Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
AN: Hey, folks! It's been a while, but I thought the first chapter of the sequel to T7A – Blood Wings might make you happy. Enjoy! On my profile you'll find two links, each leading you to a map. I don't think they're necessary to understand the story, but maybe they'll help you in situating the different localities. But enough of that. I think it's time for the show to get on the road.
Ps: Apparently the links to the maps weren't working because only white-listed sites are accepted. Just insert the periods, etc. and it should start to work. I'm sorry that the issue is so cumbersome at the moment. Hopefully it'll work this way.
Lines in the Sand
Straight – I
"Why are you like this?" the child asked.
"I was born from necessity," the first wolf said.
"I have never been anything else," the second wolf said.
The third wolf looked at them and laughed.
"I became what I am because I grew to like the taste of flesh. Being a sheep offers nothing."
Eight months after Orochimaru's treachery broke Konoha's walls, Sarutobi Hiruzen stood on Suna's battered main plaza having returned the favor. The tiles under his feet were chipped. The fountain close to him missed half its structure, a deep gouge in the ground where the other half had been.
Four ANBU guarded him as he walked up the stairs to the last dome-like building that had survived the siege. They shoved open the double-winged doors, waited for him to pass, then fell back into rank.
For the upcoming event he had donned his red and white robes again, covering his armor where the blood wouldn't come off. His boots echoed as he strode toward the chamber at the other end of the hallway. His guards made no noise, but today Hiruzen wanted others to hear his approach.
Two ANBU opened the last door, three more vanishing inside to check the room. The chamber was large and well-lit. A tapestry hung to one side; from two braziers in front of it came faint smoke and the smell of incense. In the middle of the room stood a large table lined by flat cushions. One on his side, four across.
Hiruzen seated himself, then looked at the expressions meeting him: ashamed, angry, resigned, disinterested.
"You lost," he said, putting his hat on the table. "Your village belongs to Konoha, as does a large part of Wind Country. The rebellious elements we still encounter in the southern reaches are negligible. In a few weeks they will have no resistance to offer anymore, and then Suna as a whole will cease to exist."
One councilman looked up angrily. He gripped the edge of the table, knuckles whitening. "This whole thing is your fault, Sarutobi. It was a shinobi from Konoha who tricked us. Your student. You want to shove your responsibility onto us because you cannot reign in the monster of your own creation!"
The old woman left to the councilman shook her head, and the man to his right, bald and garbed in the traditional white robes of the Odaya priests, squeezed his shoulder.
Hiruzen fixed the group with a hard stare. "You should remind yourself on which side of the table you sit. Orochimaru is of Konoha's making, but that does not exonerate you. It was you who listened to a sworn enemy of my people. You who broke down Konoha's walls, pillaging and spreading murder."
"He is young," the old woman said, dipping her head, gray hair falling in her face.
"Then make sure he learns fast, Chiyo-dono," Hiruzen said.
"We will," the priest said.
"See that you do." Hiruzen leaned forward, pushing with both elbows against the table, mouth a thin line. "If you cooperate with my terms, Konoha will not absorb Suna. It is one of the Great Five and I have no intention of rewriting history to such an extent. Betray Konoha's trust once more, however, and I will return." He locked eyes with them. "Should that happen I will raze this village to the ground."
The advisors remained calm now. Just one of them seemed unfazed. The disinterested expression the man next to Chiyo wore struck a memory of when Hiruzen had first taken the Sannin to Suna. Jiraiya had found a bottle back then, filled with a liquid he thought alcohol. Hours later Jiraiya and Tsunade had told him that it felt like being enveloped in cotton, safe, and that not even an emotion like fear could reach you.
The man exploded in a whirl of motion, double-edged kunai racing for Hiruzen's throat.
Hiruzen slapped the kunai out of the man's hand. He reached forward, planting his palm on the head of the man before driving him brow-first into the table. The wood gave in, and the face broke through toward the floor with the sound of wood stabbing flesh.
His ANBU, swords drawn and pointed at the council, extracted the dead Jōnin and one left the chamber with the corpse. Hiruzen settled down again and looked across the table.
"I hope this was as much a surprise to you as it was to me," he said. The angry councilman blanched, but it was a paleness born of general fear. He flinched when Hiruzen glanced at him.
He has nothing to do with this. The rebels can still reach Suna, then.
"It did, Sarutobi-dono," the councilman said, lowering his head. "We knew Heki was... displeased, but not to this extent. I... also apologize for my earlier outburst. It was unbecoming of a member of this honored body."
Hiruzen sat quietly, hands resting on the remnants of the table. The leader of the rebel forces was an old acquaintance, Senyaku Fushigi. Hiruzen had stood with and against him in multiple wars. The man was capable, a strong fighter, an even smarter tactician. Any other man Kakashi would have fooled, but meeting Senyaku back when he'd been spying on Suna's war preparations was plain bad luck. No, Konoha's position was far from secure as long as that man still commanded shinobi. The title rebel didn't make people who had been soldiers once any weaker.
He nodded at last, and the councilman raised his head, color returning to his face. Hiruzen reached into his robes, pulling out a scroll and putting it on the table next to the hole. The edge of the scroll was specked with blood from his armor.
"These are the terms for your surrender."
Chiyo took the scroll, broke the seal and read, the councilman and the priest deferring to her. She looked up from the parchment. "You will allow a new Kazekage to be put in place?"
"Eventually," Hiruzen said. "For now Suna remains under Konoha's jurisdiction. Once the region has stabilized and the conditions are met Suna may elect a new Kazekage, one that also has the approval of Konoha."
The priest frowned. "That is a rather unusual practice..."
"I have no intentions of breaking the tradition our forefathers left us," Hiruzen said. "Five great villages, no more, no less. But I will not risk the election of another Kazekage to whom my village is an enemy. This has been neither the first, nor the second time Suna has betrayed our alliance."
