Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto


Lines in the Sand

Straight – III


I don't know why I'm doing this.

Don't worry too much. Life's always roundabout.


"Have you understood the motion?"

Naruto nodded at Danzō. They were out in the desert, two miles away from Suna. Heat shimmered over the sand. They had been there for hours now, behind the large dune that kept the village out of sight.

"Explain," Danzō said.

Naruto was tired and concentrating was difficult. But for Danzō excuses didn't count if you gave the wrong answer. "The vagus nerve," Naruto said. "It's the link between the twelfth and… and the thirteenth meridian in the neck. One hit at the right angle and the flow of blood and chakra will be stopped, leading to unconsciousness."

"Where does this technique come from?"

The Hyūga, Naruto thought. Something with the Hyūga. Damn, that's not everything. I know this…

Naruto racked his brain, but Danzō hated to wait and knowing that made thinking all the harder.

"Uzumaki."

"The Hyūga," Naruto said. "They gave it up."

Danzō narrowed his eyes. The wrong answer, then. He wished he had some water for his dry throat.

"The location of the nerve is common knowledge," Danzō said.

"Right…" Naruto picked up the thought, remembering how it continued. "Different villages, different ways to use it. The Hyūga gave Konoha a simple technique accessible to Chūnin and above." Recalling the rest of the memory he said, "It's common knowledge, so it's not used often. Every shinobi is trained to guard that area. If I find an opening though I can end the fight in one move."

"Show me," Danzō said.

He linked his hands; a clone rose out of the sand beside him. Naruto squared his shoulders. Having two bandaged mummies observe him wasn't all that pleasant. He'd gotten used to it by now though and stared straight ahead, muscles flexing. The heat was much worse. In the camp the eaves of the tents spent shadow. Out here there was nothing, and his neck was hot and slick with sweat.

Naruto eyed the clone, waited for the real Danzō to put some distance between them, then shot forward. The sand sprayed up where he stepped. In three leaps he had reached his target, left hand rising. The clone was much slower than the original. By the time it turned to defend, Naruto had already circled around, delivering a heavy chop to the neck. The result was a puff of smoke.

"Acceptable," Danzō said.

Afterwards he began the trek up the large dune, Naruto a step behind, limbs heavy from the training. Moving in the sand required a certain way to circulate your chakra. Hours of training left him with little focus, however, and he felt himself sink into the sand, muscles straining as he followed Danzō.

As always, the trip back to camp was spent in silence. Danzō only ever talked when he lectured, and then his sentences were created with an otherworldly frugality. He also didn't like repeating himself. A quarter of a year in Suna, one month of that time under Danzō's personal supervision, and Naruto couldn't believe that time as a whole moved that fast, but during the day went at a snail's pace.

When they'd been told they would fight in a war he had expected ceaseless action. He thought they'd have to run from position to position, advancing, fighting, never resting or retreating. Much like the rescue mission for Kakashi-sensei. War was slow though. It pounced once, maybe twice, the weight behind those attacks devastating. Then the beast was satisfied, its own blood-swollen belly pulling it to the ground.

Each day he would follow Danzō around, scribbling down what the man dictated, but most of all listening to what he said. Naruto heard about the frontlines between Kusa, Iwa, and Konoha, which hadn't moved an inch in all this time. He heard of the destruction of Waterfall Country, and how the shinobi there had destroyed all traces of the Hero's Water before seeking refuge in Konoha. He listened as Danzō told him of Rain Country, and how their uncompromising stance toward outsiders made it impossible to predict their actions.

And as time progressed Naruto saw how frustrated Danzō actually was with his current position. He only revealed it in short glimpses, and with a man like Danzō, Naruto was careful not to misinterpret what he noticed in small gestures and little twitches.

Wind Country, Danzō would tell him, had to be pacified at all costs. This country was at best a liability to drag them down, at worst a kunai poised to stab them in the back. It all went back to necessity, and how it was necessary to do whatever it took to make sure Suna would not cost Konoha this war.

At the end of such a lecture Naruto would nod dutifully. He disliked the bandaged cripple as much as on the first day, but he couldn't deny that the lessons were worth it. Danzō knew how to lead people. Danzō knew how to fight. And Danzō also was in control of himself for as long as Naruto served him now. Control. That was the keyword. One month of surface knowledge about the Elemental Nations, and already Naruto felt more in control. He knew where to go should he have to rescue someone again, and which places were guarded so heavily that infiltration was impossible.

Each day of new information shone a different light on the two weeks after the Chūnin exam.

Kakashi was a lucky man, he now understood. Not just on an instinctual level but also through factual knowledge. That mission could've gone wrong in so many ways, their success was a major miracle. Two of those and they could petition to found a religion. A crazy old man had told him that in Suna's market square.

Naruto entered the camp behind Danzō, the Chūnin at the gate saluting them.

The camp was noisy and, as usual, a punch to the nose. Naruto was used to it by now, but the sheer amount of smells that coalesced in this stronghold was able to knock out a Bijū.

He heard, "Oi, Uzumaki!" from a group of shinobi near the palisade that ringed the camp. They snapped off a quick salute when Danzō went past, and knowing that he'd have half an hour before Danzō would need him again Naruto went over to them. Three months had tanned them good. Their vests were leaning against a barrel, and they worked the latrine with large shovels, turning the sand. Danzō had declared the use of Earth Jutsu for latrine duty as frivolous, making it a punishment that Sakura had become quite familiar with.

"What's up?" Naruto said, walking up to them, stench growing worse.

The guy who had called him, tall and burly, punted his shovel into the ground, leaning on the wooden handle. "Barrel's empty again," he said, grinning. "You ought to make good on your duties, waterboy."

The group around him nodded. They were all in agreement on the issue, and while they laughed Naruto flipped them off, stalking over to the barrel. He looked inside and found it empty except for a small puddle at the bottom.

He heard, "See? It's empty."

"Get back to shoveling," Naruto said.

They laughed again but returned to their work. Naruto called up his chakra, pushing it through his hands and filling the barrel. Two minutes later the job was done, and he was frustrated as always by the small progress he'd made. He contemplated spitting in the barrel for good measure but stopped himself. Latrine duty was bad enough. It left your hands hurting and sore, and your nose in a constant state of feeling threatened.

"Done," Naruto said, passing them.

"Thanks, waterboy." The burly man wiped his brow and nodded. He was still grinning but it wasn't malicious, and Naruto let it go. He waved lazily, then moved on, stomach tightening. He hadn't eaten since morning and still had twenty minutes until Danzō wanted him back at command.

