Jashin was a religion for those who had no reason to kill. Hidan knew this and he didn't care, preaching otherwise anyway. Who was going to stop him? Who was going to tell him what he was doing was wrong? Utter death and destruction lay in the path of the shinobi regardless, so there was no use for him to try and convince himself the opposite.

He disrespected when he could because now was the time to do so. His mouth bled obscenities because there was no use in being polite when he'd never know anyone forever.

But because the only eternity was death, it was the one thing he wouldn't hold contempt for. The dead did nothing to deserve his misgivings, so in return, he gave them none.

A lone body traversed the graveyard, burning incense in one hand and holding prayer beads in the other.

"Pray for what you'll never have," Hidan murmured to himself. It was so early in the morning that the skies still exploded with darkness, not a single soul around. Not even Kisame, who frequented the graveyard more than he did. The only difference between them was that everyone new Kisame came here, but no one knew Hidan did. "Pray for the dead, pray for death. Pray for weakness, pray for a last breath."

There was no rain on Sundays. It was the only time he could let the smell of yew fill the air.

"Pray for suffering, pray for pain. Pray for the withering of the humane."

He went down another line of gravestones, not paying much mind to the names. They're the names of people he'll never meet and never know; their names would do them no justice. He was only there to pray.

What would knowing their names achieve?

"Pray for those you will never love, pray for those you have never lost."

He happened upon a grave he'd never taken notice of before. It was rather old, maybe ten years older or more. Hidan narrowed his eyes and crouched. "Pray for the fools who thought they should."

Hoshigaki Saki, it read. A kind nurse, a loving wife, and a mother who could have been.

An amused grin tilted his lips. "Pray for the fools who learned the cost."

::

Nothing happened on the way to Wave, and while that was a comforting sentiment, it didn't sit well in Kurenai's stomach. After witnessing the Hokage's strange behavior and her team's secrecy, it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination for some 'unfortunate happenstance' to occur during their time away from the village.

Accidents were a staple in the shinobi lifestyle. Be it poison, an ambush, or an illness, anything could happen at any time. 'Ambush' seemed like the more likely candidate in this situation. The Wave mission was already supposed to be taken care of. With the country successfully linked to the mainland and Gato eradicated, there wasn't supposed to be a 'cleanup' portion of the mission.

The Hokage was starting to become startlingly transparent. Being out of the village meant her team having less free time, not being able to be promoted meant less access to the village's resources, and being disturbingly vague and defensive about everything made Kurenai wonder how a man hailed as the "God of Shinobi" could grow so paranoid of three genin who had yet to even learn their elemental types.

"Hooooly shit," Kiba whistled. Kurenai blinked out of her thoughts and looked up as a shadow casted over her head. At the forefront of the bridge to the island was an arching gateway, the sign painted stylistically in large black font.

The Great Naruto Bridge

"He gets a bridge named after him and I had to spend half of yesterday stuck in the ground? What the hell?!" he exclaimed. A scowl touched his lips, but there was no real malice. And if Kurenai had to say anything about it, she'd note there was a shimmer of satisfaction in his eyes. "Sensei! Can I get that obstacle course back home named after me?"

She chuckled. "I don't see why not."

"We'll name it 'Inuzuka Kiba's Great Demise'," Shino added dryly. "Why? You still haven't completed it in under two hours."

"Neither have you!"

"Which is true, but I'm not the one gallivanting around asking to put my name on things."

"That's not a bad name," Sakura said thoughtfully. Kiba stared at her in utmost betrayal and she rolled her eyes. "Don't look at me like that. You're the one who fell from the net and broke part of the structure."

"I said don't bring it up again! Gah! You guys are the worst!"

Akamaru barked.

"That doesn't—stop encouraging them!"

They were children. Love filled, justice seeking, right doing children. When they found that the fox was sealed in a boy their age, they didn't run. One found reason to protect him, the other found reason to be proud, and she imagined the last was the same. They didn't bend to the insistent prejudice of the people and sought to find the truth for themselves. There were... things she couldn't say because of the law that barred her, but they found a way around it.

They found an entire story, and they—

Halfway down walking the bridge, she stopped walking.

When they learned of the fox, they found a tragedy of a boy who lost his parents to a demon he never wanted to have only to suffer the repercussions. A boy cursed the day he was born. In two days, they shadowed, researched, plucked information from an oblivious crowd.

Her fear for them had always been the consequences of them going too far out of their depth.

... What if it already happened?

