it. "Saaaassssuuuukkkkeeee! Where are you?"
Sasuke's lips pressed thin and his brows folded inwards, out of annoyance rather than anger at the trespassing. He leapt up to the top of one of the buildings to look down on Naruto's clone wandering around aimlessly. "What are you doing here, Naruto?"
"I've got good news for you," he said, sounding relieved. "They found a way to get the Cursed Seal off you!"
Sasuke managed to keep his face expressionless as that bit of news reached his ears. It… really didn't surprise him. They were working on it for some time now, but he just thought it would take more time than this.
Well… the timing could be worse, he thought to himself. There were still techniques Kakashi could teach him, but he'd gotten a good enough handle on using his Sharingan at this point that he could fill in the gaps under his own efforts. And he'd already decided that whatever tutelage the Leaf could offer wouldn't be able to surpass what he had to gain from the Cursed Seal and the chance to face his brother and avenge his clan unhindered.
So, all the clone did was signal to him that now was the time to leave.
"Got it," Sasuke said as he jumped down from the building nonchalantly, before stuffing his hands into his pocket and walking home. "You can find your way back to the entrance, right?"
"I thought you'd be more excited that you'd finally be able to leave the village again once the seal was off," Naruto's clone said, slightly disheartened at the lack of a response. "And what happened to the back of your shirt?"
"Training accident." he lied smoothly as he continued to walk towards his home. He'd already packed up the things he wanted to take with him—or at least as much as he could without raising suspicion if someone went looking around his room while he was out. So it would be relatively simple to grab the storage scroll and bag that it was all placed in, summon the snake, and leave the village undetected.
Unfortunately, the clone continued to follow behind him while asking, "Well, you're coming to my birthday, right?"
Right, Kakashi and Sakura did mention that, didn't they? Sasuke remembered after a moment. Given that he was planning to leave in less than an hour, he wouldn't be there. But there was no point in letting the clone get suspicious. "Fine. If I don't go, I'm sure the others will drag me there anyway."
Naruto's clone grinned brightly at the assurance, ignorant of his teammate's intentions. "I'll save you a slice of cake, but don't get there too late."
Sasuke just gave him a disinterested grunt and watched as Naruto's clone disappeared with a light puff of smoke. Once he was sure that there were no other surprises waiting for him, Sasuke went back to his home and grabbed the traveling bag containing the storage scroll that held everything he'd packed away. Someone would come and check on him eventually to find him missing. They'd probably search for a bit before notifying Kakashi and starting an investigation into it.
For a moment, he imagined the disappointed faces of Naruto and Sakura when they learned that he'd left. That he ignored their words of kindness and companionship, even going so far as to lie to their faces, to pursue the path of vengeance. But he'd made his choice and wouldn't turn back now.
Resolve steeled, he made the seals for the Summoning technique and called forth a brownish serpent that glared at him from its coiled position. Then he told it the words that it had been waiting to hear since he'd established the temporary contract. "I'm ready."
Shortly after Sasuke was spirited away to the dwelling of the Snakes, nestled within one of the three sage regions and its location known to few, a smile played on the lips of Orochimaru as Kabuto approached him with the good news. The last of the Uchiha was firmly in his grasp now. Even if it would be a few years until he could swap his current vessel with the valued body housing the Sharingan eyes, he obtained part of what he desired from the village.
Now it was just a matter of seeing the Leaf destroyed. His last attempt was flawed because he'd gone overt and wanted to make a spectacle of it, to let the Leaf burn and let the world know it was him who was trying to become the winds of change to stir progression. This time, he'd just resort to directly undercutting the village by going after the foundation itself—the people that represented the Will of Fire that they believed in so reverently.
"Have all the arrangements been made?" he asked his protégé from his throne, his elbow resting on the armrest and head propped up by his hand. He knew Danzo favored having his ROOT members in positions where he could make changes to the village or interfere with things with little oversight. It would be relatively simple to have them set explosives at the various targets without arousing suspicious—weapon caches, the power plants, the hospitals, the stadium, the Academy, and so on.
Kabuto nodded. "The contamination rate should have reached its optimal point. We need only to send the signal through the Relay Serpents and they will obey the instructions they're given."
"Excellent. Then have them go along with the plan we discussed earlier. And have the remaining members of the Sound Four carry out their own parts as well. Warn them that if they fail this time, there won't be a third chance."
"As you wish, Lord Orochimaru," Kabuto said, before promptly leaving to carry out the request.
Anko would scream if she could still move her mouth. At this point, what was left was just a mere shade of her consciousness. Akin to a dying flame with darkness closing in on all sides to snuff it out. It was only through her force of will that she was lucid enough to be aware of what was happening in her own body and mindscape.
She was bound in what felt like a cocoon of pulsing, boated meat that swaddled her so tightly that she couldn't move. The air was stagnant and rotting, with a stygian darkness hiding the rest of the victims whose bodies he had stolen over the decades from her view, barring the few closest to her. Their souls had been dragged along with his when he stole their bodies, their consciousness and chakra utterly suppressed to the point they would never wake.
The fact that she was lucid compared to them wasn't a mercy. Not when all she could do was sit there and listen as he plotted the village's destruction through subversion and terrorism. And knowing it was only possible because he'd used her body to do so after she'd been captured.
Unable to do a thing to stop it, there was only one word to describe her current state: Hell.
It was a personal Hell. Her greatest fears realized. And so she suffered in it, clinging to a frail and fleeting hope that if she held on long enough, there would be a chance to crawl out of it and put an end to Orochimaru once and for all…