Deeper into the camp he exchanged a handful of coins for a piece of bread and a stew with snake meat. He settled down on a crate, scooping the meat out of the spicy broth, chewing slowly as he watched shinobi pass by. Snake was really fatty, and he made sure to always eat bread with it to avoid stomach aches. Much like eel, he found. He hadn't eaten eel in a long while. The last time had been at Ichiraku's. Naruto smiled at the memory. Old man Teuchi had made a real bargain with some trader, and seafood ramen had become the big thing to eat for a month.

His smile grew strained when he remembered that the cook needed her barrel filled as well. The woman, hair up in a bun and secured by a net, was watching him with a gruff look to make sure he brought back the bowl and the spoon, and wouldn't forget his duty.

Should've never asked Danzō

Sighing Naruto got up to his feet and went over to the barrel while she put the dishes away. Once, he had asked about training in something else than Taijutsu, and Danzō, humanity's embodiment of apathy, had smiled. Naruto had resolved to never see that smile again if possible. There were no techniques to be learned, Danzō had said, but Naruto could always sharpen his control over his element. From then on, whenever the cripple was occupied with something he didn't want company for, Naruto completed the momentous task of refilling the water barrels around camp.

Three minutes before the time was up Naruto entered into the cozy tent next to Command, leaving behind the red evening sun. Danzō was inside already, sitting at a table decked out on one side with sugared fruit, bread, cheese, and a gilded goblet, and being completely bare on the other side. A small map hung dangerously close to a torch-holder stuck in the ground.

Across Danzō, and partaking in all the delicacies on offer, sat a man of medium height. He sported dark-brown hair with specks of white, sharp eyes that made him look like a hawk, and bronze skin. His green robes were spun from silk and lined with silver. He had a chain around the neck—good to choke him with, should the situation call for it. The ring on the thumb of his right hand was what made him important though.

The Daimyo's head advisor, Shien, didn't even notice the new arrival and continued talking to Danzō. Naruto went past, smelling the strong scent of alcohol coming from the trio of decanters near the man, busying himself with sorting useless documents on the small desk not too far away.

Shien's mission, as far as Naruto knew, was to oversee what little of Konoha's pacification process Danzō was willing to let him view, and then report back to his master. He was an arrogant bastard, but knew his stuff about the situation in Wind Country.

"There have been multiple attacks on the main road to Sukoru now, Danzō-dono," Shien said. "I must make my report, but leaving Suna without an adequate escort is out of question. Your aid will be appreciated."

Danzō sat listening. From what Naruto could tell, he hadn't touched a single drop of alcohol in three months, nor had he eaten food that was different from what his men ate. In that Naruto felt grudging respect for him. But that could also be because he disliked Shien. The advisor was an outsider. And even though Naruto wanted to trip Danzō every time he saw him, he'd love spitting in the goblet of that pompous guy even more.

"That is acceptable, Shien-dono," Danzō said. "The Daimyo's continuous support plays a crucial role in the pacification process. Your safety, therefore, is as important to me as it is to you."

Naruto suppressed the temptation to cough loudly and mix in a few words of choice.

"I am quite sure," Shien said. He looked like a fly had flown into his nostril and was partying it up inside, producing a sneer that fell short just before reaching its full potential.

"In any event," Shien continued, "three teams should suffice to deliver me safely to Sukoru. High-ranking shinobi, of course. I do not want Genin blundering about and getting my entourage killed by accident." He paused to take a sip from his goblet. "It would be for the best if they had a rudimentary knowledge of the area as well. On the chance that we have to flee the main road, I do not want to be in the hands of geographical illiterates."

Danzō had sat still during Shien's account of demands, doing nothing but leaning slightly forward and listening. Naruto though became giddy after having seen the subtle sign of Danzō's displeasure—the miniscule shift of weight on his cane. This could be the chance he had waited for, and he positioned himself so neither could see his face well, in case his expression would give him away.

"You will excuse me if I think your demand of three teams to be overly…cautious," Danzō said, voice measured. "I can spare one team, Shien-dono. They will be Chūnin of high skill, I assure you."

Naruto saw Shien balling his hands into fists under the table. "You have a large force at your command here, Danzō-dono, and you are telling me you can spare but one team? I find that hard to believe."

"It is unfortunate, but with your specific requests, only a few teams are possible. Most of them have other missions that are of vital importance." Naruto perked up at that. Team Seven certainly wasn't on a mission of vital importance, but soon, maybe, they would be. He tried to contain his grin. "Do not worry too much," continued Danzō, "the team I have in mind consists of seasoned shinobi. Three men, in fact, with a spotless record."

The grin slid off Naruto's face, anticipation giving way to disappointment, then to a surging sense of anger and self-deprecation. Of course Danzō hadn't meant Team Seven. The idea that he would send them on this mission outside Suna was ridiculous. Team Seven hadn't exactly made it on Danzō's list of favorite people—if there existed such a thing—and Naruto chided himself for being blinded even by the wish for a reunion with his teammates.

"Is that your last word on this matter?" asked Shien.

"It is," answered Danzō.

The two of them entered a staring contest, and Naruto had to give the advisor credit for holding out that long. Looking into that bandaged face was unnerving at best, horrifying at worst. It was clear though who would win in the end. The Daimyo's support was important, yes, but not to such an extent that Danzō would let him dictate the terms. Konoha had conquered, after all, and not the other way around.

They kept staring at each other, and Naruto thought, I'll find a way to get this team back together, just you watch Danzō. There's nothing that can stop Uzumaki Naruto when he wants something. Hear me? Nothing! Not you, and certainly not this desert or Orochimaru or Akatsuki or anything else!

As it was bound to happen, Shien's eyes flickered away first, shying any further contest with the crippled commander in front of him. "One team, then," he said. "I just hope they are as good as you claim."

Oh, I will make sure they're good, don't you worry.

Naruto edged closer to the table. The talk was nearing its end, and he still had no idea how to bring Team Seven into the race. But he was perfectly willing to try something. This was a good opportunity to get back with Sasuke and Sakura and then kiss Danzō goodbye for a while.

"I hope you get this rebel problem under control soon, Danzō-dono," Shien said, as he rose, eying the map hanging next to them. "There are many paths open to them and it seems impossible to predict from where they will strike next. Our Lord Daimyo wants this tasteless matter of bloodshed settled as soon as possible."

The parting shot hit, though Naruto doubted Shien had seen the sign of displeasure in the way Danzō gripped his cane. Then the words registered. Naruto's mind began pacing through the options, Shien's request for Chūnin with geographic literacy fresh in his mind.

Naruto looked at the map. Danzō's lectures had to be good for something. A gamble, of course, but what wasn't?

It's a damn sight better than doing nothing. Go big or go home, Uzumaki. Now's the time to prove you got it.

