Author's Note: Okay, personally? I think this chapter is complete crap. It could be because this is incredibly rough because I didn't show it to my beta, who, if she is still alive, probably has abandoned me in disgust because I've been neglecting her for so long. Expect the polished version to be posted with the rewrite (whenever that gets around to being done). It could be because I've been looking at it so long that I hate the sight of this word document. It could be because, quite frankly, it really is crap. I don't know. I don't have any objectivity to speak of. You'll have to tell me what you think, but hell, it's been so long since you've seen a chapter posted, you probably aren't feeling all that objective either. Still, opinions would be good.

Anyway, the reason I took so long to write this (besides the usual writer's block) is that some of it relies on stuff that only shows up in the rewrite. To alleviate this problem, here is a short list of what is relevant to this chapter: (1) Kabuto is the Sound ambassador to the Akatsuki, not an Akatsuki member himself, and (2) Kidoumaru was the one who spent the most time being on suicide watch for Sakon immediately following Ukon's death.

Something that I should probably make note of is the fact that each village group is operating in a different time frame. The Sound scenes take place thirteen days after Chapter 1, the Leaf scene takes place fifteen days after, the Sand (plus Shikamaru) scene takes place seventeen days after, and the Kaizen scenes are a full forty-six days after. I've actually made a (personal) timeline of it, so it won't get confused, even if it is a little confusing. I tend to post the scenes in the order I write them, which means that a lot of it technically isn't even chronological.

I actually wrote an alternate version of the 'Naruto and Gaara return to Kaizen' scene, featuring Kakuzu and Hidan instead of Sen and Michio, but for storyline reasons it didn't work, so I had to scrape it. However, if you do want to read it, I've posted it on my LiveJournal. Personally, I think it's actually better than the scene I wrote to replace it, but that might just be me being cranky about having to toss out 1,900 words of decent prose.

Yes, Michio is supposed to have an accent, even if it's a poorly written one on my part. He is sort of the Stone-nin version of a hick (though from a different part of Earth Country than Deidara), but like hell I was going to use the 4Kids version of indicating rural origins by giving him American South mannerisms. Also, you get exactly no points if you figure out who I'm trying to hint Gin is related to. Trust me, the way I'm messing with characters' family trees, you're going to hate me by the time this story is done.

Also, I did mean to end the chapter where I did. You aren't missing anything. You'll have to wait on where exactly that conversation goes.


"Ya know, I'm still waiting for ya to tell me what we're doing out here at such an ungodly hour."

Sen blinked his wide, amber eyes at his partner. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Michio snorted and swiped the thermos from Sen's lap. "Please. Ya drag me out of bed for what I had thought might be a good reason, and instead ya take me to a fucking teashop and order some black tea to go, then ya head off to the local Shinto shrine without even an explanation, so give it up."

"It's three in the afternoon."


Sen tilted his head to the side, considering. Then he held out a hand. "Give me back my thermos, please."

Michio snorted. "Not a chance. I'm holding it hostage until ya tell me what's going on, twig."

Sen frowned. Michio half expected his younger partner to kick at the bo staff Michio was using as support to remain upright, but the former Grass-nin apparently had come to the decision that such a move would not only be beneath his dignity, but also would probably spill his tea.

They weren't actually at the Shinto shrine proper, just on the steps leading up to it. It was a nice enough location, Michio had to admit, having Satori Mountain at their back and the view of Kaizen and the surrounding countryside spread out before them. The priests didn't seem to mind them much either, though that was probably a reflection on the shrine's proximity to Kaizen, seeing as there was even a small sign at the entrance that put the shrine under the Akatsuki's protection. Yeah, it was nice enough. It just wasn't where Michio usually spent the rare occasions he was in the area. Of course, that being said, Michio usually spent all his time off sleeping or in bars, so that wasn't saying much.

Michio waited a moment for Sen to reply before he started toying with the thermos. "Come on, twig. I have better things to do than hang out with priests all day."

"I spoke with Uncle yesterday."

At that, Michio couldn't help but perk up. "Really? Did ya ask him about getting us that job with the beach resort owner in Tea Country who wants someone to make the local yakuza back off? It would be nice to spend autumn somewhere where it's not always raining for once." That was, as far as Michio could see, one of the few benefits of having been beaten out by Naruto and Gaara for elite last year. Elite didn't have the option of drawing lots for the cushy assignments.

Sen shook his head, his eyes disapproving. "You know Uncle finds it difficult enough to help me with personal matters. He would never skew things unfairly when missions are being doled out. I just asked him if he thought something strange was going on."

Michio leaned more heavily on his bo staff as he peered closely at his partner. "Strange how?"

"I don't know."

Michio narrowed his eyes. "That's it. Ya not getting back your tea if ya going to play vague precog. Ya don't have ya uncle's excuse of being head screwed, and ya eyes ain't near dull and creepy enough to pull it off. Give me some fucking details, twig."

Sen threw his hands up in the air. "I told you, I don't know. I've just been getting these weird feelings lately, and I went to Uncle to ask—what's that?"

Michio looked to where Sen was pointing. "What's what?"

It was then that Sen kicked the bo staff. As Michio stumbled, his arms flailing in the process, Sen neatly reached out and snatched the thermos of black tea out of the air before even a drop spilled onto the ground.

((This is gonna hurt like a bitch,)) Michio thought grimly, but for all of Sen's tea obsession he wasn't quite willing to kill for it, so was nice enough to grab the back of Michio's shirt, arresting his tumble down the flight of stairs long enough that Michio was able to regain his balance.

For a moment, all Michio did was breathe and try to get himself to calm down. Fuck, if he had broken something and had to go see a medic no one would have ever let him live it down. What kind of shinobi nearly falls down stairs, anyway?

((One with a partner made of sugar-coated evil, that's who.))

Michio turned and glared at his partner, who was now serenely sipping at his tea. "Ya a fucker sometimes, ya know that?"

But Sen wasn't even looking at him anymore. "I don't believe it."

Michio snorted. "I don't have anything else of ya's, so don't be pulling that shit again, twig."

Sen ignored him, pushing himself to his feet and starting down the stairs. After a moment, during which Michio ensured Sen wasn't within range to hit him, he finally followed Sen's gaze. Then he squinted, just to make sure that there were in fact two people coming up the eastern road towards Kaizen.

Akatsuki, the both of them. One red-head, one blond. Michio grinned and followed Sen, picking up his bo staff at the bottom of the landing where it had fallen as he half walked, half ran towards the coming shinobi. Not too many partnerships had a hair combo like that. "Yo! Naruto!"