Sakura looked over her shoulder, seeing Kurenai some ways away from them. "Sensei?"

She shook her head and looked to her student, offering a shaky smile and a weak admission of being alright before catching up to them. Sakura eyed her, knowing full well she was the farthest from being alright, but nodded slightly and turned her attention back to her team.

::

Wave had always been a place of foggy skies and a poor population, but whatever Team Seven had done must've been a world of good for there to be sunny, bright skies and smiles all around. Much of the townspeople looked skinnier than they should be, but at the sight of stockers filling markets and people carrying bags of groceries back home, it was a process in improvement. The country was getting better slowly, but steadily.

Shino's eyes narrowed from behind his glasses. "This doesn't appear as a situation where remnants of Gato's men have decided to stay and continue their terrorism. Why? There is a distinct lack of... disruption."

"What? So the Hokage just sent us out here for no reason?" Kiba huffed. An uncomfortable silence suddenly permeates the air, one Kurenai only hopes to wish away, and his eyes grew wide. "He did, didn't he? Of course he—"

Sakura's hand shot out to cover his mouth. "We haven't looked around yet," she stated firmly. "A good place to start is with the bridge builder, Tazuna. Let's speak with him before making any assumptions." She side-eyed her teacher, who she knew had caught on to the 'of course' part of Kiba's accusation, then dropped her hand, assumed a blank mask, and turned around. "Shall we go?"

Kurenai met her cold, even gaze and nodded. "Tazuna-san's address was listed in the mission scroll. We'll head there immediately."

And when they did, nothing but begrudging disappointment could be taken from it.

"Gato's men? Yeah, those two bodyguards he had with 'im all the time stayed behind and, you know, kidnapped Inari and Akane and a buncha other kids, but Naruto and his team stopped them before any harm could be done," Tazuna said as he scratched the back of his head. "That's the last of 'em, really. Don't you shinobi have, like, mission reports or something or other? That seems kinda important for you all to know."

A low growl emitted from Kiba's throat before he swallowed it down and looked away.

Shino stared up unblinkingly from behind his glasses. "It is a precautionary measure," he replied in monotone. The assurance didn't sound real, even to his ears, but Tazuna didn't know any better and nodded along. "We'll be around for a few more days to make sure no others come to disturb you. Why? Wave deserves to be the thriving country it was meant to. You need not worry."

"If you could spread the word, please? We don't want anyone to be alarmed at the sight of a team of shinobi scouring your village," inputted Sakura. Tazuna nodded again.

"'Course. Good luck on your search!"

When Team Eight made their retreat, Kurenai chanced a glance at her three students who'd fallen out of their bantering mood from earlier and who had now taken to a deep, unsettling silence.

Curiosity won her over. "Do you three believe we've been sent on a wild good chase?"

Kiba and Akamaru startled and Shino tensed, but Sakura kept a calm face and looked up. "What do you mean? There are probably some rogues of the Gato Company somewhere, sensei. It wouldn't hurt to look."

Kurenai sighed and stopped. Slowly, her team turned to face her, but stared everywhere but straight in her eye. "You know what I mean."

"... We're just following the mission, sensei," Shino said.

"I know what the mission details," she answered softly. He tensed further and bowed his head. "But I'm asking for your own personal opinions. Don't think I haven't noticed all the missions we've been sent on outside the village—and yours and Hokage-sama's less than friendly reception of each other." Even Kiba fully looked away from her that time, and Akamaru's tail dropped to hang between his legs. "You've all been running circles around me, thinking I haven't sensed a problem. I can't help you if you don't tell me what's wrong."

Sakura was the first to raise her head, her eyes frosty but wary all the same. "There's nothing to say."

There was literally nothing to say about their situation, but an unknowing Kurenai sighed again. "I'll let it go for now, but I expect something of an answer soon. I'm not the only one worried."

They went around the edges of the small port city two times, three times over. There was nothing, and in turn, it was nothing short of frustrating. Maybe it hadn't been so vocal before, but now they all knew what they were doing was a waste of time.

After a patrol of fruitful nothing, they stayed at the only inn around and split into two rooms, Kurenai in one and her students in the other. She'd offered them each their own rooms, or at least one of them to stay with her to keep it even, but they were adamant at sticking at each other's sides.

They were closer than a normal team, Kiba and Sakura even more so, but when they said they would stay in the same room they, again, wouldn't look her in the eyes.

She exhaled softly and took a seat at the edge of the bed. It was small with a simple cream cover and the wall she was staring at was as thin as the sheets she sat on, but she heard nothing of next door.