He cleared his throat and began talking, staring straight at the map and ignoring Danzō. "It's true that we can't see the rebels' every move, Shien-sama, but for your journey it shouldn't be impossible to make predictions. The most vulnerable part of the road to Sukoru is at the fringe of the Sweeping Mountains, just before the village Kuhako. If someone were planning to attack you, that would be the spot they'd likely choose—it's an equal distance away from Suna and Sukoru."

Naruto pointed at two more parts on the map. "A large rebel force can't be sustained by the few small villages in the area, so the bulk of the attack would probably stem from the regions around Shishi and Hajim. Both are reasonably large cities that lie, for now, outside of our influence."

Finished with his explanation he turned back to his listeners. His palms were sweaty, and not just from the torch next to him. He felt a nervous twitter in his gut. Kakashi's training, fighting Orochimaru and Akatsuki, and still things like this could make him nervous. The silence in the tent was tangible, like a cloud of cold smoke.

It dissipated when Shien said, "Your aide seems to have a good grasp of the area, Danzō-dono."

Naruto's body relaxed. This was good.

"He has indeed," Danzō said.

Giving Danzō the finger seemed inappropriate, but he'd love to do it anyway. If only Team Seven could get out of that geezer's sphere of influence, everything would sort itself out and they wouldn't have to worry about being split up permanently. Then Naruto's eyes wandered back to Shien and his mood turned abruptly.

The advisor's not-quite-sneer was back in full force. "He is rather pretentious though, is he not?" Turning to Naruto, "In conversations such as this you have no right to speak, boy. You should remember that."

A growl tickled Naruto's vocal chords. He held it back.

Shien said, "What rank is he, if I may ask?"

"Chūnin," Danzō said.

"Really? I would not have expected that after this display."

"Please, do not take offense, Shien-dono. Youth is brash at times." Nodding at Naruto Danzō said, "You are released for today, Uzumaki. I will see you in the morning. Make sure to fulfill your other duties until then."

Naruto didn't stick around after the dismissal. He walked away in a measured fashion, but the moment he had cleared the tent he balled his fists and released the growl that had been rising in his throat.


Evening settling further, Naruto ambled through the camp to calm himself. He felt angry at the dismissal, furious once more at Danzō splitting them up in the first place, and it occurred to him eventually that he and nobles didn't mix, and that he wouldn't admit defeat that easily. Nothing was lost quite yet, and where he might have failed, his team would pick up the slack. That's how it worked in Team Seven. Danzō would learn that soon enough.

He just had to find his teammates first.

They had set up a spot near the Shard Wall where they could meet, but the times had been few and short, their supervisors riding them hard. Danzō's contribution no doubt. It wasn't a lot of physical work, but they were kept busy enough not to see each other too often.

Naruto cast a glance at the darkening sky. Most nights were surprisingly cold in Suna. Once in a while, however, there were inexplicable days, like this one, where the daytime heat stayed well into the night.

Popping his fingers and stretching, Naruto moved on. He would have to gather the rest of Team Seven soon. Shien planned to start his journey the next day, and if they wanted to use that opportunity it had to be done quickly.

Looking for Sakura wouldn't be much of a problem. She was somewhere in the camp, swamped by the useless paperwork her supervisor hoisted off on her whenever she thought Sakura wasn't working hard enough.

Sasuke was far more troublesome. He was either patrolling—which made it hard to narrow down his position in a large village like Suna—or he was dealing with some crotchety old lady. Chilo…Chiko…something like that. After setting up camp in Suna's old hospital complex, Konoha's medical services now extended to the population as well. Sasuke had met that old bird there. What they did together was anybody's guess though.

Problem is, I've no idea where that Chiko lady lives.

Naruto swerved out of the way as a pair of Konoha-nin blundered past him. One of them sported a busted lip and a swollen eye. He was leaning heavily on his friend, whose stomach was shaking with suppressed laughter.

The one that had taken a beating mumbled something. Grinning the girl supporting him said, "Yeah, you totally showed him. I've never seen such a display of pure ability." A comment for which her partner painstakingly raised his arm to swat at her head.

Naruto stared after them. His chances of locating Sasuke weren't good, but he knew just the right person for this job. And finding him was quite easy during this time of the day. There existed a simple truth to living in this camp. And if you asked any shinobi not attached to some hard-ass supervisor, they'd give you the same answer: boredom. The bulk of the army stayed in Suna, leaving all the fired-up shinobi with far too much time on their hands.

They took to gambling, drank themselves silly, and invented harebrained dares that defied reason and common sense entirely. All in all, his crowd exactly. Last week alone had seen three Genin being treated at the hospital for having swallowed a scorpion. Sasuke's expression must have been priceless.

Beside those options of passing time, there was a last bit of amusement to be had in the camp, however. Naruto reached it presently, a large tent that just two months ago had served as a storeroom for provisions. A clever supervisor—now certainly a well-liked one—had convinced Danzō to relocate the provisions to a safer place, thus clearing out the tent.

From inside came the uproar of dozens of voices, followed by laughter. Naruto pushed the flap aside and entered the tent. Shinobi sat scattered at tables in the front area; the sand floor was laid out with straw. Three Chūnin gave out drinks at a counter that had been hastily cobbled together.

The one thing that had the power to overwhelm someone in here was neither the noise nor the alcohol but the stench. Naruto could almost feel the old sweat of other people cling to him like a second layer of clothing, and what else there was in this lurid mixture, he didn't want to think about.

Passing the bar and closing in on the back of the tent he came to a place that reminded him of his first C-ranked mission, back when things had been much simpler. To teach them water-walking, Kakashi had excavated a square hole which had then been hardened with fire and eventually filled with water.

Here, the same principle had been applied, just without the last step.

Nothing got a shinobi going like a good fight—and gambling on a fight, of course. In the Hole, special rules applied. Only Taijutsu, which was a given, and no lick of chakra. Using it meant instant loss. That slowed down the fights, making it a nice viewer spectacle. It also left enough room for it to still look more impressive than anything civilians could do.

It also didn't destroy buildings or tents. That was always a plus.

Naruto pushed past a few elbows, evaded one pitcher and a small porcelain bottle, before he finally reached the wooden guardrail that had been put together to save drunken shinobi from falling into the fight.

For some this camp was a holiday resort even on their hardest workdays. Coupled with an extremely relaxed supervisor, the result was one Genin with a lot of energy to spare and too much time on his hands.

Both fighters in the ring had lost their clothes above the waist. The night was too hot for anything else. Naruto saw that Kiba's head was matted with sweat, as was the rest of him. Blood trickled from his lips. He still grinned though, even as his opponent moved in, lashing out with his fist.

Kiba took the hit head-on, accepting the damage as a trade for ending the fight quicker. The punch drove Kiba's face to the side just as Kiba buried his own fist in the stomach of his opponent. The shinobi lurched back and buckled. Kiba kept the pressure up and rammed into the man, elbow first. Together they crashed into the wall of the pit.