Even from this distance, Michio could see the blond start. Michio's grin widened and he slung his bo staff over one shoulder, slowing to a walk as he drew even with Sen. When he glanced sideways at his partner, however, Michio felt his exuberance leak out of him. Sen wasn't smiling. Sen, in fact, looked more grim than Michio had seen him in ages. "What is it?"

Sen bit his lower lip in the way he always did when he was about to say something he knew Michio wouldn't like. "Something happened between them. Look how Naruto-kun's standing."

Michio looked. What was left of his grin faded into a frown. "They're walking further apart than usual. So?"

Sen shook his head. "It isn't both of them. Naruto-kun's standing away from Gaara-kun, not the other way around. See how Naruto-kun keeps listing to the side?"

Michio didn't in fact see it, but then, his talent had never been at reading people. "Maybe, but I'm more interested in what they're doing coming up the eastern road instead of the southern one. Weren't they in Konoha with Uchiha and Hoshigaki?"

Before Sen could answer, Naruto and Gaara were there. Gaara looked about the same as usual, even if his pupils were strangely dilated, but Naruto had rings under his eyes that rivaled his partner's, was grimy enough that Michio could swear the elite's hair was a darker shade of yellow, and his usually easy grin looked like it was being held on his face through sheer force of will. "Hey, Michio, Sen. What's up?"

Michio shrugged. "Not much. Hanging around while we wait for our next assignment and all that. I'm more interested in what the two of ya are doing here. Weren't ya making nice with Leaf or something?"

Naruto nodded. "Still are. We've been on a goodwill mission type thing for the past six weeks to keep them happy. Found out something interesting that we have to tell Reiko-sama, though. Important, top-secret shit. You know where she is?"

Michio thought about it. "Well, there's supposed to be a Council meeting tonight. She's probably in the main conference room charting it out."


Naruto turned to go, but Michio grabbed him by the sleeve of his coat. "After ya done, meet me outside ya apartment, alright? We haven't done a night out in months, and ya look like ya need it."

Naruto, wonder of wonders, looked for a moment like he was going to refuse, but then his shoulders relaxed. "You paying?"

Michio shrugged. "Sure, whatever."

Off to the side, Michio heard the tail-end of Sen and Gaara's low conversation, "… new takeout restaurant. They have this tempura I'm sure you'll like, Gaara-kun."


Michio and Sen watched the other Akatsuki pair go. As soon as they were out of hearing range, Michio gave his partner a look. "What the hell was that about? Naruto was about as animated as Gaara usually is, and Gaara was about as animated as a rock. Never seen a mission that could take it out of the two of them like that before."

Sen nodded, his face twisted in worry. "I know. Tonight, you will have to do what you can with Naruto-kun. I'll check and see if Maemi-san will allow me to make a last-minute appointment for Gaara-kun after dinner. It isn't right, I think, for an Akatsuki partnership to act like that."

Michio frowned. "How are they acting? Besides weird, I mean."

"Like they hate each other."

Michio felt his shoulders slump. "Well, damn. I was afraid of that."


No one was waiting to meet Sasuke and Sakon at the main entrance to Sound's temporary headquarters. The only shinobi near the entrance at all, in fact, was a young man about a year older than Sasuke, sitting on the ground to the left of the doors while he braced a sword that looked to be as big as himself between his knees, rubbing at the blade vigorously with a cleaning cloth in hand. He was dressed in a modified version of what Sasuke remembered to be the typical Sound-nin uniform, a pair of the standard camo pants matched with a sleeveless loose purple turtleneck, though there wasn't any evidence of a forehead protector. Next to him on the ground was, of all things, a half-empty water bottle.

The nin didn't even bother to look up as Sasuke and Sakon approached. Sasuke felt a frown twist his features, a frown that deepened involuntarily as he squinted at the zanbatou. The weapon seemed oddly familiar.

"Suigetsu." Sakon's voice was the sort of neutral he always forced it into when he was talking to someone he didn't like. "Odd place to take up weapon maintenance."

Suigetsu, as Sakon had called him, grinned, flashing filed teeth that rang even more alarm bells within Sasuke's head. "Good to see you too, Sakon." Sasuke resisted the urge to narrow his eyes at the lack of an honorific. The only people Sasuke had seen address Sakon so informally were other members of the Sound Five, Orochimaru, and himself. This Suigetsu was none of the above.

Sakon apparently didn't appreciate Suigetsu's casualness, either, for all his face didn't so much as twitch. "What is the situation here?"

With a fluid stretch that actually managed to look natural, Suigetsu—after strapping the water bottle to his belt—pushed himself to his feet, shoved the cleaning cloth in a pocket and slung the oversized sword over his right shoulder without any visible effort. Then he grinned again as he turned his gaze to Sasuke, brushing his hair—a shade paler than Sakon's—behind his ear. "You must be the infamous Sasuke-sama." He gave Sasuke a slow once-over that Sasuke bore with little more than a slight frown. Then Suigetsu turned away with a dismissive curl of his lip and smirked at Sakon. "Can't say he looks like much. You sure this is the guy who Orochimaru-sama wants so bad?"

"I can't say I care much for a grave-robber's opinion."

For the first time, Suigetsu's eyes flashed with something other than amusement as his stare snapped back to Sasuke. "What was that?"

Sasuke flawlessly matched Suigetsu's earlier smirk. "I said, that sword belongs to a dead man. And you stole it. Now answer Sakon's question."

Suigetsu's face momentarily contorted at the order before he forced his mouth into a bland smile. "Sound will recover. That's what it is good for. But you might not want to keep Orochimaru-sama waiting much longer. If you piss him off, he might actually make a worthy shinobi his heir."

After Suigetsu left, sheathing Momochi Zabuza's zanbatou as he walked away into the straps on his back with a practiced gesture that told Sasuke he'd taken the sword from the former Mist-nin's grave some time ago, Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Sakon. "What was that about?"

"Kimimaro supporter. Suigetsu's a member of his private strike team." Sakon shook his head. "Not worth worrying about. Suigetsu's mostly bark. But he's right in that we should get going. Stopping for lunch was a mistake."

Sasuke shrugged, "Maybe."

He reached for the handle of one of the entrance's doors. Before he had managed to push it open more than an inch, however, Sakon's hand displaced his on the handle and pulled the door shut with an audible thud. He looked very much like he wanted to grab Sasuke's vest and shake him, but even in Konoha he wouldn't have dared it. Here, there were too many eyes, too many ears. Sakon kept his voice quiet. "Not maybe. I didn't think anyone would care so soon after your arrival, but if Suigetsu's taken note of it… you cannot afford to play power games with Orochimaru-sama, no matter how subtle and non-confrontational. He is your only support within Sound, Sasuke-sama. If you were to fall out of favor, even if only for an hour, there is nothing to stop those who want someone else to take your place."

