The Last Uchiha

by undercoverchad

Warnings: Disturbing content and strong language ahead.

Chapter Three: The Prejudice of Neighbours

The Monster War was named so, for the strongest ninjas of the Sound bore curse seals that had the power to transform them at will, into inhuman creatures, powerful and brutal in battle. The curse seal has three levels once activated. At the first, a ninja's base power is tripled. At the second, the human body is corroded by the power produced into a new form. Upon breaching the third level, the soul is bound to the one who gave the curse seal. Such was Orochimaru's power over his people.

Excerpt from History of the Fire Lands (5th Edition)

The Hokage's offices were in the main administration buildings in the central part of town; better for the communication of orders, like the Queen Bee (this was apt, for Tsunade) at the centre of the hive. It was not there that I was headed; this early in the morning, there'd be at most only a skeleton crew at work, and Tsunade-sama was not known to be a morning person. Besides, Hokage or not, she only had the barest jurisdiction over the place I was going.

There were jail cells at the police station, but those were mainly for civilian criminals, not designed to hold the sort of prisoners kept in the tidy, well-kept building just next to administration. No guard was at the entrance as I approached, but I knew I was being watched. Sure enough, as I stepped into the shaded foyer, a gloved hand descended upon my shoulder. Only my skills at chakra detection helped me to remain calm.

"You're not authorised to be here, Haruno-san," said a voice that, for all it sounded cool and impersonal, held heavy undertones of menace. It was no surprise to me that they knew who I was. In fact, they probably knew what shoe size I wore (seven) down to my favourite colour (no, it isn't pink).

After all, I'd just walked into Morino Ibiki's personal lair.

If the village was the hive, then here were its deepest, innermost passages. The ones that never saw the light of day. Those under what was broadly and more comfortably termed as 'Intelligence', were a select bunch who shared the same traits; reclusive, secretive, and fiercely territorial. The first was probably a consequence of the job, the second was a requirement, and the third was the major factor denying me access.

I turned to the one holding on to my shoulder. Most offices had security guards, or receptionists. Special Intelligence had a shadowed lobby with assassins who knew your every weakness and was prepared to exploit them. They would have sent him of course. Chakra control was my strength and he could block it in an instant.

"Good morning Neji," I said. If he was displeased at my casual use of his name, it didn't show on his face.

"Sakura-san," he replied, his one concession to informality. "May I know what you're doing here?"

It had surprised everyone but Naruto (and most likely, Hinata) when Neji had joined the interrogation squad. ANBU, yes. The Hyuuga prodigy was a killing machine all on his own. Since Intelligence was a division of ANBU, he was still sent on assassinations when the need called for it, but nobody could understand why he was wasting his skills torturing people.

Naruto had explained it to me.

"With his Byakugen, he can detect a lie more easily than anyone else. The Hyuugas are trained for it. Also, his intimate knowledge of how your body works comes in…very handy." For what, he hadn't needed to tell me. I could guess on my own. "It helps that he's a cold blooded bastard to begin with," he'd added with a wry grin. "Trust me, old Scar-head knew what he was doing when he picked that one."

"I understand that you have Sound prisoners in the cells," I said to Neji. His face remained impassive. "I'd like to speak to one of them, if he's still alive."

"No," he said abruptly. His grip tightened on my shoulder as he began to forcefully steer me around.

I didn't want this to degenerate into a fight, but I was prepared for one if he refused to hear me out. I tried again.

"Look, you don't even know who it is I want to talk to! All I'm ask-"

A deep chuckle stopped me mid-sentence. "Oh, I assure you Sakura-san, that Neji knows exactly who you want to speak to." Ibiki had appeared out of nowhere, with his usual trademark way of keeping people off-balance. He smiled at me now, the motion making the scars that bisected his face stand out more starkly. "There is after all, only one prisoner left. And he's the most dangerous one."