The shinobi tried to kick at Kiba but it was a feeble attempt. Kiba danced out of reach, then snapped forward, right fist swinging. A second later his opponent lay on the ground. The crowd hollered. Kiba let out an aggressive bark of laughter, throwing his bloody fist in the air. Then he climbed up the wall and out of the pit, picked up his mesh-shirt and the rest of his uniform, and sat down on a stool, breathing heavily.

As Naruto walked toward him, some people clapped Kiba on the back before turning to the next fight, eager to see some more action. A generous donor reached Kiba a flask from which he took greedy gulps, before shuddering.

"You fight so damn crude, man. Taking that punch, really?" Naruto said.

Kiba looked up from his flask, breaking into a cough.

"Wrong pipe," he croaked, hitting his chest with his palm. "Crap, you scared the shit out of me!"

"Do I have to announce myself now?"

Kiba grinned at him through bloodied teeth. "Would make it easier for people to run from your hideous face."

Naruto raised an eyebrow.

Kiba emptied the bottle, then threw it over his shoulder. "What're you doing here anyway? I thought you've got no time for this, or we would've met in there already," he said with a nod toward the roaring congregation of shinobi.

"I need your help. Something came up."

"Eh, sure. Give me a moment." Kiba craned his neck. A moment later he was standing next to a woman who wore a ribbon denoting her as a supervisor. They exchanged some words, and Kiba came back, whistling while throwing and catching a small pouch.

They left the tent after Naruto had explained that he was looking for Sasuke, entering into Suna in a sprint before jumping on the roofs and following Kiba's nose. The silence between them stretched, and Naruto shot Kiba a glance.

"How're you holding up?" Naruto asked.

Kiba commented with a flat "fine," but then forced a grin on his face. "What about you? I heard Danzō plucked you three apart for rescuing some kids."

"He did."

"You made quite the waves, and not good ones. I mean, I understand and all, but some here really hate Suna." Kiba snorted. "Which is a real problem because—guess what—we're in Suna. We're here to stay for a while."

"They just have to deal with it. I'm not apologizing."

The partially destroyed domes went by as they closed in on the western district, the general area Kiba had traced Sasuke's scent to.

"What about the kids?" asked Kiba.

"What about them?"

"How are they? I know you've been going in and out of Suna, I can smell it. Only at night though. Figured Danzō's cracking down and you only have time when it's dark."

Naruto sighed. They ran parallel to the Shard Wall now. "They're…well, not fine. But it could be worse, I guess. They're living with their grandfather. Mother's dead, father joined the rebels. Not much else to tell. Both want to be shinobi."

"They told you all that?"

"Na, haven't spoken to them. Just watching."

"That's creepy, man. You should at least try talking to them or something."

"Shove off," Naruto said. "I'm just making sure there's no two-bit Chūnin taking revenge on them for getting beat up. You never know with guys like that."

"You really liked those—" Kiba stopped. "Got him," he said, jumping down into the streets.

They cut a few corners, crossed the main thoroughfare of the western district—quite a lot of eaves hung with red on each side—and found Sasuke leaning against the wheat-colored wall of a two-storey house. Like most buildings in this district, it had been spared destruction. The entrance was roofed by cascading red fabric. Orange light glinted behind smudged windowpanes.

Sasuke wasn't alone. A young woman, quite the beauty as far as Naruto could see it in the dim torchlight, was chatting with or rather at him. The Uchiha didn't reply to many of her enquiries, but he wasn't looking all that uncomfortable either. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, and he was staring at the opposite building, now and then throwing a glance at the woman.

Kiba uttered a low whistle. "I'll be damned. So that's his game?"

Naruto threw another look at the red fabric draped over the building. "You think he's…?"

They were slowly walking toward the pair. "I think if he wanted to, he'd have used all his wasted opportunities back in Konoha."

"They look close enough to me," said Naruto.

Naruto had said the last word loud enough for Sasuke to notice their approach. Sasuke blinked, leaned toward the woman, and whispered something. The courtesan answered with a quiet laugh. Then she went up to her toes, placed a kiss on his cheek—Sasuke's entire face remaining a stoic mask—and vanished into the house.

"I expected a lot from you," Naruto said, grinning, "but this is beyond my comprehension."

Sasuke looked indifferent. "Your comprehension doesn't cover much."

"Once an asshole, always an asshole," Kiba said.

"You should shower once in a while, Inuzuka."

"I would, but 'waterboy' here"—Kiba thumbed at Naruto—"is kind of lazy."

Naruto's lips twitched. They had needed two seconds to synchronize and turn on him. He chose to save what's left of his dignity and changed the topic away from water. "What's up with this, Sasuke? A month alone and I find you here of all places? What would Sakura say?"

Sasuke shrugged. "If she has a problem with it, she can talk to my supervisor. I've been spending the last two hours of every day here while he's inside."

Naruto was about to ask another question when Kiba interrupted him.

"I know you two ladies want to share gossip, but didn't you have something important to do, Naruto?"

"Right," Naruto said. "I might have found a way to get Team Seven back into business."

Sasuke pushed himself away from the wall and came closer. "Let's hear it."

"We need to do some plotting, share some ideas and stuff," said Naruto. "Sakura's in the camp, finding her will be easy, I think. Can you come right now, or do you need more time here?"

"I'm free," said Sasuke. "Leeya went inside to tell him that I'm at Chiyo's. He'll complain and then forget it."

"Can't fault him," Kiba said. "I bet he has other things on his mind right now."


Sakura shifted on the ground, trying to find a more relaxing position. She was sitting on a rough carpet in the back of a tent, hidden behind stacks of crates and barrels, leafing through the pages of a worn book she had bought earlier that day. Commerce had begun to normalize in Suna after a few weeks. Once the merchants noticed that Konoha wasn't the robber baron of their nightmares they lost a good portion of their anxiety.

A flame flickered in a vase made of glass near her feet, warming them. Naruto had carved a seal into the bottom of the vase. With chakra it burned all night long, making reading much easier while she hid from her supervisor.

Sakura slid to the left, rolling her shoulders, grimacing. No matter which way she contorted her body, there was always some hard edge pressing against her back. Just as there was always sand in places it had no business being in.

Indulging in the admittedly rather fascinating tales Wind Country had to offer would be a lot easier if she could do so in her tent. Shikari, that monstrous woman of a supervisor who sported muscles shaming most Taijutsu experts, was shoveling more and more work onto Sakura's plate, as though she was in love with Danzō and obeyed him in all terms.

Sakura could imagine their conversation perfectly well.

'Keep Haruno busy,' Danzō would say.