Glancing at the sun shining through the high windows Hiruzen rose from the cushion, letting his gaze swivel through the room as the ANBU assembled around him. "This was Suna's last strike, honorable councilors. There won't be another. The last months should have proven beyond any doubt that Konoha wasn't built on empty promises."
"Of course, Hokage-dono," Chiyo said. Hiruzen didn't envy her position.
He left them with those words and, turning away from them, the door falling shut behind him, found himself back on the plaza a minute later. The sun was warm and pressing, and the air thick with the stench of a won war.
A Chūnin wearing a bandana appeared next to him.
"You have news, Izumo?" Hiruzen said.
Izumo leaned in closer and whispered a few words. Listening Hiruzen closed his eyes, feeling the years in his bones. When he opened them again the sun seemed much brighter, much harsher than before.
The students ran and Naruto sat on a log watching them. They increased their pace closing in on the wall, vaulting over it one after another, slowing down, deciding, then sliding through under the next obstacle. Naruto glanced at his stopwatch as they hauled themselves through an artificial swamp, building stairs at the end once they came on a wall too high to leap over.
The course ended at the far side of the training ground behind Konoha's academy. The last part lay out of sight, but Naruto heard the dull sound of wooden kunai being deflected. Noise dying the students came back into his field of vision, jogging along the beaten trail beside the course. Eleven boys and six girls took up position in front of him. They assembled in two lines, cheeks red, knees shaking in their black slacks. Uniforms had become important for everyone save the few Jōnin who were known enough to be recognized on the battlefield. Naruto sported the same black, his green vest leaning against the trunk. Today was a hot day.
He waited until the last boy had gathered his bearings. They wore miserable looks altogether.
"You know what comes next," he said.
The students arranged themselves in a circle that left a forty foot diameter between them. The last time they had protested was weeks past. They just looked resigned now.
Naruto called four names. Three boys and one girl stepped into the circle, eying each other. They were wary, the girl in a stance already, the boys following suit. They shifted their balance to scare each other, but the game was old. They had fought too often like this to be intimidated by the warm up.
"Same rules," Naruto said. "Taijutsu, no teams."
He whistled and the four jumped forward, little whirlwinds of kicks and jabs. Fists were flying, most missing, some scoring a hit on accident. The girl stumbled into one of the boys and managed to ram her knee into his stomach. Naruto pulled the collapsing boy out of the ring, slapping the shoulder of a spectating student on the way back.
Every thirty seconds he whistled and, one more student entering the fight, he kept watching their footwork. The wartime program proved to be hard fare for the kids, and Naruto still doubted that he was the right one for the job. But after the screw up seven months ago he couldn't complain. Team Seven had gotten off easy in comparison to those who were actually tried for treason.
The circle was a slugfest, all seventeen students duking it out, shouting and moaning in pain. In between pulling out more injured Naruto glanced at the large windows of the academy. Inside Iruka was giving lessons on wartime regulations, setting ambushes, and staying alive. The theoretical parts had been cut heavily in favor of physical training. Iruka was one of the last instructors still giving them. The last good one anyway.
I don't get why you make me do this, Jiji.
He looked back to the circle. The girl was driving her knuckles into the face of another student, but then got clipped by a haymaker. The blow threw her to the ground and she rolled over twice before Naruto got to her. He put the girl next to the fallen tree that the other students were leaning against. Her lip was bleeding and Naruto chucked a small container of cheap salve at her.
He whistled again and the students stopped in their tracks.
"That's enough. Settle down. We're almost done for today."
Some sat down on the spot; others pulled themselves together and made it to the fallen tree before collapsing in panting heaps. Naruto sat back down on the tree stump across them, watching. He knew they hated him the same way he had hated Kakashi. Just that they were younger than he'd been and hated him more for it. They didn't understand the urgency, even when he told them the world was burning. And the sad truth was they wouldn't understand until getting licked themselves.
Parents had complained twice already, and Naruto wanted to agree but couldn't. If the invasion had taught him anything, then that no enemy force gave you the courtesy of fighting one on one. Jōnin would teach them teamwork when the time came. Until then they'd learn how to keep on their toes even after laying out an enemy, and how to stay alive against many when all you feel is confusion and fear.
That's all I can teach them anyway. Haven't got much else.
He was about to launch into a review of their footwork when a presence closed in. His hand went to his kunai holster, but the signature appearing belonged to a woman in Chūnin garb. The kids grew talkative and excited at the new arrival. Naruto shot them a look that promised another five runs on the obstacle course.
"Stay here and keep it down. No fighting until I'm back."
They nodded dutifully and he walked over to the Chūnin. She was half a head taller than him. Pale features, brown hair. Muscular. Holster fixed to the leg and weapon pouch at the waist. He looked closer. Her vest had been modified by hand, hiding either weapons or steel plates.
"A problem?" he asked.
"Just a message," she said, handing him a blue-lined scroll.
Naruto skimmed it. "Do Sasuke and Sakura know?"
"Don't bother, I'll tell them. Who'll be there?"
She looked uncomfortable. "Everyone of note."
"That serious, then…" Naruto rolled up the scroll. "Thanks anyway. I guess I'll see you there?"
The Chūnin nodded, waved at the kids, then leaped onto the academy roof. From there she jumped to a large water tank, then out of sight and farther into the village. Naruto secured the scroll to his belt. His students were breathing normally now, talking quietly among themselves.
"Listen up," he said, coming back. "I just got the news that this'll be my last day as your instructor."
The relief in their expression wasn't unwarranted. Understanding that didn't make it sting less though. One last time, he told himself, crouching so he was on eye-level with them.