"Is it…Kabuto?" I should have realised it before this. The old man, indeed. I suppose it would seem so, from a child's point of view. Anyone with grey or white hair would be old to a child, and Itachi had thought Kakashi, who had silver-grey hair, was old.

The only one in Orochimaru's camp who had similar hair colouring was Kabuto, since I doubted Orochimaru found much use in geriatric nins.

Ibiki nodded. Then, as though coming to a decision, he said, "Release her, Neji. Maybe she can find out something we can't."

That Ibiki was allowing me in without a fight was nothing to rejoice about. It only meant that he had his own motives for doing so, and I suspected I would find out the price to be paid later. Owing Morino Ibiki favours was not a comfortable thing.

"You knew?" I asked Ibiki, as he led me down numerous tunnels and flights of stairs until all the walls and steps were carved bedrock. Fluorescent lights relieved the darkness at set intervals, casting strange shapes on the walls as we passed beneath them. I'd heard that those who worked here called this network of subterranean burrows 'the Bowels'. 'The Bowels of the Death God where only shit resides', was the exact – if crude – phrase. I doubted if anyone had ever dared to say that to Ibiki's face though.

Ibiki glanced at me. "About Sasuke?" I nodded. "We had our suspicions, of course, but they were only proven right before the war. They were very good at catching our spies," he added darkly.

"Then you have an agent who actually saw what was happening? Can I talk to him?"

"She's dead," Neji interjected harshly. Up until that moment, he'd been silent since Ibiki had arrived. Walking a pace behind us like some sort of honour guard, he'd radiated disapproval in palpable waves.

I was stunned by that piece of information. "Tenten was the agent?" I'd known, of course, that she'd entered ANBU soon after Neji had, and the official story was that she'd been killed in battle, but that Intelligence had used her to go undercover? There was only one problem I could see in this. "But she took part in the same Chuunin exam as Kabuto. Wasn't she recognised?"

"Eventually," said Ibiki. "Tenten was the best candidate we had at the time. She had the kind of unremarkable features that, with a change in hair colour and style, could look completely different."

As Ibiki was saying this, Neji had shot the older man a look that could only be described as unfriendly. I was aware of issues broiling just beneath the surface, and thought I could guess at some of it. Tenten was never one to shirk her duty to the village, and she'd probably thought – as I did now – that she better served Konoha with her skills as a weapon mistress, not a spy. The only one who would have been able to convince her otherwise, would have been Neji.

I knew all about blame. A fleeting look at Neji told me that he certainly held Ibiki at least partly responsible for what had occurred, but I knew most of the blame he reserved for himself. All the useless if only's – if only I had or hadn't done this. I'd been through all that eight years ago.

We halted before a craved fresco in the stone. We'd passed a few of these on the way, and it took Ibiki turning to me expectantly to realise that they were doors.

"Cell Seventeen," he said. "You still have time to change your mind."

God knows I wanted to. I could only guess at what lay ahead and it sure as hell wasn't going to be enjoyable. Besides, there were no other options left. Where else was I going to find another Sound-nin (and Orochimaru's right hand, no less) to answer my questions? Not that I could be sure he would answer them, since it appeared that Intelligence hadn't gotten too far with him either. But I had to at least try.

Which brought me to the thing I needed to ask before I went in. "Ibiki-san," I said. "I need you to grant me complete bargaining rights." I felt Neji tense behind me, as if to protest. If Ibiki agreed, it meant that I could negotiate on more even footing with Kabuto; whatever was in my ability to give in exchange for his information.

Ibiki looked me over, assessing for weaknesses. "You'll have to apply to the highest authority for that," he answered coolly.

I met his eyes with a steady look. "You are the highest authority here," I responded evenly. "I know very well that Hokage-sama gives you full autonomy to run Intelligence."

He almost smiled, and I felt like I had passed a test. That was the thing you had to keep in mind about Intelligence. They never lied outright. They only made you believe they told the truth. Misdirection was everything in their game and you had to have some foreknowledge to win.