'Yes, Danzō-sama, I will do as you command. No free time shall be given to her,'the sodden bitch would then reply, and Danzō would end the whole spiel with an evilly chuckled 'Excellent.'

Too bad that after getting burned a few times in the first week, Sakura had wised up and started to get away the moment she completed her normal workload. The other shinobi in the group liked her well enough and didn't tell Shikari much, which in turn led to some hide and seek games that had taken both of them to every corner of the camp, into the village…hell, even outside of Suna. Sometimes Sakura got caught, however. Then she'd have to pull extra shifts on latrine duty, a wonderful job, really.

It took a moment to move away from the imagery of murdering Shikari. Relaxing her clenched fists Sakura concentrated on the book in her lap. The tale was interesting—with Naruto as a teammate, stories about Bijū always were.

The book detailed the history of the Oasis of Ike that lay a few hundred miles to the south of Sukoru, and around which, over time, first a community and then a city had been formed. The oasis was the largest body of water in Wind Country aside from the ocean to the south.

The book told that when the wind picked up at night one could hear the palm trees whisper secrets of the gods to each other.

Sakura trailed her finger over a faded picture. In the middle of the oasis was an island on which now stood a gorgeous temple of white marble. The legend went that the very first Jinchūriki of the Ichibi had found an unparalleled peace of mind there, mastering the volatile forces of his Bijū.

Later generations tried the same, but while the island still exuded the same calmness as before, all the other Jinchūriki that traveled there failed in their endeavor. They could not control the power of the Ichibi, ultimately dying and setting the Bijū free. This went on until Suna decided that the oasis had lost its power. They imprisoned Bunpaku, the Ichibi's Jinchūriki of that time, inside the Sweeping Mountains with naught but a teakettle.

Transfixed by the book, Sakura hurried to the next page.

Then noise from outside the tent jerked her out of her trance. She extinguished the flame in her vase and listened. For most of the shinobi stationed in Suna this tent was off-limits. Someone was taking great pains in sneaking inside just now though. She pressed herself against the stack behind her, trying to peer through the gap between a crate and a barrel.

"You sure she's here?"

"He's an Inuzuka, moron. Of course she's here."

"See? Even Uchiha says that I'm never wrong."

"That's not what I—"

One by one the familiar voices reached her ears. Sakura pinched the bridge of her nose and flicked her hand—the light in the vase went on again.

"If that's your idea of a stealthy entrance I have to disappoint you," she said, waving from behind the crates.

"I told you she's here," Kiba said.

As all three hurried over to her, she rolled out a utility scroll, placed the book in the circle in the middle of it, and carefully sealed it with a slight application of chakra. With those three around the space became cramped, and she didn't want to risk the fragile book.

"Be a bit quieter, will you?" she said, glancing first at their clueless faces and surmising that stealth hadn't been their primary concern, and then at the entrance where the tent flap was stirring in the wind. "What are you doing here?"

"Moron's got a plan," Sasuke said.

"I dare you to call me that again."

"Moro—"

"Stop it you two!" she said with vehemence, grabbing one shoulder each and squeezing hard.

They quieted down, but beside them Kiba exploded in a laugh, which Sakura's glare quelled soon enough as well.

"If we get caught this is your fault," she said, shaking her head. "Now, what's going on?"

Naruto said, "I—"

"Haruno!" came a call from outside the tent. The voice was laced with distaste, and Sakura resolved to kill them later for this. Now she had to react quickly though, or all three of them would get into serious trouble for entering a restricted area.

Her hands formed seals, and within a split-second a number of Genjutsu concealed the presence of their little group. It wasn't complete invisibility like Jiraiya-sensei had showed her once, but it was a distortion of the senses to such a degree that even if you were standing in front of a person they wouldn't notice you.

"Haruno, I know you're in here," Shikari called. "I've heard your voice just now. Come out!"

Sakura cursed inwardly as she watched that muscle-laden woman stomp about the tent like a gorilla with too much testosterone.

"I know you're here," Shikari repeated in a whisper, "and I'll make you come out if you don't show yourself."

When the kunoichi formed the seal to dispel Genjutsu Sakura's heart jumped to her throat. She reacted, and with far too little time manipulated the illusions so they still applied to her friends, but excluded herself. It was a spur of the moment modification, and she really hoped it worked.

Gulping Sakura stepped forward.

Please. I'll train extra hard if this worked, I promise.

"I knew you'd come out," Shikari said.

"Yeah, well, here I am." Sakura didn't bother to keep the annoyance out of her voice.

"You're a real piece of work, Haruno, but don't worry… sooner or later you'll do as told."

Sakura motioned behind her back for the others to leave the tent. "And how will you do that? Go to Danzō?"

"That's Danzō-sama to you, Haruno. And yes, he'll set you straight."

Sakura grinned despite herself. "Yes, please, report me," she said. "I'm sure Danzō will be thrilled to hear how well you managed me. He seems an okay guy. I bet he accepts failure as part of being human."

Her supervisor was silent for a moment, and Sakura saw Naruto sign that they would be waiting near the Hole for her. Then the three left the tent, leaving her alone with that tremendous mountain of a woman.

"Be careful, Haruno," Shikari said, "your glib attitude won't always save you. It's too late now to bother with you, but tomorrow is coming. We'll see who's laughing when you're shoveling shit from morning to evening."

"Is that all?"

Shikari grunted, and Sakura took that as her dismissal and went past the woman and out of the tent.


Sasuke was leaning against a post in the shadow of a tent, listening to Naruto's whispered oaths about Danzō. They were behind the Hole, waiting for Sakura to shake off her supervisor. He eyed the sky. There had been no clouds for days, and the stars were quite bright. From inside the tent came a surge of voices, loud, whiny, male, boisterous, aggressive, female, happy, empathetic. After a while he stopped differentiating them and the voices fused to a unified garble again.

"Once I'm Hokage, I'll boot his ass in the most humiliating way possible," Naruto said. "He'll have forgotten the names of his grandchildren when I'm through with him."

"You think Danzō has grandchildren?"

Naruto paused his pacing and smacked the top of a crate with his flat palm, hard. "I didn't think of that."

"Evidently."

"I'll still kick his ass once I got the hat."

"If he's still alive by then," Sasuke said. He was content to let Naruto keep raving. The voice—if not always the content—was soothing in a sense. Back when they had brought him to Boeki Tōshi it had often enough broken through the shroud clinging to his mind, while he had seesawed between consciousness and the all-pervading red the Kyuubi had left him.

Behind them, the Hole exploded in a cacophony of shouts.

Then Sakura came jogging around the corner ahead, each step sending up a light flutter of sand. No chakra running through her soles, then. Sasuke would tell her later. The exercise wasn't necessary for her chakra control, but it increased mobility in the desert and made hiding tracks easier.