They put up seals, she knew. Silencer seals. When did they learn how to use those?

She shook her head and glanced at the pack at her feet. Silencers, secrets, and seals.

Why would they not confide in her?

::

"... Let's have a change in topic," Sakura suggested. The three of them had been sitting in silence for the past ten minutes, shaken that Kurenai had actually decided to say something and berating themselves on the fact that they dared to hope for anything different. "We never talked about your test results, did we, Kiba?"

Kiba, who was staring down at a scroll in his lap on the floor with his back against the bed, snapped his head up at the mention of his name. "Wha?"

"Reading material outside of our research has never ensnared your attention so thusly before," Shino asked as he peered at the paper from his spot seated at the corner of the bed. He blinked at the ink strokes that met his eyes, half he didn't even know how to begin to understand. "... Perhaps we don't have to go over those results."

Sakura got up from the stool in the corner of the room and looked at the scroll. And her eyes widened a fraction.

On it in Kiba's handwriting was a mostly completed seal array, or at least an array that she recognized as one that had sequences that weren't fully locked. Fifteen more seconds of staring and she had yet to decipher what exactly the seal was for, and she was all the more impressed by it.

"That's... awesome."

"What does it do?" Shino asked, awe underlying his tone.

"Oh, uh... Hold on," said Kiba. He dug into his pack and pulled out four ready-made strips of paper, each with a short sequence on it. Akamaru took it into his jaw and happily stuck each one to each wall, and once the fourth was placed, a sudden shimmer of blue light engulfed the room before going back to normal. Stunned, Sakura and Shino slowly turned back to a smug looking Kiba. "Pretty cool, huh? I mean, silencer seals aren't meant to be flashy or anything, but nobody said nothin' about adding another layer to make sure it actually works, right?"

Sakura and Shino shared an incredulous glance before she took a small step forward. "You learned how to make seals? And layer them? And draw up an entire scroll array? Just when we found out you could complete a rubik's cube first try was when you told us you never liked puzzles. When did you start getting interested?"

"Since the snake bastard," he answered bluntly as he turned the scroll around for them to get a better look. "When we were digging around for info, there was a thing about how he used seals to control some of the people he experimented on, remember?"

Shino nodded. "You grew curious?"

"Yeah, well, uh, I was reading it and all and thought it was pretty easy." He raised his hands in defense at his teammate's blank stares. "H-Hey, they weren't that easy when I really started getting into it, okay! I never knew drawing pictures and making phrases and stuff would be so hard, but it's kind of like that rubik's cube. All I gotta do is line it up and have each part match."

Sakura couldn't stop the smile that curled her lips. Seals—and fuuinjutsu in general—were one of the most complicated masteries a shinobi could fall into, hence why there were so few of them. It was also the reason why nearly the entirety of the Uzumaki Clan had been destroyed, and why people all across the nations were terrified of what they could do. Hundreds of Seal Masters congregating in one place? There was an immense power there.

And here Kiba was, talking about it like it really was a puzzle to pass the time. She rubbed her forehead and puffed out a laugh. "You're really something else, Kiba."

"Thanks," he grinned. "But this one's kinda tricky. I want to get an intermediate one like this all good before moving on to the more expert ones." Shino's brain stuttered for a second. This was intermediate? "So this is just a storage scroll I'm starting from scratch, only I'm making it, uh, waterproof, fireproof, blood-sealed? Something like that. There's a few sequences here I'm trying to finish and once I do that, I should have another fully-functioning storage scroll. Pretty cool, huh?"

"Amazing, more like." Sakura shook her head. "What are the more expert things you're going to try out?"

Her stared at her unblinkingly. "Seal reversals."

And just like that, the mood plummeted once more.

"We already looked," Shino quietly mentioned, his gaze moving to the floor. "There's nothing to find and seals aren't meant to be reversed, only broken. And the only way to reverse a seal implemented directly by the caster is to deplete their entire chakra stores; to kill them. We can't kill the councilman. You know that. We know that."

Can't, not won't. Because they're only genin and they were no match for someone like him.

Especially since the Hokage would never be on their side.

"So what?! It's treason for us but it's just another day for them?! It's not right!"

"I'm not saying it's right—"

"Then you should be doing something about it, dammit!"

"And have it end up just like last time?" Shino snapped. "We did what was right and look what happened! We made things worse!"