"You can bargain with whatever is within your power to give," he said, beginning the long series of hand seals that would undo the first part of the lock. It was useless trying to memorise the sequence, since it was changed daily, and I was told that prisoners were led here blindfolded. Anyway, the second part of the lock required a physical key, which Ibiki, and possibly a few other high ranking agents carried. With all the guards that you couldn't see until it was too late, it was easier to break in to the Bowels than to break out, and the joke was that the Death God was particularly constipated here.

"Wait," said Neji, as Ibiki produced a small metal oblong from somewhere on his body. "I'll go in with her."

"I don't need an escort," I told him. Not that I wouldn't appreciate the support, but I felt that it would be harder to ask my questions with Neji as a silent listener at my back.

His pale eyes seemed to flicker in the light. "You have no idea what you will need in there." There was something resolute about his face that told me I would have his company whether I wanted it or not.

"If you two have come to an agreement?" inquired Ibiki.

"Aren't you coming in too?" If there was anyone I'd rather have in there with me, it'd be him.

He grinned, teeth flashing white, and I was momentarily reminded of an old wolf baring its fangs. "If by some chance Kabuto escapes and slaughters the both of you, I'll be out here to seal the doors."

"It gives me such comfort to know that," I told him sourly. He chuckled as he inserted one side of the oblong into a depression I couldn't see. I'd noticed when light glinted off it that it was carved on all sides with elaborate patterns. No doubt the patterns were different on all sides, and inserting it the wrong way would result in something disastrous.

"Word of advice," said Neji, as the door yawned open. "Don't let him get close enough to touch you." I understood. Kabuto was a medical nin like me, who could sever arteries with a touch. There'd be chakra-binding restraints, of course, but if he had the degree of control I did, then he could channel chakra to whatever part of the body he wanted. Neji probably blocked his tenketsu during interrogations, so that Kabuto couldn't access his chakra, but it didn't last for very long; your body would revert your tenketsus to its natural state in time, and there were medical ways of speeding up the process.

Perhaps having Neji with me was not such a bad thing after all.

The subterranean cells were all designed to hold single prisoners. In normal prisons, isolation cells were special units. Here, they were mandatory. I didn't know how far the tunnels stretched under Konoha, but they seemed to have the space for it. Enclosed by rock on all four sides with a door in one wall leading to the sealed exit, each cell was windowless and lightless. The combination of the dark and enforced isolation was highly effective in breaking down a prisoner's spirit. In some cases, torture wasn't even necessary.

Neji entered into the corridor before me, his keen eyes enabling him to utilise whatever meagre light was cast from the tunnel outside. I followed him in. The door to the cell was shut, but even outside of it, the air was rank with the smell of stale sweat and other, less pleasant, bodily fluids.

There was a switch beside the heavy wooden door, which Neji pressed, before pulling open the unsealed door and gesturing me in. So it was to be ladies first. I entered, not without trepidation, into the now brightly lit cell.

Kabuto sat on a wooden pallet, blinking at the sudden intrusion of light. His arms were chained behind him, from elbows to wrist at an angle that was meant to cause discomfort. It was not a casual cruelty, I knew, merely a tactic to add stress upon a prisoner. He was dressed in pants and a simple black undershirt – I was glad to see they had not taken his clothes away – which had sleeves short enough to reveal the raised, red welts of closed tenketsu on his bare arms.

Apart from various bruises and scratches, he was relatively bloodless. Ibiki could, after all, be likened to a master surgeon, not a butcher.

His glasses had been broken, most probably while it was still on his face, judging from the cuts around his eyes. It didn't seem to make any difference; in the light, his eyes sought mine and latched on like some malignant parasite.

"Well, well," he murmured, "What a sight for sore eyes you are, Sakura-chan." Then he giggled.