Sasuke similarly lowered his voice. "I thought you said Suigetsu wasn't a threat."

"I don't think he is. Less than his teammates, anyway. But…" Sakon exhaled sharply through his nose. "I don't… know a hell of a lot about Sound anymore. The situation has changed." For a moment, he looked disquieted by the thought. Then he turned and roughly twisted the door handle, shoving on the hard wood with enough force to make it bounce off the inner wall as he stalked down the hall.

Sasuke wanted to say something. Something sarcastic, and irritated. Something to make Sakon flinch. But he was rapidly becoming aware how little idea he had of what, exactly, he was doing here, so far away from the place that he had his entire life called home.


Sasuke was beginning to think that Orochimaru would never live up to the initial impression Sasuke had received of the sannin all those years ago in the Forest of Death. While it was unrealistic to expect the leader of Sound to greet him with an unbelievable burst of chakra and killing intent every time Sasuke saw him after an extended hiatus, Sasuke did hope this wasn't how Orochimaru met with people who weren't his usual subordinates. The stacks of paperwork littering the snake sannin's desk, the chuunin standing by with folders right outside the office, the harried look on Orochimaru's face, all reminded Sasuke with an almost eerie sense of déjà vu of the last time he had entered the Godaime Hokage's office for a mission briefing. Not exactly a sight to inspire fear and worship, especially considering the large black stain on the right sleeve of the Sound leader's extremely formal (if somewhat drooping) kimono where it looked like it had trailed in the inkwell.

Still, Orochimaru did manage to look blandly amused when one of his chuunin assistants announced Sasuke and Sakon's arrival. "Ah, Sasuke-kun, Sakon. Nice of you to pay me a visit."

Sakon bowed. Unwilling to show the same level of deference as his own subordinate, Sasuke settled on a deep nod before he pulled the scroll off his belt and placed it on Orochimaru's desk. "Here is the Godaime Hokage's reply to your earlier missive."

Orochimaru barely glanced at it—much less open it—before returning his attention to the report already in front of him. "She was favorable to the idea of a treaty, then?"

Sasuke nodded, unsure of how to react to the show of seeming disinterest. A dark smile crossed Orochimaru's lips before he signed the report and held it out for the chuunin on his left to take. "Good. Would have been a pity to let myself forgive and forget so easily only to be rejected out of hand." The snake sannin then laced his fingers together and, finally, moved his gaze from the desktop. It settled first on Sakon. "Sakon, you have completed admirably your duty to protect Uchiha Sasuke during his stay in Konohagakure. As Sasuke-kun has now permanently relocated to Sound, he is unlikely to face threats he himself is not able to handle. Your services as a bodyguard are no longer required."

Orochimaru's eyes lingered on the scar marring Sakon's face. "You will be reassigned after you are approved to be fit for duty by Kabuto. He is currently serving a shift at our temporary hospital. Uta will show you the way." Then he made a dismissive gesture, at which Sakon bowed, his face impassive, before following the aforementioned kunoichi out of the room.

Sasuke was unable to mirror Sakon's indifference. He was all too aware of the stiffening of his spine, the tightening of his eyes, his right hand spasming in and out of a fist. He hadn't- he hadn't thought-

It just… it was foolish, naïve, and short-sighted, but it had never occurred to him that Sakon would ever move from where he had been the past three years. That his sub- that the other Sound-nin would take reassignment so easily, without even a token protest. Without giving Sasuke even a glance as he walked away.

Sakon's eyes opened, covered with the grime of his own charred skin, the pupils unfocused and unseeing. "Because... little Sasuke, someone needs to look after you."

((Guess he changed his mind about that.)) Somehow, the thought didn't make Sasuke feel any better.

Orochimaru's voice, laced with amusement, cut through Sasuke's thoughts. "Something wrong, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke schooled his features as best he could—not as well as Sakon, nor Kimimaro, nor any of the high-ranking Sound-nin he had met so far, but he would learn—into calm, disinterested, and (hopefully) uncaring lines. "No. Nothing."


Kabuto was occupied with another patient when Sakon entered the clinic side-room where the genin working at the front desk had directed him. Said patient, currently shirtless and bent over with two of his hands braced on his knees so the medic-nin could take a closer look at his back, gave Sakon one look and scowled. "Well, you win."

Sakon seated himself in one of the chairs by the door after giving Kabuto a perfunctory nod. The older Sound-nin returned it distractedly as he ran his hands over Kidoumaru's back. Sakon wasn't exactly sure what Kabuto was doing in Sound, but then, maybe it was that time of year again. Wasn't like he kept track of the medic-nin's time off his ambassadorial duties.

He wasn't sure what Kidoumaru had done to get two of his arms in slings, either. Out of all of the Sound Five, Kidoumaru was one of the least prone to injuries. The attempted invasion by Stone must have been even more of a bitch than he'd assumed. "What did I win?"

Kidoumaru shrugged. "Well, I was going to make you buy me dinner, so how does sushi sound?"

Sakon rolled his eyes at Kidoumaru's deliberate obtuseness, but a grin still tugged at the corners of his mouth. God, sometimes he'd forgotten how much he'd missed because of his duties in Konoha. "I meant the contest, not the reward."

"Well, I figured considering how much trouble I'd gone to when taking care of you when you got fucked up last time, you could- ow! Ow, damn it, Kabuto, can't you use anti-bacterial soap or something? Why do you always have to use the acid stuff on me?"

"Because," Kabuto said distantly, dabbing the antiseptic on Kidoumaru's back, "This ensures there isn't an infection. You wouldn't want to land yourself in the hospital again, would you Kidoumaru-kun?" Then the medic-nin smiled, an expression that might have looked sincere if anyone in the room didn't know Kabuto was an unrepentant sadist.

"Geez," Kidoumaru muttered, "I'm really beginning to think you didn't pawn this job off on an intern because you like to see me squirm."

"Mm," Kabuto agreed, and dunked the cotton pad back into the antiseptic bottle.

Kidoumaru sighed and turned his attention back to Sakon. "Anyway, I wanted a free dinner. Not that the restaurant district wasn't totaled, but even an IOU would have been nice. But no, you had to walk in here and look even more like shit than me, so that doesn't work. What happened to you?"