Akamaru whined softly and padded over to Sakura, butting at her leg and looking up at her with a pitiful expression. She met his gaze, sighed softly, and took him into her arms and held him close as he buried his face into the crook of her elbow. She walked over to the window and peered out just as the voices raised behind her.

With the city being so small, there weren't too many people out so late. Just a few shops were closing down and the street lights were beginning to flicker out in succession.

"—because that fucking Hokage—"

Akamaru hated it when Shino and Kiba argued, but Sakura learned to simply resign herself to the side and waited for them to calm down before they started to mutter apologies to each other. Ever since The Incident they'd been falling into random arguments always on the same thing, not all the time, but enough. She didn't blame them.

"—job to protect the village—"

"Which he didn't do!"

"I know!"

In the Akatsuki, they never yelled.

Yelling was a sign of being too controlled by anger, and the one who was doing the yelling was always looked upon as the weaker one. She never remembered Konan-san ever getting angry, but then again, there was never a moment when there was any expression other than stoicism on her face.

Kakuzu-san always seemed angry. There was always a crease in his brow or a scowl beneath his mask, but his voice would always maintain its volume. Even with the inflection of impatience and animosity, there was never a shout. Never a roar. Anyone that made him mad enough to get the coldest of people to burn would have never lived to recount it.

"—but the seals—"

Sasori-san was never around enough for her to know the type of angry he got, but if him trying to kill her the first time they met meant anything, it was that his words were more or less his least favorite conduit for his rage.

Orochimaru's sickly smile never left his face, his tongue flickering with his smooth words and his chuckles taking place of where his screeches should be. She saw him just as sparsely as she saw Sasori-san, but if those two got along well enough to work together, then they were a nasty pair of scorpion, of snake; venom and poison.

Leader-sama, she knew, got angry, and Dad never let her outside on those days.

Did deafening thunder count as screams of fury?

"—that's why I'm saying we have to—"

Her eyes softened as she stared into the dark.

Dad never yelled. Never raised a hand. Never looked at her like he wasn't happy to see her.

The only person he was ever angry at was himself.

As Sakura stared into the darkness, she saw a faint glint in the distance. Metal. A pipe. The faint smile of a man raising it in her direction, then mockingly dragging it across his neck before grinning toothily and pointing it back towards her.

Her face dropped into a cold blankness, and she doesn't break eye contact with the strange man threatening her some buildings away. "Kiba. Shino. Shut up."

Her words were cold enough to form icicles and they quieted almost immediately. She only used that tone with the scathing comments she rarely dealt. The Sandaime was the recipient of such, and they didn't know if there was anyone else she would use it with.

They hurried to her side and followed her gaze to the man with the pipe, and then to the several other men that appeared behind him.

Akamaru's growls began as Shino reached up to adjust his glasses. "Ah, the first act. Do you suppose we've been sent to the chopping block this time?"

"We've been sent outside the village more times than we could count," Kiba huffed. "It's about damn time they actually started to do shit about it, you think? You sure he sent them?"

"Our mission is to check to see if any of Gato's men are still terrorizing the community," Sakura said as she reached down to the pouch fastened around her thigh. "He'd jump at the chance to send people after us." She cocked her head to the side. "Do you think he's used his money to hire them, or do you think he's embezzling Konoha's funds?"

Kiba barked out a humorless laugh. "That's great, huh? Murder, abduction, embezzlement. And he'll never get blamed for any of it." He moved to unlock the windows, but Sakura's hand grasped his wrist. "Wh—"

"They'll be trying to kill us," she said simply. His brows furrowed.

"Yeah?"

She doesn't look over at him, but her grip tightens. "So you'll need to be willing to kill them as well."

Kiba's whole body twitched and his arm dropped. Shino searched her profile silently, looking for any cracks in her mask or tells in her pores before asking, "Have you ever killed before, Sakura?"

"No. But being the human shield of a slaughterer is something you never forget regardless of having a good memory."

She opened the window, ignoring the orange shimmer of a broken seal, and leapt out. After a few moments hesitation, Kiba, Akamaru, and Shino followed.

And a mere ten seconds after that, the window next to theirs popped open and a lithe figure frantically went after them.

::

She saw the man in the window, but he didn't see her. He was too busy staring at the window beside her, making threatening gestures and trying to goad her team out. The silencers must've still been in place because she still heard nothing from next door, but she knew they couldn't be silent as the men multiplied and reacted.

She held onto a foolish hope her genin wouldn't go after them.

But then they soared down towards the band of men leading them out of the village, Sakura in the lead, Kiba, Shino, and Akamaru following some seconds after.