It hadn't occurred to me that he might be crazy, until I heard the giggle. There was something…unhinged about it. A wrongness that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand. Was this a result of torture? Or was the desperate insanity that shone through his eyes the cause of Ibiki allowing me in here? I was quite certain that whatever questions I had were the same as those of Intelligence. Perhaps I should have thought to ask for a report on whatever information Tenten had relayed and whatever they had gleaned from Sound prisoners through interrogations, but they were probably classified.

The cell was spacious, though the inmate only occupied a quarter of it, and I approached Kabuto, stepping closer until a hand on my arm halted me when I was barely halfway. It was only then that I noticed the running chain connecting from Kabuto's manacled ankle to the wall, and cursed myself for my carelessness. Neji had probably stopped me just at the limit of where the chain could reach, should Kabuto decide to lunge at me.

I decided to cut to the chase. "I'm here to make you an offer."

"Oh?" His eyes narrowed. "What does the little cherry blossom have that I might want?"

"You tell me."

Kabuto considered this for a moment. "You can't give me my freedom."

"There's more than one kind of freedom," I said. "Death is freedom of a sort." This was why I'd asked Ibiki for bargaining rights. If it was what Kabuto wanted, then I was prepared to kill him. I wouldn't risk bringing a weapon near him, of course, but all I needed was to lay a palm across his chest to stop his heart. As Tsunade had once told me, it was always easier to destroy than to heal.

He laughed in genuine amusement. "Nice try. But my execution is tomorrow morning, so you can't offer me that either."

I hadn't known that, and it was another sign of how little I actually knew.

"So what do you want?"

"And what if I said I wanted to pluck a cherry blossom?" he leered. "I've been here a long time, sweet Sakura. I've gotten lonely. Perhaps I'd like to taste a woman once before I die."

I had been prepared for that too.

"Fine," I replied, more calmly than I actually felt. "But a taste is all you'll get."

"Sakura-" Neji's hand clamped onto my elbow. Kabuto's gaze switched to him.

"I've heard from those who sampled it that Tenten begged very sweetly."

Neji's hand tightened around my arm until I knew I'd have bruises the next day. "Don't listen to him," I said. "He's only bluffing to make you mad." And it was working, I could tell. Aloof and unemotional about most things, Neji was not rational when it came to anything Tenten. Especially after her death.

But I underestimated him.

The grip on my arm loosened, then fell away completely, as Neji let out a disparaging feh.

"I don't get angry that easily," he said. "Especially for scum like this."

I took a half-step forward. "Questions first, then in payment for your answers, I'll give you a kiss."

"So eager," he chuckled. "But the bargaining is not over yet. One kiss is hardly enough for all that you want to know."

"You're not in any position to negotiate, Yakushi," interrupted Neji.

"On the contrary, I am in the best of positions, since I have nothing to lose." Kabuto seemed to be enjoying himself. "So what will it be, Sakura-chan? I could be persuaded to tell you all I know, if you're willing to give a little more."

"You're only ever going to get one kiss from me, you bastard, but in return you'll answer three questions."

"Such spirit. I like that in you," he said. "But one answer for one kiss is fairer, don't you think?"

In the end, we struck a balance at two questions, which meant that I had to choose very carefully what I wanted to ask. There was no way I'd allow him to touch me twice. I carefully ordered the thoughts in my mind. The foremost of what I wanted to know, was of course, "Why didn't Sasuke kill himself when he had the chance?"

"Oh?" Kabuto raised an eyebrow. "Don't you want to know how Sasuke survived the soul transfer?"

I did, but that was of no importance now and I said as much. The parties involved in the soul transfer were both dead. Maybe it had been a fluke, or maybe Sasuke's will was too strong. Suffice to say, there were two souls trapped in one body, which was how I'd figured Orochimaru had regained the use of his arms. Obviously, Sasuke's soul had made up for the portion of his that was missing.

"Kiss me first, and then I'll tell you."

There was not a chance in hell I'd do that, until he'd fulfilled his end of the bargain.

"Answers first, Kabuto," I warned.