"I'm leaving," he said. "That doesn't mean your next teacher will be any easier on you. Trouble's coming fast. You need to be strong when it's here, you get me? I know you don't like this. I know it's unfair and hard and that you hurt each day. But you can't stop now. Keep training. Keep sparring. Even if it hurts and you want to lie down, keep running that course until you dream of it. That's the only way to get ready."
That's the only way for you to stay alive.
Nods all around, but Naruto knew they wouldn't understand, even if he told them a hundred times.
"Take care now," he said, rising to full height. "And if I learn you bothered your new teacher any, I'm coming back, hear me? You won't like it when I have to come back."
They nodded again and Naruto smiled. It unsettled them. He hadn't had much to smile while preparing them. Clapping his hands he said, "Class dismissed," and watched them leave toward the academy building where they'd shower and change into their usual clothes.
He'd wanted them to like him—a childish thought that hadn't survived reality.
Steam shot out of the teapot and Sakura was quick to take it from the burner. She took a deep breath as she poured the chamomile tea in two cups standing on a tray beside her.
Yes, that's it. Now only a spoon of sugar and we're there. You make one mean tea, Haruno. Better than Ino anyway.
Then again, she'd had enough practice by now. She took the tray to the flat table in the middle of the room, positing a cup on each side. The table was made of Senju wood, dark stained, polished, and worth a fortune. The same went for the whole room. It was the coziest prison cell she'd ever seen. Not that she'd seen many, but rumors told they usually were dingy, wet, and reeking of waste.
But all the Senju wood didn't surround her because it looked great—which it did. Rather it helped the boy opposite of her keep control, as did a dozen stabilizing seals Jiraiya had plastered on his body months ago.
Gaara took the cup and sipped at it, dignified and silent. He liked chamomile because it calmed him, or so he said. Sakura had no way to prove that by his facial expression—he was much like Sasuke in that regard—but Gaara hadn't refused a single pot of tea since she started making it. That's as good a sign as any, she told herself.
Gaara's hair was quite a bit longer than it had been when she first saw him. And Sakura was sure if circumstances were different, he'd have a lot of girls after him. The eyes made sure of that. First time Ino had hesitantly visited her during this assignment she had to be kicked out eventually.
Sakura hadn't shared in that enthusiasm. Contrary to Ino she knew quite well who Gaara was and what he was capable of. Sure, he was beautiful in a way, but so were Naruto and Sasuke. No, she was more fascinated than enamored. Here was someone so like Naruto, yet nothing like him at all.
She gave him another moment to drink his tea, took a sip of her own, then rummaged in her bag and pulled out a map.
"Careful," she said, nodding at his cup and unfurling the map. "I borrowed this from the Archives. No idea if they're valuable but I'd rather not risk it."
"Geography again? I was under the impression we covered this field the last eight times."
"The world's a big place." She politely refrained from laughing at the irritation that couldn't be seen but still went out from him in waves.
"This seems… excessive, Sakura-san."
She smiled. Learning always did. Naruto and Sasuke were much the same. "Don't worry," she said. "I planned something different for today. Wind Country, to be precise. I'd love to hear more about it."
Gaara raised an eyebrow. "Are you extracting information?"
"In a sense," she said, laughing. "You know how this goes. Feel free to tell me whatever you want."
He began talking, his words chosen carefully, and Sakura listened, by now used to the surreal experience. Jiraiya's stabilizers and this room had done wonders for him. Months ago Gaara had had for the first time a mind free of whispers and bloodlust. Surprising what miracles that worked for a person, really. Not that he blossomed or something quaint like that. But he had a voice that could calm you down and made you listen. When he got talking he wasn't half-bad actually.
You'd never know he's a Jinchūriki, Sakura thought listening. Just reserved, or a bit shy maybe.
The voice would be a perfect fit for a good teacher, which made it quite sad that he had never received a formal education. She was a bit suspicious that the Hokage had immediately agreed to her remedying that issue. Back then the Hokage had barely given her enough time to finish presenting the idea before congratulating her, saying that education was the first step to a world beyond death.
Well, at least she had something else to do than brewing tea since then. Boredom was good at times, but it was also bad, mostly when you had to spend the time with someone else who was probably equally bored.
Gaara had, in any case, never said anything about liking her any more than the guards outside his room. But he was a private person, and she'd like to believe that he'd miss their shared lessons once she was called back to duty.
He had just told her of the Oasis of Ike and another city called Hajim at Wind Country's seaside. Then he stopped talking, drank his tea, and Sakura waited for him to continue. She knew of at least one other city in the area. The drug baron Aasim, Kabuto the fake healer, and the prostitutes murdering bandits for white powder made it hard to forget the cesspit that was Boeki Tōshi.
She hummed questioningly when Gaara didn't continue.
"That is all I know," he said.
"You've only been to two cities beside Suna?"
"One. I just recounted what I remember hearing of Ike."
Ouch. But that's what I'm here for.
She leaned over the table, fingertips tracing circles around the places he had named. His eyes were following her finger over the map, to the dot that marked Boeki Tōshi.
"This place is pretty rotten," she explained. "At least if you're there at night. From what I heard they're trading a lot though, and they love their independence. There's been a few tries to make it more, let's say "government friendly," but that didn't really work all that well."
Gaara leaned over the map as well, inspecting the dot and glancing at the symbols of marked resources nearby. Sakura had noticed this before. Gaara's lack of facial expression made it hard to tell, but he was interested in his home and all the things his father probably should've taught him.
She followed his look up to the ports that were trading with Boeki Tōshi, and she imagined he was filing away the information in that magic way of his. He had a terrifying memory. It had scared the bejeezus out of her when he had first recited every single name from the history book they had read a day earlier.
"Did you learn that at your academy?" Gaara asked.
"God, no. Kiba and Naruto would've bailed the second Iruka-sensei wrote it on the board. No, I've actually visited it a while ago."
He looked up, surprised. "You've been to Wind Country?"
"Once. There's a lot of sand."