"Stabbed. Electrocuted." Sakon shrugged as he craned his head to get a good look at his comrade's back. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the damage. "Don't know what you're talking about though. Your injuries beat mine out. What, did someone have a go at you with sandpaper while you were tied facedown to a table?"

Kidoumaru winced. "No. But there was a wall and gravel involved." Then he grinned, though that might have been because Kabuto was finally done and was screwing the top back on the bottle of antiseptic. "Don't sell yourself short, though. You look like hell warmed over. Also like you got a good doctor quick-like. That scar looks months old." He squinted and tilted his head to the side. "Well, I guess it could be. Damn, been a while since we've seen each other, hasn't it? You did get that from when the Leaf was invaded about the same time we were, right?"

"Yes, unfortunately."

"Sakon-kun." That was Kabuto. "Take off the flak jacket and shirt, please."

"Hey!" Kidoumaru protested, hopping off the examination table. "What about my bandages?"

"We're going to let your back get some air to accelerate the healing process," Kabuto blithely replied. "You can leave now, if you wish." There was a hint there. Kidoumaru ignored it.

"Naw, I want to here about Sakon's adventures in cloak and dagger. So," and Kidoumaru collapsed into Sakon's vacated seat as he pulled his sleeveless tee over his head, maneuvering carefully to avoid contact with his broken arms, "Who took you out?"

Sakon tossed his clothing on the chair next to Kidoumaru before letting Kabuto press the stethoscope (ice-cold; Kabuto never had been much concerned with his patients' comfort) to his chest. "Some higher-up Cloud-nin. An ANBU captain, I think."

Kidoumaru smirked. "Okay, now I win. Got my ass kicked by the Tsuchikage himself."

Sakon blinked once, slowly. "That is one of the stupidest things to be proud of I've ever heard. What led you to take him on?"

At that, Kidoumaru, of all things, blushed and rubbed the back of his head. "Ah, well, it's kind of a funny story-"

"The dumbfuck," Tayuya pronounced clearly from her position in the doorway, "Was trying to protect my honor."

"The doctor," Kabuto said, equally clearly, "Wants everyone to know that this isn't a conference room, and that everyone who isn't scheduled for an examination right this moment should go away." Then he pressed his glasses up further on his nose as if to illustrate his point.

Kidoumaru crossed his arms. "Why?"

"Doctor-patient confidentiality."

Kidoumaru snorted. "Oh come on, I helped you write the fill-out forms for this place. We don't have doctor-patient-"

"If you don't leave now I'll re-break your arms on your next check-up." This was said in Kabuto's customary pleasant tones. Which, as usual, meant exactly nothing.

Kidoumaru left. Tayuya met the stare Kabuto directed at her next with a sneer. "You are going to threaten me, how?"

"I'm inventive. I'll come up with something later. Just please leave, Tayuya-kun."

Which she did, but not before Sakon shared a look with her that hopefully communicated, "You have got to tell me that story after I get out of here."

Kabuto, for his part, removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "And the civilians wonder why we have so many misdemeanor laws regarding improper social behavior. I would comment sarcastically that you all must have been raised by wolves or whores, except most of you actually were." Then he smiled brightly, cleaning his lenses on his shirt as he did so. "As I was about to say earlier, Sakon-kun, you have a bit of a heart murmur that didn't show up during your last exam, but if you were electrocuted like you said, than you should be thankful if that turns out to be the only lasting damage. As for the scar tissue here, I think it could be lessened with a liberal…"


"You know, I've done nothing to deserve this."

"You don't have to be here," Sakon pointed out as he lay down on what had once been a pillar (and now made for a decent bench) with his hands behind his head. The check-up had gone well enough, if one ignored the fact that Kabuto had nearly thrown a fit when he found out Sakon had run out of vitamin supplements three months ago and had not bothered to send for more. The medic-nin was kind of odd like that.

Sakon wasn't particularly looking forward to going back on the drug program (drying out last time had been rather reminiscent of a five-day long hangover), but it was kind of an expected thing in Sound if you were ranked higher than a genin. As small as the village was, a medic-nin of Kabuto's caliber that knew how to chemically improve one's physique and chakra output was a valuable resource not to be wasted. Besides, it was worth the hassle just to be home and able to go back on duty, even if Kabuto had warned him that he probably wouldn't be allowed out of the village to go on missions for a few weeks until he was back in top condition.

Kidoumaru, seated on the other end of the fallen pillar looking disgruntled, flicked his fingers as if he was thinking of yanking Sakon off his perch by his foot but was too lazy to bother. "Not a chance. If I'm not here, Tayuya will blow everything out of proportion."

Tayuya, leaning against the wall of a former bakery (and was now definitely not; sequestering themselves in one of the parts of town that hadn't yet been rebuilt so they could chat may have made for privacy, but not much in the way of decent furniture), scowled and crossed her arms more tightly across her chest. "Says you, freak. Anyway, before four-eyes kicked us out, I was about to enlighten you about Kidoumaru's fling with chauvinism. Here we were after getting fucked up trying to escape the sinking of half our damned forest, no chakra to speak of and captured by a bunch of Stone shits. I piss off the Tsuchikage—who was even more of a fatass than Jiroubou—he belts me one, and Kidoumaru absolutely loses it. You'd think they'd trashed his collection of textiles by the way he acted-"

"They did trash my collection of textiles. They were destroyed with the rest of the Tower. It took me years to get a hold of some of those, too-"

Tayuya looked like she was considering if it was worth the effort to kick Kidoumaru in the ribs, but in the end refrained. "Totally not the point, freak. Anyway, he loses it and punches the Tsuchikage in the face. Gets in one, maybe two hits before Lord Chunky wastes him. Slams him into the wall, which was what broke the freak's arms, then tosses him like he weighed as much as an extremely kickable puppy, which was what messed up his back. Would've been fucking hilarious if I wasn't so pissed. The fat bastard didn't even hit me very hard."

"I wondered why I didn't hear hysterical laughter at my expense. It was so unlike you."

"Damn right."

"Sounds like something I am very glad I wasn't there for," Sakon said, smirking at his comrade's bickering. Apparently the status quo—between Kidoumaru and Tayuya at least—hadn't changed much in his absence.

However, said bickering abruptly stopped as both Kidoumaru and Tayuya turned their attention to him, identical malicious grins making him shift into a position where it would be easier to dodge. "What?"

Kidoumaru reached over and unceremoniously flicked him on the ear. "An ANBU captain? Really? Come on Sakon, we're not stupid. Unless you were totally having an off day, no ANBU could take you down. What, were there like ten others and you just didn't mention them before?"