"I love the way you say my name," he murmured. "Sometimes, Orochimaru-sama would say it just like that. It was always Kabuto this, and Kabuto that. He said my name a hundred times in a hundred different ways, except when he was coming. Did you know that? Well of course he fucked me. He fucking fucked me." Kabuto giggled. "Orochimaru was a goddamn faggot, and before Sasuke came he couldn't even use his arms so I had to do it. You could say I was a party to my own rape. And all the time I'd wait for the day when he would say Kabuto, give me your body. Not in that way of course. He already had it that way."

He paused, eyes glittering with malice. "Did you know, after Sasuke came, he didn't need me anymore?"

"Stop it," I said faintly.

He let out a laugh that scraped against the ears. "Didn't you want to know? All your questions, 'What, Kabuto? How, Kabuto?' Everyone asking me questions." His voice turned ugly. "Well you'll fucking listen to everything I have to say if you want your answers."

I kept my mouth shut, though I had to grit my teeth to do it.

"Very good," he said after awhile. "He still talks to me sometimes you know? I hear him, when there's no one else around. Kabuto, he says, I want my body back." He did such a fair imitation of Orochimaru's voice that goose bumps prickled on my skin.

I waited him out, much as I wished to snap at him to hurry up, and he tilted his head to one side to regard me from one grey eye that seemed to have the light of madness dancing in it. Finally, I was rewarded.

"I'd have thought you were bright enough to figure it out on your own," he said. "What do you think would have happened to little Itachi if Sasuke had died? Without Orochimaru's calming presence, the rest of us animals would have torn the boy to shreds."

I'd considered that possibility, that Itachi was used as a hostage for Sasuke's continued good behaviour. That meant that at the very least, Sasuke had cared for the child, right? I thought of Itachi's bright, cheerful face and wondered how anyone couldn't. I also wondered, a little sadly, if it meant that Sasuke himself had fathered the child, and with love. But even now, hearing it from Kabuto's lips, I still didn't think that was the only reason.

"I'm sure that's not all of it," I said.

"What more reason do you want?"

"I don't want reasons, I want the truth."

He sniggered at that. "You didn't seem to like me telling the truth just now."

"It wasn't what I asked for."

"No?" A sly look entered his eyes. "Maybe Sasuke didn't want to die because he liked being Orochimaru's fuck toy too much."

Crack. The slap echoed within the cell. Kabuto, without his arms to balance him, landed painfully on his shoulder.


For one moment, I thought I'd been the one to react. Such was the sudden rage that had filled me at what he'd said, that I wouldn't have been surprised if my hand had snapped out on its own, but it had been Neji who'd backhanded him across the face.

"Let me remind you that this is an interrogation." He was gazing coldly down at Kabuto, but the words were meant for both of us. There was no reason why he'd intercede for that comment, and now I understood that he was asserting his authority, subtly reminding me not to get sidetracked.

Gathering my thoughts, I tried to decide what to ask next. There were so many things I wanted to know. What had Sasuke been like, all the little details of his life? Had he thought about us while he'd been gone? There was eight years, eight years worth of questions that I wanted to ask.

I thought furiously, and settled in the end, for a question that would be useful to the living, instead of the dead. "Who is Itachi's mother?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" I nodded firmly, and his lips stretched wide into a grin. "I don't know."

I stared at him. "What? How could you not know? You were there!"

"I wasn't there for everything. You've just wasted your last question. Time to pay the piper."

I couldn't believe that I'd wasted such an opportunity, but there was nothing for it now, he'd played by the rules and I'd lost.

Crouching down resolutely before him, I lowered my lips to touch his hesitantly. They were cool, dry and a little cracked from lack of moisture, and I was about to pull away when he deepened it, abruptly thrusting a tongue between my teeth in an uncanny parody of rape. It was utterly foul; I doubted prisoners had the luxury of sanitation, and the taste of him reflected all that and more.

Then the bastard bit me.