Kurenai barely managed to grab her kunai pouch from the nightstand before diving out her own window and making a mad dash in the direction they went.

'No way,' she thought. She kept her distance in her panic, but she was mildly surprised at how fast they moved and how they ventured deeper and deeper into the forest. People can't hear them there. No one would know if they lived or died this night. 'Why did you go after them? What are you thinking? Why didn't you inform me first? Nothing good will come out of charging towards your deaths!'

She stopped on a tree branch and peered at the bubbling confrontation below. Her students stood on one side of the clearing and maybe twenty armed men stood opposite them, the leader bearing a red cloth tied around his eyes and his brown hair parted into four sections. He tipped his pipe at them, landing dead center at Sakura.

Kurenai resisted the urge to leap down—she had to wait. She needed to.

She hadn't a single clue what was going on, but her team did.

"Don't know why you bunch of kids have such a high hit on your head," the leader grinned. "Who cares though, right? Our contractor offered a lot of money—a lot—to have your heads on a spike. Think you can spare us the trouble and slit your throats yourself? It'll make it easier for us."

Sakura stared at the offending weapon with a raised brow before meeting the leader's eyes. "You're Kusabi, aren't you? Head of a band of mercenaries who carry out low-ranking crimes and have the skill equivalent of a high genin to a low chuunin." Her eyes roamed over the group of mismatched misfits. "None of you are in the Bingo Book, so I assume—"

She suddenly went silent, eyes boring eerily into one of the men towards the back.

Kusabi blinked a few times before growling and taking a step forward. "You think you know everything, dontcha', you little bitch?"

"Please dissuade yourself from your crass insults," Shino commented lightly. A hoard of black insects swarmed from his sleeves and curled around his body, poised for attack. "Why? It's not in a jesting manner, so it's neither wanted nor appreciated."

"Another smartass, boss!" someone crowed. A low rumble of shouts entered the clearing as Kiba and Akamaru leaned forward, ready to pounce.

"You're only here because your contractor," Kiba spat, "is a spineless bastard! Come at us—unless you're scared!" He and Akamaru charged. "Gatsuuga!"

Two forms twisted at ferocious speeds, like twin tornadoes, and slammed into the ground so forcefully it broke the earth and sent the group scrambling into different directions. Sakura and Shino wasted no time diving straight into the chaos.

Shino decided to take down as many as he could, catching any unawares and knocking them down and surprising unsuspecting criminals with his seemingly endless sea of insects. Three men were downed. Then four. Then five.

Criminals like them never had formal shinobi training, or even informal, he noticed the more he fought. They were hired thugs with civilian backgrounds, probably, greedy with the thought of money from their 'contractor', most likely.

Distaste ran over the taste buds of Shino's tongue as he hit one of the assailants a little too forcefully, a little too much, a little too bitterly. A spray of blood stained his sleeve like a painting he would see at an art museum. His vision blurred for a moment at the sight.

He'd never killed before. The dead body at his feet was as still as a mannequin, but he couldn't stop thinking of the life it held before. Did that man have a family? A husband? A wife? A son? A daughter?

"So you'll need to be willing to kill them as well."

But he could never say he'd never seen a dead body before the likes of the one bleeding into the soles of his sandals. He remembered the bones of that forgotten child and the note clutched in its fingers, wondering why their mother let them be taken by a monster with no reservation to others' lives.

He remembered the monster was still out there because of the dead man's contractor.

He remembered the contractor couldn't even watch as their tongues were branded for a right that was deemed wrong; a truth described as treason; a secret that killed more than a hundred innocent children.

Shino turned away from the body, and for a few breaths, guiltless.

'I will not die at the hands of a coward,' he thought. 'I will not accept death from someone who couldn't even do the job themselves. Until Sarutobi Hiruzen decides to bow out from behind his curtain of shame...'

He pulled a handful of shuriken from his pouch and aimed at the vitals of an approaching opponent. "I will enact the best revenge," he stated.

He launched them.

"I will live."

::

They'd made a makeshift plan on their way there. A quick dissection of their enemy's movements resulted in their knowing that they were nothing but criminal scrap that acted in the civilian crime system. The leader was the strongest of them all, but was nothing notable according to Sakura. They would have no problem in their disposal.

Kiba had volunteered himself to be the distraction of their offense. They never had time to conduct true assignments on the team based on their skills and talents, but he and Akamaru had to release some steam. Send them scattering. Catch them off-guard.