"Where's Kiba?" Sakura asked, coming to a stop.

"Hole," Naruto said. "Fighting, drinking, the works."

The hollering of the crowd penetrated the fabric of the Hole's backside with ease. It grew to a dizzying level, the current fight in its last stages, the roar now drowning out Team Seven as they talked, and they moved away as it swelled like a balloon and then was suddenly punctured by a scream, the balloon deflating abruptly, the Hole growing quiet.

"Is Kiba alright?" Sakura asked, looking over her shoulder at the tent.

"Probably not," Naruto said. "It's his way to cope, I guess? Can't say much about that."

Sasuke walked beside his teammates, saying nothing. He didn't much like the Inuzuka, but he had been there when Kiba had laid Akamaru on a pyre back in Konoha, howling like a dog the whole time, miserable as he put the torch to the oil and watched the pyramid of straw light up in an angry orange. He had been there, staring at the flames and remembering all the pyres that had once been built for the Uchiha, and the memory, far too vivid still, left him in agreement with Naruto. No one had any right to say how Kiba should cope.

"He'll make it," Sasuke said. "But we've got our own problems to deal with." He lowered his voice. "I'm not planning anything in this camp as long as there's a chance of Danzō or his people hearing us."

"Shard Wall, then?" Naruto asked.

"It's becoming too popular," Sakura said. "Remember last week?"

Naruto grinned. "You mean the pair having—"

"Yes, them."

They walked slowly, indecision keeping them back. They had left the Hole far away enough though, and the rumbling was dull now. Sasuke felt the onset of hunger form in his stomach and was about to steer them carefully toward a stall, when he noticed Naruto glance at him and Sakura.

"Why not Sasuke's brothel? He's got some contacts in the city."

Hunger forgotten, Sasuke struggled with a brief uprising of conflicting emotions on whether to strangle or stab Naruto. "It's not my brothel. I'm following orders."

"You're guarding a brothel?" asked Sakura, mad hilarity swirling behind her eyes. Sasuke didn't deign that question with an answer, and she was quick to continue, "An honest to God brothel?" A laugh escaped her. "I'd never thought you'd be the one Jiraiya-sensei's lessons would impact the most. And it only took him what, one month? …that's actually impressive, I have to say."

"Hn."

"Just remember to be careful," Naruto said. "You don't want things to get even more complicated."

"I'm standing guard."

Naruto nodded sagely. "For now you are, but I doubt even you, mightiest of Uchiha, can resist temptation forever."

"Won't your supervisor still be there? Can we even use it?" Sakura asked.

"Shift's been over for a while now," Sasuke said. "Maybe he left already."

"It's worth a try," Naruto said, stretching his arms, yawning.

They made their way out of camp and into Suna, keeping to the back alleys as they navigated the village. Strewn all over Suna were the lights of moving patrols, more at night than day, and as slovenly as the army at times appeared to Sasuke, he couldn't deny their overbearing presence on the streets. Danzō's mistrust ran far and deep, and leaving the conquered unobserved wasn't a state he could abide.

Through a small alley they reached the back entrance of the brothel, draped with red from every angle, like so many houses in Suna—definitely far more than Sasuke had ever noticed in Konoha or Tanyū. Sasuke rapped twice, and the door opened a few inches, a shaft of light falling on them through the small gap. Leeya smiled at them, dimples showing, eyes a dark brown, hair in a loose bun, kimono slightly askew.

"Sasuke-sama," she said, "you're back."

"Is he still in?" Sasuke asked.

"He's been drinking all evening. I don't think he'll stop anytime soon, I'm sorry." Leeya looked curiously at Naruto and Sakura. "Do you and your friends still want to come in? You could evade him somehow, I'm sure."

"Not today," Sasuke said. Not as long as he's in there.

Leeya sighed in disappointment, shooting Sasuke a look that made him acutely aware of his teammates still standing behind him. Then she nodded at all three of them, bowed gracefully, her kimono showing a fair amount of skin, and went back inside.

Sasuke turned, and before the light from the closing door vanished he saw the infuriating grin on Naruto's face. The urge to strangle him presently outweighed the stabbing—the latter was too quick and painless.

Sakura coughed. "Well, seems like that avenue's closed, Sasuke-sama."

"Have you actually been in?" asked Naruto.

"A few times, but—"

"—just to stay guard, of course, I get you," Naruto said.

They walked a few paces away from the brothel, keeping well away from the patrols. When Danzō had separated them with his flimsy excuse, he probably hadn't planned on them reuniting, even during their free time. It wasn't a given that if they were seen, the patrols would tell on them, or even know about informing Danzō, but Team Seven had become a bit more careful with tempting fate in the last months.

"We can't plan in the camp," Naruto said, pacing up and down. "Shard Wall's too popular, and the brothel is a no go too. There must be a place…" Naruto's voice ebbed away, and for a moment he stood staring at nothing at all. Then he turned to Sasuke. "Aren't you meeting with that old gal all the time? Chiko?"

"Chiyo," corrected Sasuke.

"What's up with that anyway? Isn't she a Suna-nin?" Naruto said.

"Retired."

"So what? That's still dangerous."

Sasuke shrugged. "We have an… agreement."

"That's beside the point," Sakura said. "It's far too late already. We can't just barge in an old lady's home and occupy it."

"We could," Sasuke said. "I've to go there anyway. She's still awake."

"How do you know?" Sakura asked.

"I simply do."

And, starting on the way to Chiyo's house, Sasuke took quite some pleasure in their frustration at his answer. Reaching the place took a lot longer than during the day though, as avoiding Konoha uniforms slowed things to an irritating degree. That they had to cross the village all the way up north didn't make it easier. The house was in the most northern part of Suna, behind even the Kazekage's former official tower, and was close enough to the mountains that one slide would bury it completely.

They walked through the low archway in the wall and entered into the courtyard that preceded the house. Chiyo was still awake, looking as grouchy as every other day Sasuke had met her. She sat on the edge of a dried out stone fountain, taking drags from a long-stemmed pipe.

Seeing them coming Chiyo puffed a last time, then laid the pipe away, narrowing her eyes. "You again, brat? Hounding me at night now, are ye?" The lamp sitting on the edge beside her chased shadows across her leathery face. "Find a home and leave me 'lone, boy."

"Hn. We need some space."

Sasuke was sure that would suffice, but Sakura stepped forward and inclined her head politely. "What he means to say—Chiyo-san, right?—is that we'd be grateful if we could stay for a moment."

Chiyo kept her eyes locked on Sasuke, lips pulling into a dry grin. "Who's the girl, brat? She's too polite for you."

Naruto laughed, and Chiyo's finger twitched in response; a second later Naruto, swept off his feet, was lying on the floor. "Quiet down, will you, boy? My brother's sleeping in there…if he's not dead already." The last part was murmured to herself.