Without getting up, Sakon kicked Kidoumaru in the ribs. While the spider-nin wheezed and rubbed his side, Sakon maneuvered himself into a sitting position before shaking his head. "No, just the one. And he was an ANBU captain, or at least something like it. He had the tattoo and said that the Cloud black ops Sasuke-sama had been killing all day were his subordinates."

Kidoumaru, still massaging his newest injury, inexplicably glanced at Tayuya. Tayuya glanced back, eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline. Sakon frowned. He wasn't used to not being able to read his old teammates' expressions. "What?"

"And so Sir Stick-Up-His-Ass finally makes an appearance in your little story. I was wondering when the little fuck was going to show up." Tayuya sounded disgusted, her customary scowl deeper than usual, darkening her eyes.

Kidoumaru, on the other hand, looked faintly amused, if one ignored the way his upper lip was twitching. "So this ANBU guy was after Sasuke-sama. It was doing your 'duty' that got you messed up, am I right? Doing the heroic sacrifice thing and all that? I've gotta say, it's not as classic as the last time you tried to do yourself in, but I'll give you points for flair."

Sakon tensed up. "It wasn't suicide."

"Sorry to tell you this, Sakon, but some random Cloud-nin being involved just downgrades it to assisted suicide. It's not a plain old kill unless you're trying to get out of the way." Kidoumaru grinned faintly, though his eyes were hard. "In case you're thinking of making another attempt, keep in mind that I've already heard through the grapevine that Orochimaru-sama decided you didn't need to baby-sit anymore, so that excuse has run its course. If you try that shit again-"

"It wasn't suicide, damn it!"

Kidoumaru started, bumping one of his broken arms against the nearest wall as he jumped, making him pale and swear under his breath. Tayuya's expression actually relaxed enough that she looked startled. Sakon noted faintly that the fist he had slammed into the pillar—making the stone splinter out in a spiderweb-like pattern under his hand—was throbbing, blood running down to the ground from where his knuckles had made contact with the marble. It didn't hurt enough that it mattered, compared to the infuriating fact that his teammates thought he hadn't changed in the three years since Ukon had died.

"I wasn't- I didn't want to die. I just… I didn't want Sasuke to, either. He's a fucking moron sometimes, which was what partly got him into that situation to begin with, but-" ((but I'm the one who's supposed to protect him.))

Kidoumaru and Tayuya shared another look. Kidoumaru looked faintly alarmed. Tayuya just rolled her eyes. "Oh my God. You fucking fairy, you got attached, didn't you? Never thought I'd see the day when you of all people gave a shit about anyone, much less Orochimaru-sama's pet Uchiha."

Kidoumaru sighed wearily and closed his eyes. "I sort of saw this coming. Orochimaru-sama sending you out only two months after all that crap went down, I thought you might latch onto Sasuke-sama as the only person you had regular contact with. I'd just assumed it would have worn off once you got sick of his sulking and all-around holier-than-thou attitude."

Sakon snorted, surreptitiously flexing his right hand as the adrenaline began to wear off. "You'd think so, but being around you people for so long has given me a tolerance for the obnoxious." He didn't think so much about what the two of them had said. It wasn't untrue—both what had been said about him and about Sasuke—but neither did it really matter, so he changed the subject. "Are you ever going to get around to telling me why Jiroubou hasn't shown up yet? I think I would have heard by now if he was dead."

Tayuya's sneer made it obvious that she wasn't in the least fooled by the evasion, but she answered anyway. "No, but the fatass probably wishes he was. Orochimaru-sama placed him in charge of shoring up the patrols on the western border to make sure Stone doesn't catch us bare ass to the wind again. Living off field rations and sleeping on the ground for two weeks. Bet he's crying himself to sleep every night, the fucking pansy."

Sakon grinned in what he was aware was a slightly challenging way. Cutting down Jiroubou, whether the large nin was there or not, had long been a habit of Tayuya's, albeit one no one paid much mind to anymore. "You've gone soft, Tayuya. You didn't even throw in a comment about his questionable ancestry there."

Tayuya made a gesture that once might have led to a fight, but it lacked the vitriol it would have just a few years ago and Sakon couldn't bring himself to see the point of posturing when they were only still on the same team in name. Wasn't like he had to wear himself out proving he was still capable of kicking her ass, especially considering that at the moment, he wasn't sure he could.

In a way, it was a little depressing. The separation, that is, not the fact that he wasn't in near as good a shape as he was making himself out to be. They were the most powerful shinobi cell in Sound—even if one discounted Kimimaro in favor of placing him with the little group the Kaguya had formulated sometime in the past few years—and yet Kidoumaru was mostly stuck doing paperwork and other duties that had almost nothing to do with being a shinobi while Jiroubou went where someone of his abilities was needed when he wasn't playing substitute at the academy. Tayuya, by some strange twist, actually had several apprentices, even if she spent most of her time ignoring them, and Sakon of course until recently hadn't even been on assignment in Rice Field.

Now he was back, and his mission—along with the reprieve from reality Orochimaru-sama had given him by sending him away—was over. Now he would move on with his life, like the rest of the Sound Five had years ago. Sakon's fingers curled, making the knuckles of his right hand throb. Move on? What a joke. He wasn't even sure he knew how.


Sakon turned his head to look at a brown-haired, pale-skinned kid, by the looks of his forehead protector—polished and scratch-free—and his height—shorter than Sakon—a graduate of the most recent academy class. The genin had a small scroll in hand and looked nervous, swallowing four times in succession and trembling faintly as all three of the elder Sound-nin looked him over. It was a little pathetic, but not particularly surprising. Tayuya's narrowed eyes and Kidoumaru's faintly manic grin was enough to make far more experienced shinobi a little edgy, and he probably wasn't looking particularly friendly himself.

Sakon realized this around the same time that he realized he was frowning. Unintentional or no, he didn't like being interrupted. He wondered who had told the boy where they were. "What is it?"

The genin held out the scroll. "I-I was told to give this to you. It's your new assignment. Sir."

Sakon took it. The genin bowed, stumbled a little as he backed away, then ran off. Sakon didn't bother to watch the kid go, pulling loose the tape that sealed the scroll before unrolling it and skimming his eyes over its contents. Then he blinked and looked again, squinting as he read the words a second time more slowly.

Kidoumaru, taking note of Sakon's bemused expression, grinned and scooted over on the pillar to get a good look over Sakon's shoulder at the scroll. "So, what did you get? Dishwasher? Bathroom inspector? Eater of substances recently removed from the underground lab?"