There was a miniscule twitch in his left eyebrow. Sakura counted that as a victory.
"It's a desert," Gaara said.
"And deserts have a lot of sand," she said, quite seriously. "But does it have to be all sand? Couldn't there be, I don't know, some animals beside scorpions and snakes? Or a few palms. I've seen my first palms in River Country. They're beautiful."
Which makes it sound like I've lazed on the beach. Well, maybe I did. Naruto had to carry me, after all.
"There are plants in the desert," Gaara said.
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "I've seen none, but I guess you're the expert there. Been out to the desert often?"
"And there really are plants?"
"Two large fields south of Suna." He pointed at an area on the map. "Farther out there are more."
"What're they looking like?"
"Green and purple. They're taller than people."
Sakura was about to ask for the name when someone knocked at the door.
"Come in," she called out.
Naruto entered the room, three containers with Ramen in his hand. "Hey there, hope I'm not interrupting."
Naruto put the Ramen on the table, seating himself right next to Gaara.
"Thank you, Naruto-san," Gaara said, reaching for the Ramen, breaking apart the chopsticks and swirling the noodles inside the bowl.
"It's Naruto, I told you. Now feast on this godly broth. Can't let the deity be waiting."
Jinchūriki, Sakura thought, shaking her head. I wonder if they have a special, Ramen-friendly metabolism.
Shrugging and accepting that she might never know, Sakura turned to her own noodles. "Did something happen?" she asked Naruto between bites. "You should be teaching for another hour."
Naruto, done already, pushed the container away and leaned back, sighing. "Sorry to say, but this might be the last you see of us for a while, Gaara. New orders came in."
Naruto handed Sakura the scroll.
"He's right," she murmured, reading. "We've new orders. I'm sorry, Gaara."
"You are active shinobi. I have no monopoly on your time."
Naruto rolled his eyes. "That sounds so lame," he said. "Listen, we'll visit as often as we can. Jinchūriki have to stick together."
Sakura doubted that Gaara believed Naruto. Six months of good treatment and camaraderie didn't abolish a lifetime of hate and ignorance. That was nothing she could change right now though. Or maybe it was. And maybe she already had. Gaara was always so frustrating to read.
Eventually they had finished the Ramen and got up, saying good bye. Outside Gaara's room the guard looked as severe as ever.
Operation Success were the magical words Sasuke had just stamped on a slew of documents. Turning back to Shizune he skimmed the files while the woman kept talking non-stop to him and the other three medic-nin. They were in her office at the hospital—neat place, everything structured, one plant that caught every eye as the only green object nearby.
"… which is why we could reverse the damage from the lightning Jutsu," Shizune said. "Four weeks of healing and his eyes will have fully recovered. He should spend that time in dark rooms however. I don't want to expose him too early to sunlight."
The three medic-nin did their best to look concurring.
"I'll make sure he knows, Shizune-san," one said.
The generous sacrifice for implicit favors later on. There was always one of those around.
Sasuke finished reading and put the documents in order, filing them at the right places. This surgery brought nothing new to the table, but medical information on eyes was always high on the agenda after Naruto had revived him near Tanyū.
He wasn't in the same pay grade as the three sheep gathered around Shizune, and usually he wouldn't get to see those files. Being hailed as the next medical prodigy had its perks though, even if he wished it had never become necessary.
He had lost count of how often Tsunade had been called in because he had used his Sharingan, thinking that the corrosive power of the Kyuubi would dissipate eventually, that his eyes were fine, as always, would be fine for a long time from that moment on. Each time she had told him that this wasn't the case and that the chakra burnt through the nerves connecting the eyes to the brain. Nothing would change that. Tsunade could repair the damage when she was nearby, but enabling him to use the Sharingan again? Out of question.
Sasuke narrowed his eyes and one of the medic-nin twitched after looking at him.
As if I'd ever accept an answer like that.
The discussion in the office turned to another patient, one with an infected leg and a bad case of chakra depletion.
"I'll head off," Sasuke said, already walking out the door, white coat sweeping behind him. He hated it. Though the last time he'd left the coat at home, not just Shizune but Tsunade as well had explained in no unclear terms why he needed it.
Sasuke heard the call from the adjacent hallway and ducked around the next corner and into another corridor. He hated this too. Having earned his basic healing certificate in half a year when it took other people six times that long meant that he now had to help with patients. Hokage's order. Or rather Tsunade's order, with the explicit approval of the Hokage.
One day he'll choke on his pipe.
Buttoning up the coat he hurried down the hallway. Healing his Sharingan was all he was here for. Nothing else. Certainly not dealing with grabby patients telling him their stories. He didn't care that Tsunade said it was impossible for him to reach his goal. Uchiha were far from normal people. For him impossible became improbable but in the realms of possibility.
He was almost through the next door when the voice of another nurse came from beside him. She was small, but not bad looking. He liked the short black hair. What he didn't like was the aura of calm certainty around her, and that she got people to do their work.
"Yes?" he asked.
She pointed at a room at the far side of the hall. "There's a patient waiting for treatment, Uchiha-san. You still have three hours until your shift is over." After a moment, "And please don't make us chase you all the time."
Sasuke tried glaring his way out of the situation, but that hadn't worked the last few times either. She just kept looking at him, unyielding. Ten seconds later he gave her a curt nod and went over to the room. Inside, a middle aged man, bald, with purple-black bruises and a deformed scar on his right arm sat on the examination table.
"Aren't you a bit young for this?"
Sasuke pulled over a chair, took his seat, and let his green-glowing hand wander over the bruises.
"Hey, aren't you listening?"
The chilling glare usually kept them silent.
"I mean," the man said, "don't you want to know how I got this? For your diagnosis?"
The healing process would be fairly quick. Nothing Sasuke couldn't handle due to a lack of experience. That had happened only once so far. He disliked thinking of it.