I was already pulling away as his teeth met, catching in my bottom lip. Copper exploded on my tongue and I realised I was tasting blood. Kabuto was already away, thrown back against the stone wall by Neji's palm. Reluctantly, I willed away the chakra I had gathered to my fingertips, poised to strike. Pain, numbed by shock, began to blossom in my lower lip. A finger raised to it came back bloody.

Kabuto was smiling as he licked my blood from the corner of his mouth with the tip of his tongue. "Very sweet," he said approvingly. "Since you've been so obliging, I'll leave you with a little something, no extra cost."

"What is it?" I spat on the ground, trying to rid myself of his taste. He had the nerve to say that, after biting me.

He smirked. "You can't keep the child," he said, the words striking ice deep into my heart, for I loved little Itachi already. "The bloody spheres will claim him."

What the hell he meant by that, he refused to explain, only giving a condescending snort when Neji coolly offered to beat it out of him. I knew it would be useless to torture him. It would be the last spiteful thing he could do before he died, and nothing would be able to make him talk.

"Get out," he told us dismissively, turning his face to the wall. "You've ceased to be entertaining."

I had to restrain Neji to prevent him from tearing Kabuto's throat out, then and there.

Exiting first, I watched through the grill in the door as Neji closed it and switched off the lights. Before absolute darkness claimed the cell again, I noticed that Kabuto's lips were moving, almost silently.

"Yes, my lord," I heard him whisper to the shadows as we left. "I'm still here."

I shivered all the way out of the cell.

Ibiki was waiting for us when we emerged from the dark corridor gratefully into the light. Leaning against the far wall, he looked utterly bored and at ease, though I knew this was deceptive. I waited for him to ask questions, but he only nodded at Neji, before beckoning me to follow him down the twisting labyrinth of tunnels.

He led me along at a brisk pace – Neji having remained behind presumably to seal the door – before speaking. "Did you get what you came for?"

"More or less," I said, trying not to feel as if I'd been tainted by Kabuto's touch.

Ibiki grinned sardonically. "You surprise me, Sakura. I hadn't thought you had the stomach for interrogation. You do know that you'll have to fill in a detailed report before you go? Standard protocol."

I nodded. No wonder he hadn't asked, and I couldn't leave out anything either, with Neji as a witness. We came to a well-lit room containing a single table and chair, sheets of paper, and writing implements. There was a small pot, and a cup of something that steamed gently upon the table.

"I took the liberty of ordering some jasmine tea for you," said Ibiki. "I understand it's your favourite."

See what I meant? The self-satisfied omniscience of Intelligence agents was both unnerving and insufferable at once.

"You know," continued Ibiki, as he made sure I was comfortable. "If you ever get tired of working at the hospital, we could use someone with your mind here."

"Is that an offer?"

"A better one than most get," he told me. I'll say. I knew perfectly well if he ever needed my services, I'd find myself holding transfer orders stamped with the Hokage's seal. And prisoners didn't get a choice at all. Cooperate with Intelligence, or we'll do things to you that would make your worst nightmares pale in comparison. They probably said that in a pleasant tone too.

His mouth quirked to one side as he guessed something of what I was thinking. "We're not such ogres here, you know? And for what it's worth, I'll always give you a choice."

"I'll think about it," I said, and was alarmed to find myself seriously considering the idea. "But it's not fitting for an Intelligence agent to cut off a possible avenue like that."

He laughed.

"Ibiki-san," I said, causing him to pause in the doorway. "When you said you only found out about Sasuke before the war…" I trailed off, trying to find a way to put it into words that wouldn't sound accusatory. Ibiki must have seen this on my face because he took pity on me.

"Why do you think," he said very gently, "The Hokage sent Naruto to face him?"

The door closed soundlessly behind him, or maybe it was only because I was too lost in my own thoughts to hear it.