"Got it," Naruto said, climbing to his feet, then whispering to Sakura, "Grandma's short a few marbles."

Sasuke was sure Chiyo had heard it, but she left the blond alone. She slid from the fountain, carefully collecting her lamp and her pipe, before shambling past them. "I'm goin' to sleep. You can have the yard, brat, but keep the noisy one under control, hear me? No noise! Or I'll come back out and you'll be sorry."

"Hn."

When Chiyo was just about to enter the house Sasuke fished a scroll out of his uniform and threw it at her back. It was caught in the air behind her, as if held by invisible strings, and she moved inside with it, never acknowledging that it had been thrown at all. Sasuke led his teammates to a corner of the yard from where they had a good view on the house and the archway to the street.

"You trust that lady?" asked Naruto, plopping down on the ground.

"She's a retired Suna-nin."

Sakura's hands immediately formed a seal. Privacy Genjutsu sprang up around them. Sasuke counted them—three in all for sound, sight, and smell. Not bad. Sakura would need to keep up the hand seal to sustain them all, but that she could talk coherently while doing so spoke volumes.

"What's with the scroll?" Naruto said.

Sasuke shook his head. In a few hours the sun would rise. They didn't have much time anymore if they wanted to get anything done. "I'll tell you later," he said. "Now, what've you got that's worth all this trouble?"

And as Naruto began to tell them, Sasuke really hoped that it was worth it. Not that he disliked the company, but he was tired and hungry, and if Naruto had led them on this merry trip for nothing he'd really strangle him.


Kakashi sat upright in his hospital bed, eying the little squares of moonlight entering through the shutters. He clenched and unclenched his fists and, after assuring himself of their working condition, he activated his Sharingan, before letting it fade out again.

The nurses had been helpful during the last month, filling him in on what happened in and around Konoha. They wove a tapestry of information that told him his peers—Asuma, Gai, Kurenai, even Tenzō—were fighting with the Sandaime, either against Kusa, Oto, Iwa, or all of them together. The tapestry, for all its detail, lacked three important threads, however, leaving a gaping hole in its middle. Team Seven was in Suna with Danzō—that much was common knowledge—but that wasn't the information he sought.

In the sparse times Tsunade visited him to monitor his progress he had asked her about them, and she would look at him, shake her head, eyes full of the information he wanted but lips sealed tight.

Why though? He had thought hard on it, trying to connect the dots and ultimately coming to no conclusion. He was an Elite Jōnin, had served as ANBU and personal guard to the Hokage, had been tasked with training the most volatile team Konoha had to offer. He had a level of clearance that was only dwarfed by the Hokage himself, the Sannin, the advisors and maybe Shikaku. Why wasn't he told?

It frustrated him, more than he thought possible.

But not anymore. He had tried following the official channels and that had yielded no results at all. He didn't understand why Tsunade kept the information from him, but he knew that he needed them, and that this need went far beyond idle curiosity. What drove him wasn't easy to put into words. Guilt, perhaps, but that too was insufficient to describe it.

One after another Kakashi took off the bandages around his head, placing them on the table beside his bed. He slipped out of the hospital wear and into the casual blue and black garb Shizune had brought him. No vest for now. He'd only get that one back at the requisition office. At least they had left him his headband.

He slanted his forehead protector across his face, glancing at the windows. They had been equipped with a special Fuinjutsu that activated at night, ostensibly for the protection of the patients. Should he open them, one of the night-shift nurses would receive an alarm. He turned away. Leaving through them wasn't impossible, and if the situation were less dire he might go through the trouble, but not tonight.

He would take the direct route and deal with trouble as it arose. He hadn't returned to old form quite yet, but the strength at his disposal should suffice to get the information he needed.

The hallways were lit by garish fluorescent lights—one more reason to hate hospitals—and Kakashi listened for noise as he stepped out of his room, closed the door, and began walking through the hospital. There were a few hushed voices farther ahead, but they came from the nurse station and didn't concern him. He took a corner, evading the nurses. He jolted when he heard the sudden onset of sprinkling water.

He looked to the side; the noise came from the room with the communal showers. Pulse slowing he went on, thinking, Who the hell showers this late? and had almost made it to the atrium when he heard the clicking of heels behind him.

Looking to his right he found a door. He seized the knob and turned; it was locked.

He threw the door a frustrated look. Judging from the distance of the heels he didn't have the time to break the lock. At least the footfall sounded differently than Tsunade's or Shizune's. He had learned to identify them quickly.

Kakashi turned, lifting his forehead protector. He didn't want to use it on a someone from Konoha, but the circumstances left him no choice. Today he would learn what his team did, and there was nothing that would stop him. He waited until the nurse rounded the corner and came into sight, then he activated his Sharingan.

Her mouth opened—either to scream or shout in admonishment, he couldn't tell—but his Genjutsu was faster. A second later the nurse led him through the corridors, toward an exit reserved for employees, by-passing the atrium completely.

Once they were outside, he modified the illusion. The nurse went back to do her rounds; tomorrow she would have forgotten all of this.

Kakashi took a minute to bask in the feeling of freedom that accompanied leaving the hospital. He listened to the rustling leaves from above, took in the bark of a dog some distance away. Then he moved away from the building and, taking many detours, avoided the main roads and his fellow shinobi at every turn. It felt odd sneaking around in his own village. Reaching the Hokage Tower only made him more conscious of that.

This time of night only two guards stood in his way. They were staking out the usual entrance points, and one of them routinely vanished to patrol the insides before rejoining his partner. Kakashi waited until the woman went inside, then threw a bell in a high arc toward a trashcan a few yards away.

As the bell hit the bin with a chime, Kakashi sucked in his breath, remembering that silent nights had a way of amplifying every sound.

The Chūnin checked out the noise and Kakashi slipped into the tower, dampening his chakra. He climbed the stairs to the office floor when the second guard crossed his path. A quick look with his Sharingan and the woman was well on her way. The pang of guilt fading he surmounted the last stretch of his journey.

The door to the Hokage's office was closed. From his time with Minato-sensei he knew that they were heavily protected. The moment Kakashi had become his child's guard though, Minato-sensei had shown him how to access the office without alerting anyone. Today would be the first time he'd use that knowledge. He couldn't help but wonder if his sensei would approve of it.

A melancholic grin tugged at his lips. The Yondaime's trust in him had been absolute, and years after the man had died Kakashi still didn't understand why.

Ridding himself of these thoughts Kakashi went five paces to the right of the door and put his palm on a precise location in the wall. Chakra surged through his hand; the door opened with a soft click.

He entered quickly.

Better get this over with as fast as possible.