Sakon stuck the scroll into his kunai pouch before Kidoumaru managed to make out more than a sentence. "Not exactly. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go to my new quarters to take a shower and change. I'm a little sick of being dressed like a Leaf-nin."

Kidoumaru, not the least put out by Sakon's opaqueness, just gave the slighter Sound-nin a thumbs' up. "Good idea! Then you can finally take off your hitai-ate without being attacked on sight. I've gotta tell you, it's messing up your new haircut something awful."


Anko couldn't say she hadn't been expecting this. Gai told Kakashi pretty much everything, including the stuff most couples considered private. It might have bothered her, if she didn't do the same thing with Ibiki. Still… "Waiting until Gai left on a mission to talk to me isn't exactly filling me with confidence about your intentions, Kakashi."

She didn't bother looking away from the mirror as she washed her hands clean of the blood from her latest bout assisting her best friend with the interrogation of the shinobi they had captured during the invasion, this time working over a jounin that had been seen at the side of the Mizukage less than an hour before the Mist Village leader's death. She could see the copy-nin—leaning against the doorframe of the bathroom's entrance in his usual nonchalant pose—well enough in the glass's reflection.

Kakashi didn't seem bothered by her failure to turn around, using a small throwing kunai to clean his nails as he said, "Do you know why I let Gai marry you?"

Drying her hands on the towel next to the sink, Anko felt her nails dig sharply into the rough cotton. After a moment, she forced out a laugh. "Let Gai marry me? Who the hell do you think you are, Kakashi? Gai might value your opinion, for some reason I'm still not sure about, but he's not your fucking puppet."

"No," Kakashi agreed, holding his fingers up to the fluorescent light to see if he had missed any lingering dirt, "He's not. But he trusts me more than he trusts you. If I had told him it was a bad idea to stay with you, he would have listened."

Anko didn't reply. Mostly because she wasn't sure Kakashi was wrong. After a short pause, Kakashi continued with, "But I didn't, because you made him happy. But he isn't happy now, and that's because of you."

Anko turned around, the towel still gripped between her hands. "Not the most subtle of threats."

"I wasn't trying to be subtle." Kakashi wiped both sides of the kunai blade on a cleaning cloth before returning it to his weaponry pouch. "You get six months to fix it. That's it. If things aren't improved, your relationship with Gai will end."

Anko was very careful not to show she was shaking. The fucking bastard. "What do you think he'll say when I tell him about this little meeting?"

"He won't believe you." Kakashi's mask twitched in such a way Anko had come to recognize as a smirk. "You know how you exaggerate and twist things, Anko."

He was already out the door when Anko hissed after him, "You really think getting rid of me will change things between the two of you?"

Kakashi glanced over his shoulder, meeting her eyes for the first time. "No. But if you think that's why I'm doing this, you don't understand anything at all." Then he turned a corner, and was gone.

Five minutes later, Anko was in the surveillance room, staring down one of Ibiki's subordinates with as much restrained fury as she could muster. "What do you mean I didn't catch it?"

The chuunin shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, Anko-san, but the cameras in that bathroom and hallway cut out shortly before you walked in. They went back online just a minute ago. I've already sent someone down to check for explosives, but they didn't find anything even remotely suspicious, and procedure states that the incident is therefore not worth an inquiry."

Anko slammed her hand into the wall. If it hurt, she didn't notice. "Damn it to hell!"


Shikamaru collapsed onto the rock with a thump, sweat running down his face as he ripped off his new white cloak—his long coat had been left behind in Konoha, and already he was missing it (the cloak was way too big for him and was a pain to take off)—and put it behind his head to act as a pillow. He ignored the glare Kankuro shot his way for his failure to help set up the portable cooker to make lunch. This whole trip was beyond troublesome, and it was the Sand siblings that were used to this heat. Unreasonable to expect he'd do anything on their breaks but rest.

Of course, unreasonable was what the Sand siblings were. He had been waiting three days for Temari to tell him how visiting the ruins of Sand would alleviate his growing frustration with Leaf politics, hadn't pushed the issue at all, even back in Konohagakure when she had first proposed the idea of getting away for a while. It might not have even needed an explanation if it weren't for the destination. Of all the places he had considered spending his paid leave, a wreck of a village wasn't one of them.

Temari didn't need him along for her to pay her respects to the dead. She didn't even really need him along to offer support as she worked through her issues with her youngest brother. Kankuro was a much better choice, seeing as he was the only other person in the universe that could say, "Yeah, I know it sucked, I was there," and not be lying through his teeth. The weak excuse she had offered before—that it was important in some indefinable way for him to see where she had come from—didn't fly either. Sand Village was gone. Totaled. Lost to the ages. Whatever. However you put it, even if she wasn't a Leaf-nin, her home was in Konoha with Kankuro. He wasn't going to learn some fundamental truth about Sand-nin by seeing a bunch of their mummified corpses.

But despite how patiently he was being, she still hadn't told him a thing. They were halfway there, already into River Country, and she hadn't hinted at her true thoughts at all. She wasn't normally duplicitous, either. Something about meeting with Gaara was making her doubt something, either about herself or a decision she had made. Finding out why the youngest Sand sibling had destroyed Sunagakure would be valuable information—he hadn't been deceiving the Hokage when he told her he would try to delve into that—but it wasn't as important as the Godaime thought it was, and it wasn't why he had agreed to this trip so easily.

Shikamaru knew how the Akatsuki worked better than almost anyone in Leaf, he knew how the partnerships worked, and therefore knew that knowing Gaara's motivations wasn't as vital as knowing Naruto's. Gaara of before the Akatsuki was a completely different conundrum than Gaara of the after, for the very simple reason that Gaara of before didn't have a very tight, very strong, very blond and extremely impulsive leash chained permanently around his neck. If Naruto wanted the treaty between the Leaf and the Akatsuki to succeed—and from what Shikamaru had seen of him, Naruto really, really did—than Gaara would do nothing to interfere with that. End of story.

Shikamaru didn't give two shits about Gaara. Leash or no, the man was a borderline psychopath who had more than once crossed the threshold that made the word borderline superfluous. Hell, Shikamaru had been there for two of those times. True, Naruto had also been present for both incidents, but Naruto had wells of acceptance and forgiveness Shikamaru couldn't hope to fathom, much less match. But Gaara was also, unfortunately, Temari's brother, so Shikamaru had come with her to see the aftermath of the red-haired jinchuuriki's latest and greatest breakdown, sleeping in tents and living off preserved food the entire way. This whole thing just reinforced what he'd known for years: women were a royal pain in the ass.