So he and Akamaru pulled one of the flashiest moves his clan had to offer: Fang Passing Fang; Gatsuuga. After successfully breaking the formation at its core and knocking down a couple of thugs, his fingernails sharpened into claws as he singled out the weakest links.

As he turned mid-swipe, he wondered if this was what a shinobi was really like. His claws dripped with blood and air came in and out in shallow breaths, but he wasn't finished. There were about five more men not in Sakura's and Shino's vicinity, and he and Akamaru needed to take care of them before they decided to attack his teammates and ruin their flow and account of their surroundings.

But after those five and after they won, would they really be done? Would this ever end? Would they ever live normal lives afterwards and not be set up to be killed by the very village they were supposed to be loyal to?

Kiba's lips curled into a sneer as Akamaru's teeth dug into the back of one man's leg and he slashed his claws across his throat.

No.

Not when the councilman and his murdering, abducting, embezzling puppet were still around.

Shinobi aren't supposed to be the good guys. We kill, we steal, we lie.

Kurenai's grip tightened around the branch she was on as she saw a few angry tears drip down Kiba's face as he looked up at the sky and opened his mouth. "But I'll always fight for the truth even if it means pissing you off!" he howled. He launched towards another opponent—teeth bared, claws out.

Restraint was no longer an option.

::

Sakura employed a different approach when it came to her offense.

Shino and Kiba had already been given an insight to her past. Her father, her upbringing, what she was capable of—they had some clue.

But Kurenai had no idea until the moment she watched her student shove a kunai straight through the skull of someone in her way.

Kurenai stared at the blood splatters against the slight tan of Sakura's cheek as she retrieved her kunai and pushed the body towards the ground and away from her path. That same kunai went through another man's throat, slashes a different man's midsection, and was thrust up a fourth man's chin and came out through his tongue. The next man she came across was the one who caught her attention and who brandished a sword before him with a fearsome scowl even as cold sweat ran down the back of his neck.

He flinched as frigid green eyes stayed trained on his stolen weapon.

"Where did you get that?" she asked quietly. The sword, maybe even larger than her in its current unkempt state, glinted ominously in the moonlight. The man didn't answer and swung downward, but he was too slow. Of course. The sword was only to be wielded by masters of kenjutsu, and it was obvious by his weak grip and unsteady position that he was never meant to even touch its hilt.

And it was insulting.

Sakura easily leapt out of its way and swung her heel into the man's face, her heel digging into his cheekbone so hard that she heard the satisfying crunch of bone. He stumbled, but the sword was still in front of him.

His arms shook.

The sword was too heavy.

But he didn't let go.

It only angered her more.

"You don't know its history or its generation of wielders. You don't know what it can do, and you don't know what it means to be its owner," she seethed. Her kunai spun dangerously in her hand and Kurenai was left to think what a twelve year old had to know to be able to muster such a furious killing intent. But she sees the growing answer steaming off her skin in a simmer; truly offended and thoroughly provoked. "It has a name—all important swords do, and you dare use it in that state! Do you know the honor in your hands, or are you an idiot?!"

The man still didn't answer her and it was enough. She snapped and, with a speed unaccounted for, she cut the tendons in one of his legs and watched him fall with a startled cry and her fist met his face as he fell forward, red and mucous coating the back of her hand.

The sword slipped from his hands and fell to the ground with a light clatter.

"Kubikiribocho hails from the land of my ancestors," she said. She bent down and took its hilt, mustering her strength to raise it and set it against her shoulder. "And I'll become strong to become worthy enough to be its wielder."

Sakura looked around the clearing and noted that there were five more standing forms. Her, Shino, Kiba, Akamaru, and a quivering Kusabi with his pipe held vertically in his clammy grip. She took her time walking towards him, and so do the other, until they stood like the team they decided to be in front of a true definition of a coward.

They were only genin, and they'd been given no other choice but to be more than that.

"Y-You... ki-kid..." stammered Kusabi. Sakura's eyes narrowed as both her hands curled around Kubikiribocho's hilt.

"Sorry," she said. "I thought I was 'little bitch'."

She sliced downward and bisected Kusabi from his left collarbone to his right hip.

Kurenai witnessed, horrified, as two pieces of one body collapsed to the ground with a sickening squelch. The massive broadsword, chipped and cracked, suddenly absorbed the blood as it repairs and sharpens itself until its returned to an astoundingly immaculate condition.

'That sword belongs to the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist,' she realized. 'It has to be. And now it's in possession of one of my students.'