All in all, the time spent at Intelligence Headquarters did not take up more than two hours, though it felt like days by the time I surfaced from its shadowy depths into the welcoming sunshine. I had the afternoon shift at the hospital this week, so there was still time to take a long, scouring shower, as well as have breakfast with Itachi, and perhaps Kakashi as well. I was still at a loss as to what to do with him, now that he knew what had happened last night. It would be better for me to brush it off as an accident, to save awkwardness between friends. And yet, that was such a strangely unappealing notion.

Why on earth was I worrying about such things when I should be contemplating all that Kabuto had told me? Or at least trying to decipher that last, cryptic statement. Mind before heart, Sakura, I chided myself. I was so deep in thought on the way home that I ran right into someone blocking my path.


"I'm sorry, Izumo-san," I apologised. "I wasn't watching where I was going. Please excuse me."

He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "Actually, I was looking for you," he said. "Though I didn't expect you to walk straight into me."

I stared up at him curiously. "Looking for me?" I'd seen him around often at the administration buildings; he and Kotetsu were Tsunade's right hand men – in fetching and carrying, they liked to complain to anyone who would listen – but we'd never really had cause to talk to each other. Which only meant –

"Hokage-sama wishes to speak to you." His face grew unwontedly serious. "Right away."

My heart started to pound. "Did something happen? Is it Itachi?" I didn't realise I'd grasped Izumo by the vest until he tried to disengage my fingers gently.

"I don't know," he said. "I was only given the order just now, but I don't think it's – hey!"

I was already sprinting away. Intelligence and Administration were not that far apart after all.

"Sorry," I called, waving over my shoulder. "Thanks!"

As expected, Shizune was outside the office when I arrived, out of breath at my record breaking dash. She blinked when she saw me.

"That was quick. We only just sent Izumo off not long ago."

"I was in the area," I explained, once I'd regained my breath somewhat and smoothed back my windblown hair. "Is Tsunade-sama free to receive me now?" I had sensed the presence of two people in the office, but one had disappeared as I came up the stairs.

Shizune nodded. "You may go in."

Tsunade was seated at her desk leafing through one of her endless volumes of medical texts (much like the endless volumes of Icha Icha Paradise Kakashi seemed to own) when I opened the door.

She closed the book gently. "Take a seat, Sakura."

"Did something happen?" I said, heart hammering. Her face looked so serious that I feared the worst. Was this how mothers felt when away from their children? I was no mother, but in the short month that I'd had him, I was growing to love little Itachi like my own, didn't that count?

"It's about what you were requesting the other day."

I relaxed, but only somewhat. Almost a week ago, I'd asked Tsunade if I could enrol Itachi in the ninja academy for training. With any other child, this wouldn't have been a problem, but I foresaw that there would be certain consequences and decided to go to Tsunade for advice. Looking at her grave countenance now, I didn't think what I was about to hear was likely to be good news.

"You're about to tell me that I shouldn't enrol Itachi," I said, before she could say it.

She shook her head. "Not just that," she said. "But I expressly forbid you to."

This I hadn't expected. "What do you mean?"

"I'm saying that as Hokage, I will not allow that child into the academy." Her face was hard, and I could tell that there would be no use protesting. But still, to have come to such a decision… Her eyes softened. "Please understand, Sakura. There will be a public outcry if I allow the son of the man who betrayed Konoha to become a ninja."

"The child has done nothing," I argued. "And he is of the Uchiha bloodline. Would you see such potential go to waste?"

"And look at what the previous generation has done to that once noble name. The Uchiha bloodline is feared and hated now. Have you forgotten what happened to Haku?"

Of course I hadn't. Haku's own father had tried to kill him when he'd found out about his inherited bloodline. Such children, born with their gifts, were tools of war. If Itachi trained to become a ninja, he would become just that, but there was another reason I wanted him there.

"He should be trained. Wouldn't he be more of a danger if he didn't know how to control his bloodline?"

"We still don't know if he's inherited the sharingan. What if training is the cause that pushes him to manifest it?" countered Tsunade.