"Shikamaru. Shikamaru, you lazy bum, stop staring off into space and come eat! We're leaving in ten minutes, and we aren't going to wait around for you to finish eating your ramen when you didn't even help."

Pain. In. The. Ass. But Shikamaru still got up, even if he grumbled the entire way. The things he did for- "Coming."


Kakuzu waited fifteen minutes after being invited into the Akatsuki Commander's office—during which time he had been asked if his chair was comfortable (she knew it was), how he had been lately (fine), and whether he wanted some coffee (yes, he did; Hirayama Reiko had a seemingly endless supply of the best type of coffee bean from Lightning Country, which was quite a feat considering he had not once seen it listed on her monthly expense report)—before finally realizing that as usual when dealing with the former Stone-nin, he would have to make the first move.

"Reiko-san, I am sorry to rush you, but I still have some work to do before the meeting tonight. What do you need from me?"

Reiko, sipping at her own coffee, smiled pleasantly, but despite the (for her) meaningless expression she didn't waste time as she usually did with trivialities before getting to the point. "What can you tell me about your home village?"

Kakuzu kept his face blank. Most people knew better than to ask about Waterfall. Hirayama Reiko, for instance, knew better, but at the same time she had the rare—perhaps singular—privilege to not only be one of the few people he knew for sure would ask only for a good reason, but also to be someone Kakuzu trusted absolutely. "Can you be more specific?"

Reiko steepled her fingers. "Very well, Kakuzu-san. Why is it that, despite the country's current struggle to remain independent in the face of Earth and Rice Field's expansion, only two shinobi from their hidden village have defected to the Akatsuki and both of them before Waterfall started suffering trouble at its borders? Furthermore, why do both those shinobi number among the most powerful in our organization, despite Waterfall not having a reputation for producing extraordinary fighters?"

Hirayama Reiko only asked when she had a good reason. Which was why Kakuzu wasn't already out the door. "You are asking me to reveal the innermost secrets of my village."


"That doesn't matter. Tell me why you need to know, or I leave now."

For a moment, Reiko pursed her lips. "A secret for a secret?"

"If you like."

"Gin is a traitor."

Kakuzu's coffee cup froze halfway to his mouth. He had been right; she did have a good reason. He just wished it was a different one. "…I want you to promise me that this information will never be spoken of by you to anyone but me. And you'd better have more coffee. This will take a while." He didn't bother with threats. Reiko was very much aware of how thoroughly he could cripple the Akatsuki if he desired, but she also didn't care. He had been in charge of the Akatsuki's finances from the very beginning and was almost as invested in the organization as she was. It would take an insurmountable breach between them before he went as far as to destroy what had taken them years to build, a breach he would never allow even if she did break his confidence. And she knew it. But she would keep her silence, nonetheless. Kakuzu knew her well enough to know that.

"Of course I will. And I do."

"Alright then." Kakuzu wetted his lips with his tongue. Reiko didn't flinch. Of course, as far as Kakuzu knew, she was incapable of doing so, but it never hurt to make sure. He had never been able to respect people who were incapable of looking him in the face after he removed his mask.

Fortunately, his respect for Hirayama Reiko had never wavered. So he continued.

"As you are no doubt already aware, out of all the hidden villages, Waterfall is actually the only village whose location is actually secret, even from the country's daimyo. The reason for this is twofold. One," and Kakuzu raised one hand, letting the sleeve of his coat fall down to reveal the double ring of tattoos encircling his wrist, "Each shinobi upon graduation receives these with his forehead protector, and two, every outsider who has come across the entrance to the village has died.

"Non-shinobi don't leave Waterfall. They don't need to. They are more protected there than anywhere else, and despite our small population, land-wise we are probably the biggest and certainly one of the most fertile. But shinobi are the ones who bring in the money, and therefore need to go out into the world to take on missions. Waterfall's location is one of its greatest treasures, so the shinobi are sealed against speaking or writing of it. Even thinking about it too much can activate the seals, causing extraordinary amounts of pain, paralysis, or in extreme cases, death.

"As you might imagine, this makes returning to Waterfall after missions rather difficult, and many shinobi would be hard-pressed to go home at all if it weren't for the Hero Water."

Reiko, who had remained silent up until that point, didn't show any visible reaction to the mention of the legendary artifact, though she did say mildly, "I take it the myth doesn't quite line up with reality."

Kakuzu shook his head. "Not exactly. The Hero Water does, as is told of in the stories, increase one's strength, stamina, and speed. It does this not by increasing the chakra of those who drink it but by making it easier to access the chakra already there, which usually leads to the village's shinobi running through their energy stores very quickly, even without using jutsus, which is why we are known for strike missions as they don't take a great deal of time.

"The Hero Water isn't what I'd call rare, either. No one knows why, but literally all the water in Waterfall is what outsiders call Hero Water. It can't be escaped. In some places it's less potent—in general, the closer you get to the center of the village, the less effective the water is—but everyone is exposed to the Hero Water even before they are born.

"However, there are two essential truths about Hero Water that you may be the first outsider to learn about since the village's founding. One, Hero Water is one of the most effective poisons on the planet. Waterfall Village denizens build up immunity throughout their lives, but even for them, leaving Waterfall is impossible until around the age of thirteen." Kakuzu could feel his wrists begin to burn; he ignored it. "The Hero Water is strongest at the village's entrance. I cannot tell you the exact details," Literally; last time he had tried to write down directions he had been in a coma for a week, "But Waterfall is accessed through underwater tunnels, meaning you are exposed to the Water at its highest concentration for several minutes while leaving or entering the village. The first time genin exit the village on missions, they often conceive a mild version of what you know to be radiation poisoning. Outsiders who have the misfortune of finding the tunnel leading to Waterfall and try to swim in it or drink it die within seconds as the Water eats them alive."

Kakuzu allowed himself a bitter smile. "We don't have poisoners in Waterfall. The Hero Water is all our shinobi have ever needed, as the speed at which it kills people is based on how diluted it is. If the Hero Water at Waterfall's entrance is mixed one part per thousand with regular water, it can take days after drinking it for the inner lining of the target's stomach and intestines to dissolve. There is no known cure.

"The second essential truth is like many poisons, Hero Water is an addictive substance. The cravings start just days after one leaves and are almost completely irresistible after two weeks. The most common type of criminal punishment in Waterfall is banishment, the period of time based on the severity of the crime. It takes on average three weeks for someone on the outside to go insane. In four weeks they die when their circulatory system fails and their organs cease to work. The process can be staved off by bringing the Hero Water along on long-term mission, but the Hero Water away from the source only remains effective for a few months before turning back to regular water. This is another reason for the seals; without them, a captured Waterfall-nin would tell his captors anything they wanted to know in exchange for being let free to return home."