Twenty-one dead bodies and it's over. They've taken care of themselves.

She appeared in front of them and a little ahead of Kusabi's pieces with her arms crossed and steel in her face.

She would no longer wait for answers.

::

Sakura had guessed Kurenai would trail them to the ensuing bloodbath, but she didn't know she would sit back and watch them take care of it alone. But Kurenai was both curious and cautious, prepared to jump in for them if anything got too out of hand but holding herself back enough to test her students in how they handled themselves when they fought an actual enemy.

She pulled Kubikiribocho towards her and barely managed to plant it in the dirt by her feet. She needed to bulk up physically, like Dad, if she wanted to be able to use it for longer than five minutes.

"There are several things that have gone wrong here," Kurenai started. She glared down at Shino, Kiba, and Sakura individually, even at Akamaru who was held tightly in his partner's coat. "And there are even more things that you will be appropriately punished for upon our return to Konoha. Charging towards enemy forces without alerting your commander? Failing to assess the situation with your status as genin? Not creating a proper plan before engaging your enemy? A five-minute talk through without sitting down to work out all the bugs doesn't count! I taught you better than that!"

They winced and she tapped her bicep while her lips pursed, but her anger faltered slightly at the sight of their bowed heads.

Blood stained their clothes, dripped down their skin, clotted their hair.

And even then, she sidestepped Kusabi and took them all into her arms, squeezing them like they'd all be gone tomorrow. "Next time you will tell me when something like this happens. You all aren't alone and I'll never allow you to be. Do you understand?"

They were frozen in her embrace, and it doesn't take long for them to thaw. She heard each of their quiet admissions and felt their slight nods before she lets them go and takes a step backwards. Kiba's eyes were glassy, Shino's hidden in his high collar, and Sakura's arms were pressed to her sides as a few stray hairs escaped her high bun.

Kurenai straightened. "Now," she said. "You three are familiar with the contractor that sent these men after you. Who was it?"

A quiet panic filled the air as her students exchanged glances and Akamaru ducked down farther into the recesses of his partner's jacket. Sakura, ever the first to sort her thoughts in order, repeated her earlier sentiment. "There's nothing to say."

Kurenai narrowed her eyes. "Then write it."

"W-We can't write it either," Kiba interjected. He held her unwavering stare until he could no longer bear it and muttered a curse beneath his breath before his shoulders slumped. "Sensei, how much do you know about seals?"

Her heart started to hammer in beat with the foreboding feeling that begins to take over her chest. "A little more than the basics."

"Okay, well, so, uh… I've gotten a little more interested in seals recently, right? Because there's been some… incidents... and we've—I've, uh, done some deeper research on… on Cursed Seals," he said. The air darkens, and Kurenai didn't want to bear it. "And, yeah, Cursed Seals are a little more complicated than the normal stuff, but intent always stays the same no matter what you do."

Red eyes flickered to both Sakura and Shino who've grown increasingly cold and uncomfortable—respectively—before she wearily trailed back to Kiba. "Intent?"

"When people make seals, their, uh, intent gets put into whatever they make. So let's say someone makes a seal. That makes people… not be able… to… talk about certain things? And that seal can paralyze you if you try to say anything… incriminating about the, uh, caster?"

"What?"

"A-And even if the seal's description says we can't talk about it, it doesn't mean just talking. For a seal like that, the caster would make it so that no forms of communication could ever be used. Like, the placement of the seal is all… metaphorical… and stuff… but it just really means you're stuck with what you know and can't tell nobody any different."

He drifted off near the end of his explanation, bitter and resentful, before falling into silence. He met his teacher's gaze for a brief moment and saw her hurt, her sympathy, her disbelief, and he and Akamaru opened their mouths to expose their tongues.

Two sets of three solid black lines and two broken ones meet her troubled stare and she holds a hand to her mouth to contain her shock. Kurenai turned to her other students, and they pause before opening their mouths as well, revealing mirror seals burned into the backs of pink muscle.

The puzzle started to piece itself together.

Shino's fatigue. Kiba's rage. Sakura's apathy.

The Hokage's actions.

Kurenai's hands balled into fists.

When she was a little girl, she knew she wanted to be a shinobi for her village. She promised to be its sword, defending it to her last dying breath and letting nothing get in her way. Konoha was her heart and home, a fire that burned for what was right and the flame that scorched all that was wrong.

It was never supposed to sear its people. It was never supposed to ignite hatred.

She drew in a deep breath. But then again, she supposed, fire was always dangerous, and it burned her eyes so she could only walk a tightrope with blind faith.