"I got this in a fight with a nuke-nin. Dangerous guy, I say. Goes by Knife in the bingo book—huge bounty. Nearly laid him flat—ouch!"
The process could, at times, be a bit painful however. That depended entirely on how skilled and willing the medic-nin was.
"Anyway, I guess you wouldn't understand how dangerous—"
The man cried out again and Sasuke continued healing. Three minutes later the bruises were fading and the few cuts had been sealed. The man jumped up, shot Sasuke an angry look, and stormed out of the room. Smoothing the wrinkles out of his coat Sasuke crossed his ankles, leaning back against the table. As long as no new patient came he'd be able to camp here. Lucky that the sign outside would still show the room to be in use.
The door opened.
Then Naruto and Sakura filed into the room and he relaxed again.
"Still loving your job?" Naruto said.
Sasuke pulled a scalpel from the tablet on the table and threw it at Naruto's face. Sakura picked it out of the air before it was even halfway through the room.
"That wasn't for you," Sasuke said, frowning.
"We've more important things to worry about right now." Sakura slid the scalpel under the right sleeve of her black slacks. "New orders."
"Tell me I'm done here," Sasuke said.
Sakura grinned. "You're done here."
Sasuke got up, unsealing his vest. "First good news of the day."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Naruto said.
Sasuke patted the pockets of his vest. Everything was at the right place. "Mission and time?"
"Today," Naruto said. "Assembly. You know the place. We've been there before at the Chūnin Exams."
Sasuke flung the coat carelessly over the examination table. The nurses could pick it up later. He popped his shoulders and neck, then made for the door, Naruto and Sakura following.
"Glad to be out," Sasuke said. "Can't say I'm looking forward to the meeting though."
"I hear you," Sakura said. "Hard to imagine something good coming from this."
"Do we still have time?" Naruto asked. They were walking down the hallways, ignoring two nurses calling after Sasuke, moving through the foyer.
Outside Sakura shadowed her face against the sun. "It's supposed to be at late afternoon, early evening. I'd say an hour or so."
"Home it is," Sasuke said.
"Count on it," Naruto said. "I'm hungry."
Sakura shook her head. "You just ate with Gaara."
As his teammates continued to bicker Sasuke followed them onto the streets of Konoha. Food sounded like a good plan.
The sun was already simmering orange-red at the horizon when Team Seven arrived in front of their home in South Konoha, coincidentally only a few feet away from where they had killed Kimimaro. Their new-built house fit right in with the other buildings that had shot up after the rubble of the battle was cleared. It was a simple one-story house—bought with the funds from their mission to Wave and some extra money courtesy of the Uchiha treasury—and with enough room for four people and a small backyard.
Only three of the available four rooms were in use though, and that more than anything saddened Sakura. From time to time she'd go in and water the two plants they had placed there as decoration, always also seeing the bed that hadn't been used since it was bought, a shelf empty of everything that made it seem like someone was living there.
Chasing those thoughts away Sakura went up the steps leading to the door. The room would be used eventually. She had no doubt of that. Sakura turned the key and ushered her teammates inside, Naruto immediately setting out for the pantries and rummaging for more Ramen.
"Don't take too long," Sakura called after him, laughing. One day he'd eat himself to death.
He'd die with a smile though. That's sure. A big, goofy smile and noodles hanging from his lips.
"Just have to find them," Naruto called back.
Sasuke, efficient as always, already had the burner heating and the water boiling. He was far from a fan, but in this house you didn't go far without liking noodles and knowing the procedure of making them fast. Smiling Sakura shrugged out of her vest, letting it fall carelessly to the ground, moving over to a large closet at the other end of the living room.
She opened the closet and pushed her chakra into the seal Naruto had carved into the back, watching two stacks of scrolls pop into existence.
"What do you think we'll need?" Sakura asked loudly so they could hear her in the kitchen.
"Three months," Sasuke called back.
Sakura nodded to herself. Three months sounded good. She selected three scrolls from the left stack containing shuriken, kunai, more seals, and different weaponry. Then she did the same with the right. Those scrolls were for medical salves, bandages, and simple food rations.
She had 'invented' this system months ago, because if their rescue mission had driven one point home, it was that preparation paid off and not having what you needed sucked. Should they ever want to do stupid things again, at least they'd be prepared now.
Moving back to the kitchen, the smell of spicy noodle broth heavy in the air, she lined up the scrolls on the kitchen table and settled down while Naruto played at being a professional Ramen sommelier.
"How's Kakashi-sensei today?" she asked Sasuke, who was staring at the large Uchiha fan she had painted on the wall across the table three months back. Hers and Naruto's symbols were in the living room. The wall in the bathroom was still free.
"Same old," Sasuke said. "The poison's not easy to get rid of."
"How long until he wakes up?" she asked. "It's been so long already…"
"Until Tsunade decides that he's healthy enough and the coma isn't necessary anymore. She's frustrated."
"As am I." Sakura glared at the table. "I'll gut that snake bastard when I see him next."
"Take a number," Naruto said, sitting down eating his food. "But seriously, I'll lose my appetite if you keep talking about Orochimaru. Remember, house rules apply to you too, Sakura. You've already filled your "one revenge talk per week" quota when you complained about Ino yesterday."
"True enough," she said, sighing and lowering her head on her arms. "Sasuke still got his, doesn't he?"
"Surprisingly enough," Naruto said. "Technically he saved up two weeks."
"Urghh." Sakura buried her head farther into her arms. When she looked up again Sasuke was smirking at her. It was the kind of expression that made her want to grin and punch him at the same time.
She stayed in her position, even as she sensed Sasuke leaving the table and then coming back a moment later. Naruto too went up and came back again. She didn't care though. The crook of her arm was comfortable. She felt her heartbeat slow down, and she needed that. For so many shinobi to be ordered to assemble at the same place couldn't mean anything good. Talking stupid with her teammates could only gloss over that fact for so long.
