"We're going to find a seals master here?" asked Sasuke dubiously as he looked around the hall of the inn.

"He always stays here when he's in the village," Kakashi explained as he guided Sasuke towards the room number the innkeeper had given him. "It's close to the bath houses." He stopped in front of Room 19. "Okay, Sasuke, try to look as pathetic as possible – we may have to resort to emotional blackmail." Kakashi raised his fist and knocked.

After a minute, a teeny, wizened old man creaked the door open and peered up at Kakashi myopically.

"Can I help you?" he quavered and then blinked. "Oh, it's you." The henge released with a puff of chakra, and Jiraiya was suddenly filling the doorway. "What do you want, kid?" He frowned at Kakashi's clothes. "You're back on active duty."

"Yes, I am. This is Sasuke Uchiha." Kakashi put a hand on Sasuke's right shoulder. "He's one of my students, and during the second chuunin exam, an enemy nin managed to put a curse seal on him." It wasn't a good idea to mention Orochimaru's name in a public hallway where someone might overhear.

Jiraiya stared at them for a moment and then stood aside to let them in.

"Why didn't you take it off yourself?" Jiraiya asked as he closed the door. "I know Minato taught you basic sealing."

"Because it was put on him by your ex-teammate. There's nothing basic about this seal. The best I could do would be to overlay a barrier seal on it, and I doubt it would hold for long."

Jiraiya's eyes had gone wide, and he pressed his hand to the door behind him. An intricate set of security seals flared blue as they activated and then settled back into the wood.

"Orochimaru's in the village?!" He let out a growl of frustration. "Slippery snake bastard. I had good information that put him in Moon Country less than three days ago. Must have been a decoy. Does Sarutobi know?"

"I'm going to send him a message while you figure out how to get that curse seal off Sasuke."

Jiraiya turned his attention to Sasuke.

"Left or right shoulder?"


"Blank message scrolls are on the desk," he told Kakashi as he bent down to inspect the seal on Sasuke's shoulder.

Kakashi scribbled out a thorough but succinct message to the Hokage then rolled the scroll back up and summoned Pakkun.

"Hey Boss. Another bread delivery?"

"Message for the Hokage." He handed Pakkun the scroll. "Wait to see if he wants to send a response of any sort with you."

Pakkun shot Sasuke and Jiraiya a brief, worried glance.

"Got it." He disappeared in a pop of chakra smoke.

Jiraiya straightened up.

"It's the same damn seal he put on Anko," he sighed, anger underlying his words. "So, good news first." He pulled out the desk chair and indicated for Sasuke to sit. "You got to me in time. This seal is parasitic. Another week or two and I wouldn't have been able to do jack without potentially ripping out half your chakra coils. At that point, most likely the only person who'd be able to take it off safely would be the one who put it on. Now, bad news – getting this off you isn't going to be as simple as slapping a suitable counter seal on or picking apart the chakra matrix. What makes this thing so damn insidious is that part of what initially keeps it from being removed is the victim themself." Jiraiya ran a hand over his hair. "The last kid that another seals master and I tried to take one of these off of was one of Orochimaru's students, and on some level, she couldn't fully accept that her sensei had done something to so profoundly hurt her. By the time she could, it was too late to remove it, and all we could do was mitigate the effects. You're going to have reject this thing on every level for the counter to work."

Sasuke nodded in understanding, face unnaturally blank, and Kakashi felt his heart clench.

"Right then." Jiraiya started gathering his sealing supplies. "We're heading over to the Hokage Tower to use the sealing room there. I don't want any interruptions while we do this."

"I was surprised to see you back in the village," Kakashi commented about halfway to the Hokage Tower. Sasuke walked silently to Kakashi's right apparently lost in thought, and Jiraiya was on Sasuke's other side wearing an expression of practiced nonchalance.

Jiraiya shrugged.

"The Sandaime has been wanting to talk to me in person for a while now among other things. Besides, I should really check on how Minato's seal is holding up. Ought to have done it years ago. He'd probably be pissed that it took me this long."

Kakashi nodded.

"True, but you're here now, and that would have counted for something with Minato-sensei. Kushina, on the other hand, is probably still going to gut you the instant you reach the afterlife."

Jiraiya stiffened slightly.

"I hadn't thought of that."

Kakashi eye-smiled at him.

"Think of it as motivation not to leave things so long next time."

Sasuke watched as Jiraiya finished drawing the last few symbols of the giant seal. He was having troubles holding onto thoughts that weren't angry or dark. Hope and reassurance seemed to slip through his grasp like water, and the specter of Itachi felt like a physical presence standing just out of sight behind him. It wasn't right. Maybe a few months ago, before he'd joined Team 7, he wouldn't have noticed the difference – that was pretty much how he'd felt all the time anyway. He hadn't realized how much that had changed. And maybe he still wouldn't have noticed the difference if it wasn't for the fact that he had dozens of non-combat moments the he could perfectly recall because of his sharingan. All those times his eyes had activated during meals or conversations or simple D-rank missions before he had developed the second tomoe were preserved with crystal clarity in his head. The world had been bright and vibrant and bold. He'd felt cautiously happy – some days almost hopeful. Sasuke had glimpsed a future beyond revenge. He'd touched a life without the shadow of the past smothering him, and he could remember what it had felt like. Before, he'd been frustrated by his developing sharingan memorizing 'pointless' moments. Now he clung to those memories like a lifeline.