Reiko raised an eyebrow, the most facial movement she had shown since Kakuzu had started. "That begs the question, then: how did you survive leaving the village? You weren't in the best shape when I met you fifteen years ago, but you certainly didn't seem near death."

Kakuzu sipped his coffee, by that point lukewarm. "Organ replacement. Dialysis. Weaning off the Hero Water with water from the outside. Drugs to control the schizophrenia and hallucinations. Even now I still have cravings, and I did every conceivable thing to help rid myself of the addiction to the Hero Water. If what you're asking is how Gin escaped, I have no idea. They tightened up the restrictions against leaving the village for prolonged periods of time even more after it was made known I made it out alive, and I would know if Gin went to the lengths I did. That kind of extensive surgery leaves marks that aren't easily hidden."

Reiko nodded thoughtfully. "True. The medic that examined Gin when he first came to Kaizen actually told me afterwards that Gin has the most flawless skin he'd ever seen on shinobi. I did not think much on it then, but perhaps he has some ability he hadn't seen fit to put in his file. It is not uncommon. We are all missing-nin, after all, which doesn't make us the most trusting group, even for shinobi."

Kakuzu put down his cup; even the best hot beverage wasn't much good cold. "Maybe, but the only special talent I know of that Gin has is his bloodline limit. You've seen it, the water and ice manipulation he was using at his elite trials four years ago. His family's actually originally from Mist, but they had to leave during the bloodline purges thirty years ago after most of their clan was culled, and some of them came to Waterfall. Somehow our leader managed to integrate them into the community without the Hero Water killing more than a few of them… he never did tell anyone how he pulled that off. Gin was part of the first generation of his clan born in Waterfall. I'm not sure how his kekkei genkai would help resist the Hero Water addiction or keep him from becoming scarred, though."

It was then that the leader of the Akatsuki did something rather incongruous with the way the conversation had been going; she glanced at her clock. "Ah, it looks like we're out of time if we don't want to be late to the Council meeting." She stood up and held out her hand to shake. "Thank you so much for this information, Kakuzu-san. It will be put to good use, I assure you."

Kakuzu stared at the hand for a minute before meeting Reiko's eyes. "You aren't going to tell me what Gin did to betray us, are you."

Reiko's habitual slight smile vanished as completely as if it had never been there at all; she let her hand drop. "No. You already know more than you strictly need to. I've already told you more than anyone except Zetsu. This is not something I can allow to become widely known. Gin and Yasuo may yet return to Kaizen if they believe their treachery to still be uncovered; we cannot let take the chance of them being warned off."

Kakuzu nodded, reluctantly. "I understand." And he did. That didn't mean he had to like it.


It had taken Sasuke ten minutes to explore his new quarters, and by the end of his self-guided tour he had concluded two things: One, despite the place being bigger than where he had lived back in Leaf, it did not have a large enough kitchen to justify being called an apartment, which meant there had to be a communal dining hall he would have to eat in at some point, and two, Sound-nin as a population were colorblind. The walls and ceiling were painted dark purple, the carpet was violet, the bedspread and pillows were a soft maroon, and the only article of clothing in the closet was a pink sleeping yukata decorated with stylized roses. Which fit perfectly, but that was beside the point. Pink was not his color. When he visited the tailor tomorrow to be outfitted for a new wardrobe, there was no chance he was letting the man decide his new color scheme.

Of course, for his shinobi gear, he might not have many options. From what Sasuke had seen of Sound-nin in uniform, the color spectrum was fairly limited, running from black to purple to gray to tan to white, with the camo consisting of some mix of the aforementioned range. Which meant, unfortunately, that his usual blue was out.

Sasuke was considering the likelihood of getting his clan symbol getting sewn on the back of at least some of his shirts (low; he would probably have to buy some red cloth from a civilian tailor and stitch it on himself) when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it half-expecting there to be some genin standing there with his dinner, or at least directions to the nearest cafeteria. Instead, he got Sakon.

Sasuke stared down at the elder Sound-nin. When he had envisioned seeing Sakon again after they had parted ways back in Orochimaru's office, it had always been at some point several weeks in the future, them coming across each other in some deserted hallway, looking at each other awkwardly, exchanging a few curt words, then parting ways with a silent hope on both their parts that they never see the other again. It had never occurred to him that Sakon would visit only a few hours after being discharged from his duty as Sasuke's bodyguard, apparently just after taking a shower and changing out of his Leaf-nin disguise into… a purple flak jacket, black shirt, black pants, black gloves, and black sandals. Damn it. Didn't look like Sasuke was going to get any sympathy from that quarter.

Sakon, for his part, was staring back, though not meeting Sasuke's eyes so much as… "What are you wearing?"

Sasuke was suddenly very conscious of the fact that he hadn't bothered changing out of the yukata after putting it on after his own shower, and that he still had a (purple, yet again) towel hanging around his neck. "I… what, did you expect me to change back into the clothes I wore here?"

Sakon shrugged, finally dragging his eyes away from the decorative flower design going up and down Sasuke's sleeves. "I suppose not. So are you going to invite me in or not?"

Sasuke didn't. "What are you doing here, Sakon?"

Sakon's eyes narrowed. "I live down the hall, you moron. All the upper-level shinobi have been moved to quarters in the same building until the Tower has been rebuilt. I came by to talk, but what I'll be doing is leaving if you don't stop acting like an ass."

Sasuke stepped to the side. Sakon nodded at him politely. "Thank you." He walked past Sasuke, gave a cursory glance around (bedroom straight ahead, currently standing in the pathetic little kitchen with matching pathetic little stove, oven, and refrigerator), then seated himself at what could possibly pass for the kitchen table, if only because there wasn't much else to call it. "Your place is bigger than mine."

"That's because I outrank you," Sasuke pointed out, leaning against the wall. "So why are you really here? You never came to see me before to 'just talk.'"

"I was technically under your command before."

"And I'm sure the fact that you're now not has changed you fundamentally as a person." It really was too easy to fall back into the old pattern of insults. It was also something Sasuke knew he couldn't allow. Things weren't the same, and allowing himself to think they were was a mistake. "If you came by to see if I'd messed up yet, don't hold your breath. I'm fine without your help."

There was an odd note to Sakon's voice as he replied, "Funny, about that. It turns out Orochimaru-sama disagrees."

Sasuke blinked. That… hadn't been what he'd been expecting. "What?"