Eventually the clock hanging above the wall broke out into a melody and her head jerked up. Her eyes widened as she noticed how late it was. They had half an hour at most until the meeting.
"We have to go!" she said.
Naruto wasn't even close to finished with his noodles. He also had a second cup boiling on the burner. Sasuke had unsealed his red armor and was putting it on.
"Relax, Sakura, we've got plenty of time," Naruto said.
She ignored him, concentrating on the problem she could fix. "Sasuke, the orders said 'uniform appearance.'"
Sasuke kept attaching his bracers.
"We can't just ignore our orders," Sakura said.
Naruto nodded, gesturing with his spoon at Sasuke. "She's right. Besides, we've been walking around in slacks and vest for the last seven months."
"I won't leave on a mission without my armor."
"Then seal it and take the scroll with you until we know what we're dealing with," Sakura said.
It took another five minutes for them to get ready, and though chaotic, Sakura found that she preferred this mood to the scramble for survival they had gone through during their rescue mission.
The place where the first task of the Chūnin Exams had been administered was one of the buildings in Konoha that had survived the invasion. The large sign fixed above the entrance still showed the engraved insignias of the various villages, though it hung askew now.
Two Chūnin were manning the entrance, opening the gate after taking a look at the blue scroll. The short tunnel Team Seven passed through soon opened up into a large hall. Hundreds of shinobi were mingling in small groups. Genin crowded around Chūnin or kept to themselves, while Chūnin banded together.
Only a few Jōnin were observing the twitchy crowd from the corners. That didn't surprise Naruto though. Hokage-jiji had taken the best shinobi on his march west, only leaving an emergency contingent in Konoha. For months now the streets had grown emptier each day as the Hokage advanced his forces.
"About twenty Jōnin," Sasuke said, leaning against a support pillar. "More Genin than Chūnin."
"Thought as much," Naruto said. "This can't be all we've got left in Konoha. But I bet it's a big part." He sighed. "Here's to hoping this is worth all the trouble."
"Not that it matters," Sakura said, patting her weapon pouch and the two scrolls dangling from her belt. "We go where we're deployed to."
"Which leaves the question of where he's sending us." Naruto let his eyes wander over the assembled shinobi. "Most here are Genin and rank somewhere between total beginners and barely adequate. And there's far too few Chūnin in comparison."
Sasuke crossed his arms. "I met at least half of the Chūnin at the hospital. They're weak. A few capable ones, but not enough to hold out against serious opposition. If the Hokage wants us to fight with them, he dealt us a bad hand."
"Still an asshole, eh?" The question was followed by a harsh bark of laughter. Naruto turned and found Kiba walking up to them. Kiba's hair had grown even shaggier. His right earlobe was pierced by a sharp incisor, and the mark of blood Akamaru had left on his cheek back in the forest had become a tattoo.
"Still haven't showered?" Sasuke replied.
"Well fuck you too, Uchiha."
Kiba laughed again and joined them at the support pillar, grinning through red-rimmed eyes. Much like the rest of the world Naruto hadn't seen much of him over the last months. From what Naruto had learned talking to Hinata, Kiba had taken to grieving for Akamaru in solitude. He would train on his own during the day, and once the Inuzuka dogs greeted the moon he went to the place where they had burned Akamaru. There he'd drink and tell stories to the wind until the sun came up again.
Inuzuka took only one familiar in life. No one in his clan hindered him as he honored his deceased partner the only way he knew how.
"Here with the others?" Naruto asked, clapping Kiba on the shoulder.
"Only me," Kiba said. "Whatever they're planning, it's nothing a Hyūga heiress should be part of. That's what her clan said, so you can stop looking at me like that, Sakura."
"Aburame?" Sasuke asked.
"No idea. We…don't see each other often anymore," Kiba said. "He's got his own problems I'd wager. Last I heard they still classified him as a reserve because of his arm…or lack of it."
Naruto shook his head. "He'd be a lot better than most folks here."
A group of Genin nearby heard him and shot him angry looks. He stared back, but before one of them could get too brave a light shone on the podium at the other end of the hall. Four people ascended the short stairs. Naruto had met all of them before, except the old, bandaged man.
Front and center stood Tsunade, the person responsible for Kakashi and who was also acting as the interim Hokage while Jiji was out and about, razing cities and taking names. Contact with her had been limited so far, but he hadn't heard too many bad things. Just that she forced Sasuke into wearing a coat, which was more of a bonus, really.
The two advisors shuffled onstage behind her. Naruto hadn't talked much with the man, but the old crone had given them their promotion back then. She had also almost skewered Sasuke because the Uchiha sported a superiority complex taller than Tanyū's walls.
"Joy," Sakura mumbled. "With our luck we'll be led by those two corpses."
"Shh." Naruto poked her side. "I'm sure they're capable. Remember what she did to Sasuke?"
"I won't forget that anytime soon."
"Once I have my eyes under control again you will," Sasuke said. He didn't sound too amused.
From the stage came a boom, interrupting them. Tsunade had sunken her heel into the wooden dais and was now pulling it out slowly. Even that far away Naruto could see her eyes blazing with anger. He stiffened up, as did his teammates and most other shinobi in the hall. They took an attentive position as Tsunade began talking, just like Kakashi had drilled it into them.
"Eight hours ago the territory around Takigakure was attacked by a force numbering in the thousands. At the same time Kusa—a longstanding ally—opened its borders for another army to fling itself against Fire Country. For now the attack was successfully repelled by Jiraiya of the Sannin, who kept the invading forces at bay at the Hanekawa River."
The silence following her statement blanketed the whole hall. Naruto chanced a glance at Sakura and saw that she had paled, her hands slightly shaking. The news had been expected. Not the particulars, of course. But that war stood written in the future history of the Elemental Nations had seemed inevitable for the longest time now. Naruto tried to calm himself, but even having known that this would happen eventually he didn't manage. His heart still beat faster, and he felt his palms grow sweaty.