It felt like anger was the only thing giving the world any color now, and Sasuke was swimming in dull, despondent gray. He desperately wanted it to stop. Sasuke wanted the colors back.

Kakashi was crouched next to Sasuke, watching Jiraiya work as well. Three ANBU guards ringed the room, keeping silent sentinel. Sasuke wondered if the one in the cat-like mask was the 'Cat-san' Naruto had mentioned. He shivered as a light breeze tickled across his bare shoulders. Jiraiya had already inked another complex design around the curse seal on Sasuke's shoulder.

"All right, Uchiha, get over here, and let's get started." Jiraiya straightened up. Sasuke stood and walked to the center of the seal Jiraiya had created, being careful not to step on any of the symbols in the array. He sat down, and Jiraiya handed him a strip of leather. "Put that in your mouth. This is going to hurt like hell before you pass out." Then Jiraiya picked his way back out passed the border of the massive seal. "Ready?" Jiraiya asked when he'd turned back to face Sasuke.

Sasuke glanced over at Kakashi. His teacher was watching him, gaze steady. He gave Sasuke a small nod. Sasuke took a deep breath. He turned back to Jiraiya, stuck the strip of leather in his mouth, and nodded firmly. He could do this.

Jiraiya pressed his palms to the edge of the array. Around Sasuke symbols lit up with blinding, brilliant blue light.

The piece of leather turned out to be entirely unnecessary. Sasuke was unconscious from the sheer magnitude of pain before he even had time to scream.

Sasuke was sitting in empty darkness. Around him the shadows burned purple. Three green leaves lay on the ground by his knee. He picked them up and rubbed one between his fingers.

"It feels good, doesn't it?" Sasuke turned his head. The younger Sasuke was sitting to his left. His sunken eyes gleamed oddly. "We don't have to be afraid any more. It's finally over." The younger Sasuke reached out for the leaves in Sasuke's hands. "You don't need those anymore. We don't need anyone else now."

Sasuke jerked the leaves close to his chest.


"We don't need them to kill Itachi." Small hands reached for the leaves again.

Sasuke stood and stepped back.

"What does that matter?"

"We have to avenge them. Killing Itachi is the only thing that matters." The small, gaunt face stared up at him. "Don't you want to be safe?"

Sasuke hesitated. His arms uncurled from his chest slightly. Safe. When was the last time he had truly felt safe? When had he last not felt Itachi's specter lingering at the border of his thoughts waiting to finally strike him down, too?

His hands eased further still from his chest. He so desperately wanted to feel safe again.

"Just let them go. It'll truly be safe if it's just us. It's so much safer if we're alone."

Sasuke froze. He stared down at into his own hungry, hollow-cheeked face.

Alone, you starve to death.

His eyes slid down to the younger Sasuke's hands. They were trembling.

"I thought you said we didn't have to be afraid anymore."

"We don't." The younger Sasuke stretched his hands towards the leaves, fingers hooked like claws.

"Then why are you still terrified?"

The younger Sasuke stilled.

"I'm not."

"Yes, you are. You're petrified, and you're hiding down here." The leaves in Sasuke's hands were starting to shiver and squirm. "That's… pathetic. You'd rather hide behind someone else's power than earn your own! Do you really think that a missing-nin would give us something that would make us safe?!"

The younger Sasuke was cringing back now.

"We defeated those Oto-nin like they were nothing!" he protested. "Just think of what else we could-"

"No! Maybe I can use this power, but I won't, because this is NOT WHO I AM! I'M BETTER THAN THIS!"

The leaves in Sasuke's hands exploded into a blinding tree of light that blazed like a super nova, burning away the darkness. A rainbow of colors shifted through the white light of its trunk, and luminous emerald leaves tipped its branches. Sasuke reached out, not quite touching but the warmth of the light already suffusing his fingers.

The younger Sasuke stared up at the massive tree with wide eyes.

"I just wanted to be safe." The child sounded close to tears.

Sasuke tilted his head, and his own eyes softened just a bit.

"We already are." Then he lay his hand against the trunk of the tree.

Sasuke woke slowly. It was dark. Was he still-?

The antiseptic tang of hospital caught his nose, and he realized that it wasn't nearly as dark as he'd originally thought. Moonlight was spilling in through the window and across the bed Sasuke was lying in, painting the room in highlights of silver. He was in the hospital.

Sasuke sat up. His whole body ached, and his left shoulder throbbed in time with his pulse.

"How are you feeling?"

Sasuke started and turned to see Kakashi slumped in the chair next to his bed.