But no more.

"You don't deserve what they've done to you," she stated fiercely. She stood tall in the midst of bodies and blood, three children—children—staring at her like it was the first time they'd ever seen her. "You are my team—not Konoha's, not the Hokage's but mine. Days, weeks, years, decades, I don't care, but I will do whatever it takes to see you all prosper despite the hand you were forcibly dealt, Hiruzen Sarutobi be damned!"

Her eyes glowed like magma ready to erupt.

"This seal is not your end. It never will be." Kurenai extended her fist to the center of the group like she'd seen them do a thousand times before she watched as their eyes round. "And I swear on my life, Team Eight: Sakura, Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba, and Akamaru, that I will never abandon you—not even in my death!"

She only had to wait a full heartbeat before three fists and a paw move to the center of the group and bumped against her knuckles. Kurenai peered at their faces and at their unguarded joy and she saddened, knowing that she might be one of the few, if any, that would be willing to throw themselves into the fray for their sake.

Once, her village held her utmost loyalty.

But sometimes there were more important people to love.

::

A week later, Tazuna noted that the shinobi from Konoha had left Wave empty-handed.

And much later, closer to a whole year, he would find a burial site of twenty-one meticulously dug graves amidst rust-colored grass.

::

He should've known someone would have caught on to his covert behavior one way or another. It was Monday and the rain was back so he didn't bring his incense with him, but when he arrived with a conical hat on his head and prayer beads pressed against his palm, Kisame was kneeling in front of a grave while arranging flowers in front of it.

"Ah, shit," Hidan groaned. "The fuck are you doing out here so damn early?"

Kisame shrugged a shoulder. He had no hat or cloak, letting the rain drench his clothes and seep deep into his skin. "Same thing you do all the time, 'cept I only have one grave I really worry about." He paused and thought to his little pup who went out of her way to learn the names of dead strangers which prompted him to look down the line of gravestones. Cloth brushed against his back as a scrutinizing face peered over his shoulder.

"So this Hoshigaki Saki—was she really your wife? Like, no fucking joke?"

"No joke. Married her when I was fifteen."

"Jashin fuck—seriously?! The fuck's wrong with you, gettin' a bitch right after your balls fucking dropped?"

"... I wanted a family. Wanted to get married, wanted to raise a kid," Kisame answered honestly, trying to calm himself down and letting the insults rolls down his arms like the rain. "I was selfish."

"Tch, damn right you were. It's a sin for you to think you deserved something like that." He pointed down. "And there it says, 'mother'. What happened to your fuckin' kid?"

Beady black eyes turned towards the sky. "You don't see her around, do you?"

"Ha!" Hidan barked, swinging his beads in small circles. "Serves you right, fucker. Shouldn't even've had some dumbfuck kid—"

He didn't even finish his sentence when he's pulled into the air and his brain took a few second to catch up. There was nothing particularly malicious about Kisame's expression, but he wasn't smiling and there was an emptiness to his eyes.

"What the f—"

"I don't care if you worship your god, kill whoever you want, or cuss at my face. You're you and that's none of my business." Hidan narrowed his eyes as sharp teeth glinted his way. "Insult my wife or my kid again," Kisame said as he jerked his chin at the line of graves," and I'll fucking gut you faster than you can say Jashin. Got it?"

Hidan glowered. "Put me down, asswipe."

The hand on his collar tightens and he started to choke.

"Got it?"

"Fuck—Fine! Fine! I got it, shit!"

He dropped back down.

"Glad we came to an understanding." Kisame gazed back down to the grave at his feet, quiet for a few moments before meeting a set of annoyed magenta. "I'll be on my way—me an' Itachi-san have a mission North, so we'll be gone a couple of weeks. I won't be botherin' you." Then his eyebrow quirked up. "Mind taking care of Saki's grave while I'm gone?"

Hidan rolled his eyes as he rubbed at his neck. "Like I'd ever do anything for you, dumbfuck. Ask someone who gives a damn shit."

Kisame chuckled to himself like their previous confrontation hadn't happened. "Can't say I never tried." He walked away from the site, soaked to the core and his skin looking just a bit more blue. "See you 'round, Zombie Number Two."

He would never find out that then was the start of a new sort of ritual—where a single silver prayer bead would lay beneath Hoshigaki Saki's name each day he was gone on business for years and years to come, because when he returned, the grave would be just as he'd left it.

Only stone remained. That, rain, and the faint, fading scent of yew.