"Most of you will have guessed already who challenged us so openly," Tsunade said. "Ōnoki the Fence-sitter has decided to take a stance, and behind him stands all of Earth Country. From this day onward we are, once more, officially at war with Iwa."
Before the hall could explode in a cacophony of voices Tsunade continued, calmer now, arms crossed behind her back. "This does not mean that you will be deployed toward the border. There has always been a possibility that Iwa would seize this opportunity. The Hokage and his council"—Tsunade gestured at the three people behind her—"have put plans in motion should Ōnoki's nature reveal itself.
"Effective immediately, Hokage-sama and his troops will march to defend our borders and support our allies in Takigakure. In the meanwhile, however, all of you will be deployed to Suna under the command of Councilor Danzō. There you will quell the last dissenters that still resist Konoha's terms."
Danzō stepped forward, breaking the momentary silence each time his cane met the wooden floor. Coming up next to Tsunade he let his gaze wander over the crowd before him. Naruto found he took his sweet time looking at them. When the silence started to become uncomfortable Danzo spoke at last.
"The Tree can grow everywhere," he said. Then, "We march at sunrise. Be ready to draw blood."
A day after the message of Ōnoki's attack had reached him Hiruzen was already past the closed-up borders of Ame and neared the Hanekawa River. His army, the best Konoha had to offer, moved under the command of Nara Shikaku and was lagging two days behind. They would march for hours but also rest at night, before once more moving toward the enemy. Quite unlike Hiruzen himself. An army too exhausted to fight was no army at all. He, however, had the stamina necessary to cross the whole continent and still be able to fight if he wished to. His troops would catch up sooner or later.
Rain was battering his helmet as he crossed the small body of water that fed into the Hanekawa River. In the distance he already saw the signs of war: swaths of ebony grasping at the clouds, twisting and merging into them; screams of the dying, the silence of the dead; all that in the backdrop of explosions occurring so fast and so often his ears started ringing and he wasn't even there yet. Jets of fire shot skyward, burning through the thick foliage miles ahead of him. Then came the waves called from the river around which the battle was being fought.
Hiruzen increased his pace and weaved through seals, obscuring himself from view. In the actual combat zone it was better to pass unnoticed until he reached Jiraiya. It took another half an hour until he came upon the camp that served as Konoha's base of operations. It lay two miles away from the river and was wedged between two smaller streams. Tents sprawled from one palisade-fortified riverbank to the next.
Dispelling the illusion Hiruzen walked up to the guard at the gate. After a quick verification the Jōnin led him through the city of tarpaulins, toward the command tent where Jiraiya would be.
They walked along a muddy path, and between the tents many resting shinobi stared at him as he passed, sketching as much a bow as their injuries allowed. From one tent came the smell of copper, pus, and waste; two corners farther he smelled soup. Moaning and shouting in one part, rough laughter in the next.
Hiruzen pulled his helmet deeper into his face. The few years had been far too short a time for peace.
"I will find my way from here," he said once the command tent was up head. The Jōnin bowed and vanished back into the maze of cloth around them.
Hiruzen rounded the last bend, and then he saw it: on a Jutsu-induced elevation a large circle of wooden posts held up enough fabric to clothe every woman in the Daimyo's court for years; some feet away from the entrance sat the mast with Konoha's flag; and on the free perimeter around the tent soldiers stood at attention, searching for unwanted intruders, their long spears piercing the smoke that came from the braziers beside them.
Hiruzen felt his facial muscles tighten. This was no shinobi foothold. These weren't even shinobi standing beside his flag. Each soldier wore a breastplate engraved with the Daimyo's sigil, and the farther Hiruzen extended his senses, the quicker the unsettling feeling in his stomach expanded.
The camp was huge, larger than any shinobi camp should be—certainly larger than it had looked—and mingling with the large chakra signatures of his shinobi were hundreds of other, much smaller signatures. There was an army in Jiraiya's stronghold. One that didn't belong.
Hiruzen strode up to the monstrosity of a tent ahead. The soldiers tried blocking his path, but a glare and a substantial amount of released chakra left them fumbling for their weapons as he went past.
He was met halfway to the entrance by Tenzō, who walked out of the tent at a brisk pace. Tenzō looked tired, the circles under his eyes much more pronounced than usual. His vest was ripped in a few places where metal plating shone through. Around his left arm was a blood-crusted bandage.
"Hokage-sama," Tenzō said. "It's good to see you in good health." He looked at the solders that were eying them. "I am sure you have questions."
"Explain to me why soldiers bearing the Fire Daimyo's sigil are camping with us."
Tenzō stood a bit straighter, all business. "Iwa's attack was accompanied by a large part of the Earth Daimyo's forces. Even with Jiraiya-sama's help we would have lost the battle had it not been for the company of soldiers stationed nearby. Jiraiya-sama called for their help, and now they are here with us while messengers inform the Daimyo of this new development."
In one sweep the unsettling feeling became something tangible.
"The Earth Daimyo has involved himself?" Hiruzen asked.
"It appears that way," Tenzō said.
The Mashunem Treaty, signed and ratified by the Daimyos and Kage after the first Great Shinobi war, signified a division of shinobi and normal troops in matters of war. The cost of lives had been catastrophic back when the idea first came up and conflicts had, at times, depopulated large swaths of land after shinobi involved themselves. Aside from a few simple assassinations the hidden villages kept out of the Daimyos' business in large scale wars, and vice versa.