"Achy but… better." And it was true. The clinging miasma of unnatural anger and smothering gray seemed to have lifted from his mind. Itachi was once more a shadow at the edge of his thoughts instead of a looming presence consuming his every moment.

"Glad to hear it." Kakashi straightened up a bit and stretched his back. "The med-nin said that your chakra paths are a bit burnt and that you're probably going to have an impressive scar on your shoulder, but the curse seal is gone."

On some level, Sasuke had already known that, but it was a relief to hear the words.

"How long do they want to keep me here?" he asked.

"They were just waiting for you to wake up. Hopefully they'll release you in the morning." Kakashi rubbed one hand over his face. "You're going to have an ANBU guard detail shadowing you for a while just in case Orochimaru tries anything else."

"Can he- Can he put another curse seal on me?" Sasuke felt sick at the very thought.

Kakashi shook his head.

"No. It's not the sort of seal that can be applied to someone a second time. Your body has essentially developed an immunity after successfully fighting it off once."

Sasuke's shoulders relaxed. Another thought occurred to him.

"How long was I unconscious?"

"About twelve hours. If you can, try to get some more sleep. Enough teams have already passed the second exam that they've decided to do an elimination round after the deadline ends tomorrow, and I got special permission from the proctors to bring you back with me to watch."

Kakashi watched Sasuke drift back to sleep again and sighed softly. Iruka had been by earlier to make sure that Kakashi had eaten. (Kakashi hadn't.) Tenzou had dropped in as well after the sun had gone down to let him know that his ANBU squad would be taking the lead on Sasuke's guard detail. Kakashi had spent far too much of the previous day mentally going through recipes to decide on something time-consuming and fiddly enough to distract himself with once he finally got back to his kitchen.

He let his eye close. Sasuke was going to be all right. The counter had worked.

Keeping his students in a box of bubble wrap was sounding more appealing than ever, though.

His team really did have a talent for finding trouble. Kakashi was just glad that they seemed to have an equal talent for surviving it.

Naruto carefully balanced three kunai against each other so that they created a pyramid with their ring ends all leaning against together for support. He looked at them for a moment and then pulled a shuuriken out of his weapons pouch. It was delicately arranged on top of the kunai like a table top. Naruto retrieved another shuuriken.

"I should have brought a book," Sakura commented. She was perched on the edge of her bed, watching Naruto. "It never occurred to me that we'd end up with a long stretch of waiting where we didn't have to be on constant alert."

"Yeah," Naruto nodded. He didn't really like reading in his spare time – it always felt too much like homework – but a deck of cards would have been nice. They were both worried about Sasuke, and the room the proctors had given them didn't really provide any distractions. They'd even tried having a weapons debate, but it had been halfhearted at best. There had been a gaping hole in the conversation that should have been filled by gruff comments about shuuriken. Neither of them had been able to ignore it.

Sakura watched quietly as Naruto added two more shuuriken to his tower.

"Hey Naruto." Her voice was hesitant. He looked up from his construction. "Just before Orochimaru knocked you out… why did your eyes turn red?"

Naruto's hand jerked, and weapons went clattering across the floor.


"Orohimaru said something about Sasuke, and you started yelling, and your whisker markings went all," Sakura wiggled her fingertips across her cheeks, "bold, and your eyes turned red. Then you took out that giant snake with one wind jutsu, and Orochimaru knocked you out."

"I don't know. I- I just remember being so angry." Naruto stared down at his scatted kunai and shuuriken. He hugged himself. "I don't know why my eyes would have turned red."

Sakura slid off her bed and sat down next to Naruto on the floor.

"Well, your mom wasn't from Konoha, right? Maybe she had some sort of kekkei genkai that we've never heard of." She put an arm around Naruto's shoulders and gave him a light squeeze.

Naruto pressed a hand to the seal currently invisible on his stomach. Kakashi had told him that jinchuuriki could channel their biju's chakra like their own in the right circumstances. Was that what had happened? Had that burning in his bones been the Kyuubi?

"Yeah. It… might be something like that."

Someone knocked on the door. Sakura stood to answer, and Naruto scooped up his weapons.

"Kakashi-sensei! You're here early!"

"Nii-san!" Naruto dumped his weapons on his bed. "How's Sasuke doing?"

Kakashi looked tired but in good spirits as he stepped into their room.

"I don't know." Kakashi turned and called back out into the hall, "How would you say you're doing, Sasuke?"

"Much better." Sasuke stepped into the room. His eyes were light, and his shoulders were no longer hunched in pain. The corner of his mouth was turned up in a small, genuine smile.



Naruto knew that Sasuke wasn't much of a hugs person, but at that moment he didn't care. The bastard was just going to have to deal with it after the week they'd all had. Naruto and Sakura sandwiched their teammate in a group hug. Sasuke stiffened for a moment and then relaxed.

"You scared us, you bastard," Naruto muttered into Sasuke's right shoulder.

"Please try not to get bitten by any more missing-nin," Sakura agreed.

Sasuke snorted, and his arms slowly curled up to return the hug.

"I'll do my best."