Inside the dark office Kakashi didn't linger. He went over to the door that led into the archive room. The seal to circumvent the protections was located at the bottom of the wall. Kakashi crouched, searching for the little mark that would let him know where to direct his chakra.

His fingers had just grazed a little bump when black scribbles exploded outward from the wall, stretching through the office, crawling alongside the wall, the ceiling, the floor. They lit up a glaring blue. He felt the room seal itself. Then the spectacle of light died down and the lights overhead turned on.

Kakashi closed his eyes. Sighing he rose from his crouch and turned around.

Tsunade stood opposite of him, her expression stern, and Kakashi resisted the impulse to think on where he must have slipped up.

"Tsunade-sama," he said. "I had hoped to avoid this."

I really did, he thought. But I'm not apologizing. Not when I don't know anything about them and they might be in danger and I don't know what they did and you won't answer anything about them.

"I can believe that," Tsunade said, grinning humorlessly. "What would you do if you had all the information you're looking for?"

The image of his team flickered through his mind, beaten and bloodied, still standing and defiant though. "I'd want to see them," he said. "As soon as possible. I'd want to… There's a lot I can still teach them."

There was a moment of silence. Then Tsunade moved. Her fist rushed at his head. He barely got away in time.

He tried to say something, but Tsunade was on him. He ducked under another punch that was entirely too close, staggering over to the couch in the corner. She lashed out again, fist flying in a wide arc. He plucked a pillow from the couch, deflecting her punch to the side, the pillow exploding in a burst of fabric and stuffing.

"What are you doing?" he called out, rolling away from a kick, seeing her heel leave a fist-sized hole in the ground. Another pillow fell to the ground in pieces, and he vaulted over the desk nearby, Tsunade following, each reckless move to get away driving pain up his spine, setting his limbs on fire.

Then they were back at their starting positions, his breath running ragged, spit gathering in his mouth.

"I know you, Kakashi," Tsunade said, walking toward him, right wrist rotating lazily. "No matter what I say, you'd try to reach them immediately. Comrades, right? That's the kind of person you are."

Kakashi's lungs burned far too much to offer a reply to her glowing character assessment of him. Then she came at him again, low this time, and Kakashi tried to weave away, relying on his Sharingan to avoid her punches. One after another they landed, each hit rousing his bones to rebellion against the abuse dished out.

Her fist found his stomach at last. He buckled, sinking against the wall at his back, the spittle in his mouth landing on the carpet.

Tsunade bent down until their heads were close and he felt her warm breath on his face—he had expected it to reek of alcohol, but she was sober.

"This is the strength you want to show them? What you want to teach them?" Her quiet laugh vibrated in his bones. "Even if you were completely healthy, which you aren't, I'd still win against you." She took him by the scruff of his shirt and pushed him forcefully against the wall.

Earlier she had punched his Sharingan swollen shut, so he glared at her with the normal eye that remained functional. "You've made your point."

Tsunade loosened her grip, letting him slide down the wall. "Have I really?" she said, leaning against the desk, letting her words linger, voice low. "What can you offer them right now?"

Kakashi shifted on the floor, trying to find a position that didn't hurt. He wanted to lash out at Tsunade, if only with words. The vastly different quality of her voice held him back though. He closed his eyes, ignored the pain, and conjured—for the umpteenth time—the image of his team in his mind. He pictured himself beside them, teaching, offering advice…making them run through hellish exercises. Their complaints would be exquisite. But he wasn't satisfied with that alone. He couldn't be.

So, what could he offer them? That's what Tsunade had asked him, and he found that beyond his company—which was a questionable feature in itself—there wasn't much, not really. Could he be content with being just a teacher? They were his students, but it had never been his goal for them to remain as such. He had always striven to make them equals, even if his means might have been extreme. Would they even need a teacher now? Or did the challenges they'd have to face demand something else entirely?

Kakashi opened his eyes and glanced at the woman who had used him as a punching bag. She was still leaning against the desk, looking down at him with inscrutable eyes. Kakashi reclined his head, feeling the wall behind pulse with a coldness he welcomed. His company was all he had to offer them at the moment. And that, he realized, was worth next to nothing in this world. At least not with how he was right now.

Tsunade broke the silence first.

"I will tell you what they did, Kakashi," she said.

His eyes widened.

She crouched beside his battered body, hands glowing green as she began to heal him. "But I won't let you leave," she said, "not like this." Her voice was much gentler now, soothing. "I read the reports, you know? I healed them, and I was at every debriefing they had over the months."

Her words left him bitter for a moment. There was so much he had missed out on. So much he should know…

"Your kids went through hell and back for you, Kakashi," she continued, almost wistful. "They did something even Sarutobi-sensei thought impossible." She paused, staring right at him. "I won't let you dishonor that sacrifice, that incredible achievement, by leaving this place half-assed and without a plan. They deserve better than that."

Kakashi sat up gingerly. He couldn't deny that learning his team had convinced even her of their worth made a strange feeling form in his gut. Calmer now, and with the pounding in his head lessening he asked, "What do you have in mind?"

Tsunade went over to a cabinet at the far side of the room, returning with two porcelain bottles. She handed Kakashi one bottle, then sunk down the wall herself, joining him on the floor.

"First, we drink and I'll tell you what your brats did," she said, taking a large gulp. "Then you will go back to the hospital, where you'll lie in your bed and thank every deity from Jashin to Amaterasu that they're still alive after the stunts they pulled."

The sake burned pleasantly in his throat. Kakashi's lips twitched. "I will."

"Of course you will," Tsunade said. "Because I said so."

There was a measure of truth to that, Kakashi acknowledged. His still lightly throbbing wounds could attest to that. She was a rather assertive woman.

"What happens once I'm fully healed?" he asked.

Tsunade was silent for a moment, rolling the bottleneck between her thumb and index finger. Then she glanced at him; there was something heavy in that gaze. "Say, Kakashi," she said, "are you satisfied with how strong you were before all this?"

"Until I met them, yes," he said. "After that? Not so much."

Tsunade took another gulp. "Good."

"Mhh?"

"I'm not just a medic-nin," she gave as way of explanation, "and it's time that I get back to my old strength…especially with all that's happening right now." The last part was murmured more to herself than to him, he felt.

"Are you proposing—"

"I am," she said, emptying the bottle.

"Okay," he replied.

And sitting amidst destruction, next to the strongest woman in Fire Country, maybe even the Elemental Nations, Kakashi found that he didn't have it in him to disagree. He drank his sake, felt his battered body, and wearily grinned at the ceiling. Their methods of convincing someone were roughly the same, after all. Strange to be on the receiving end for once.


AN: I hope you enjoyed it and, as always, all feedback is appreciated! Also, thanks to the DLP crowd for their services!