During the invasion Orochimaru had struck the first blow against the treaty. Now Ōnoki followed suit. Had those two been working together from the start, then? Or was it a coincidence? Hiruzen shook his head as his mind paced through the options. There existed no coincidences like this. But that Orochimaru was truly the catalyst for Ōnoki's decision wasn't clear either. Hiruzen's spies would have informed him had there been any kind of connection between them. It was much likelier that Ōnoki just saw his chance and wanted to make sure that this time he wasn't going to be defeated by Konoha.
"We sent messengers to Suna and Konoha," Tenzō said. "They should have reached you, Hokage-sama."
"I was traveling alone," Hiruzen said. "Shikaku will be here in a day or two. Until then we keep the soldiers around. Is Jiraiya here?"
"Jiraiya-sama hasn't left the frontlines since the attack begun. The usual rotations are in place, but so far he has opted out each time." A brief moment of silent, then, "He's giving them one hell of a beating, Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen nodded. "I wouldn't expect any less. Who's inside that command tent?"
"General Akibar," Tenzō said, exasperation bleeding into his voice. "He is the commander of the Daimyo's forces in the north of Fire Country."
"A title he makes you hear quite often, I assume." Hiruzen lowered his voice so the soldiers couldn't hear them. "These generals are usually quite pompous."
"Will you meet him?" Tenzō asked.
"There is no time for that," Hiruzen said. "I need to speak with Jiraiya. From now until Shikaku arrives you will be in command."
"What about Jiraiya-sama?"
"His services are needed elsewhere."
Tenzō accepted the order without further questioning. He bowed and Hiruzen left the camp.
From the outer gate of the camp Hiruzen set out toward the Hanekawa River. Too much time had been lost accomplishing nothing so far, and the reason he needed Jiraiya in the first place was a time sensitive issue. Increasing his pace he hurtled past the trees. Now that he closed in on the actual frontlines the magnitude of Iwa's attack became more apparent.
The sounds of clashing metal vibrated in the air; technique after technique, ripples of chakra reached his senses. Hiruzen continued at full speed. Wounded soldiers passed by, soldiers to whom he would look like nothing but a gray and white blur.
With leap he cleared the tree line and landed in a crouch. Corpses were strewn all along the riverbank. Some floated in the water; others found themselves in a state of in between, the currents snatching at them while shrubbery and branches kept them back.
On the river and the shore shinobi and soldiers from both sides clashed in a mess of blood and violence. For a moment Hiruzen's breath hitched. The second passed and the brief nostalgia washed off him.
Jiraiya wasn't there, and the Konoha shinobi were being forced away from the riverbank and into the forest. Until Shikaku arrived Iwa's numerical advantage would make holding this position difficult. Hiruzen wished to help his men, but finding Jiraiya came first. He sighed and moved on. This was but one site of a battlefield spanning miles, after all.
He sped from site to site, shooting random techniques into the enemy rows as he passed. This was all the help he could give right now, and at the seventh larger battle place—miles away from the camp and dominated by Iwa—he found his student.
Jiraiya was squatting amidst foes, raging against the tides of incoming shinobi and soldiers. His elongated hair became a trap for everyone close by. Scattered around him were three wounded battle toads following his example, and behind him flames were licking at the surface of an enormous swamp.
There was no Konoha-nin besides Jiraiya left though—this area of the river was lost.
Hiruzen glared at the masses of Iwa-nin surrounding Jiraiya. For now they could have this victory—Ōnoki could feast on the knowledge that his troops took territory directly from under the feet of a Sannin—but once Shikaku arrived the tides would turn.
It would become a long and cruel slog, but Konoha wouldn't be the one to perish in this crucible.
His doubts resolved he sent a pulse of chakra through the ground. He leaped, throwing every kunai in his holster at the Iwa-nin around Jiraiya, and began weaving through hand seals.
Attuned to Hiruzen's chakra Jiraiya reacted. He threw himself to the ground, covering his back with a thick coat of hair. The kunai multiplied and tore through the air above him. Most Iwa-nin managed to dodge in time, but by then Hiruzen was already beside Jiraiya, leaving with him before anyone had a chance to react.
The shunshin took both of them away from the battle, to a large branch.
Jiraiya's hair shortened to its normal length. "Not that I'm not glad to see you," Jiraiya said, face red, breath going heavy, "but I had things under control."
"You were the last one."
Jiraiya seemed surprised by that. "I was?" He popped his neck. "Well, as I said, I had it under control. No sweat, old man. Now let's get back down there and kick them back to Iwa."
"You did good, Jiraiya—"
"You're making me blush."
"—but I need you elsewhere."
Jiraiya blinked. Then his face hardened. "Have you seen what's happening, old man? They're overrunning us. If I leave now, they'll be in Konoha in a few days tops."
"They will drive us back only momentarily," Hiruzen said. "You should know by now that the Tree will never be uprooted. Not when we don't allow it to."
Jiraiya snorted in disdain. "That's some pretty talk, sensei. But let's stay with your image there. This is one earthquake we won't survive if you take away the biggest root keeping the 'Tree' in place."
"Shikaku is coming. They will have to hold out for that long."
"Well," Jiraiya said, "why can't we hold out with them, then? I've seen dozens of our shinobi die in the last hours. If we go now there might not be anything left for Shikaku to find. That's no good, sensei."
And that's the problem, isn't it, Jiraiya? Too much death that came far too soon. But I've no time to argue with you now. Your mission is more important than this frontline.
"You'll accompany me to our new destination, Jiraiya. That's an order."
Jiraiya's eyes widened. Then he angrily wiped the blood off his face.
"As you wish, Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen nodded curtly and began moving north-east. It had been more than thirty years since he last issued a direct command to his student. Usually they understood each other, one offering hints, the other acting on them. Not today it seemed.
Have faith in Konoha, Jiraiya. She has yet to fail us.
AN: That's it for the first chapter. Hope you had you fun! As always, I'm grateful for any kind of feedback you deem me worthy of. My sincere thanks to the DLP crew for assisting me in the polishing.