"People hate him without reason." I pleaded. "If he trains as a ninja, he will at least know how to defend himself from those who would otherwise seek to bully him." All I wanted was for Itachi to have a chance, because I knew that there would be people who would want to hurt him, and I couldn't protect him forever.

Her clear eyes held mine for a long moment. "There are people," she said finally, "Who would object to that child training next to theirs in the academy. They would pull their children out of the school to prevent the chance of another Uchiha betraying their own. I cannot afford for that to happen. Konoha cannot afford the loss of potential ninjas, not if we are to maintain our strength as one of the five powers."

The sacrifice of one for the good of the whole. That was a Hokage's role, to make such decisions, and I could tell that she hadn't wanted this choice. "They let Naruto train." I whispered, feeling defeat pulling at me.

"I'm sure you'll admit that an uncontrolled demon – sealed or not – is more dangerous than anything else the village has to face."


It was a Hokage who leaned back in her chair, face imperious and still. "I'm sorry." Her tone brooked no argument.

Tsunade had, surprisingly, given me the day off.

"The war's been over for some time now, so the urgent need for fully trained medics has fallen off," she said when I protested. "You haven't taken a sick day for almost a year, Sakura, and much as I admire my staff's dedication to their jobs, I don't want them to drop dead from stress and exhaustion."

"But -"

"Besides," Her lips twitched. "I'll be sure to dock your pay accordingly."

Stingy, grumbled Inner Sakura, who'd been rather subdued of late.

I reached home to find the house redolent with smells of breakfast; coffee, fried eggs, buttered toast, sausages… My stomach rumbled, reminding me that the only thing I'd had all morning was the hangover cure. I hadn't expected that Kakashi would cook, and I stepped into the kitchen to see Itachi happily chewing on a fried sausage that he'd rolled in a slice of bread.

"You were gone for ages!" accused Itachi through a mouthful of food. He began buttering another slice of bread, the tip of his tongue sticking out in concentration.

The man at the stove cracking eggs into a pan wasn't Kakashi.

"Naruto?" I said. "What are you doing here? More importantly, you know how to cook something other than cup ramen?"

"Very funny. I had to learn fast," he replied, flipping the eggs over. "Itachi was hungry and you don't seem to stock any ramen in the house." He grinned, half turning to look at me. "How do you like your eggs?"

I took the seat next to Itachi, ruffling his hair as I sat down. "Where's Kakashi?"

"Mission came up," said Naruto. "I came over just in time. By the way," he added casually, "What was he doing at your house so early?"

"Sleeping off about fifteen shots of tequila," I said, helping myself to the bread.

Naruto winced. "No wonder he'd looked half-dead."

"Why are you here, anyway?" I asked. "Don't you have work?"

"Don't you?"

"I've got the day off," I told him.

He smiled. "So do I. We could have a picnic lunch, how about that, Itachi?" The boy crowed with delight.

How coincidental that Tsunade had given me the day off on the same day as Naruto. She'd probably done it on purpose, I thought, and felt a rush of warmth towards her. It didn't make up for the conversation we'd last had, but this action took the sting out of her stern refusal. Who knew when I'd get to spend time with the two of them together again?

"All right," I said. "I'll start packing."

"Sausage?" offered little Itachi, beaming.

It was the sort of day you only dreamed of having for picnics. The sky was a bright blue, clear as the colour of Naruto's eyes when he was happy, and the weather was just right. Warm, without being too humid, with a lovely breeze to cool napes sweaty from running around and shrieking. (Naruto did most of the running; watching him trying to catch Itachi from the picnic mat, I shrieked with laughter, while Itachi did both.)

We weren't the only ones. The town's central park was dotted with the colourful mats of other picnicking families, but I noticed that no one came to join us, nor were any other children allowed to approach Itachi. I wondered what they thought when they looked at us. Did we seem like a family to them, dysfunctional or otherwise? Mother, father and child? Or were their eyes so clouded by prejudice that all they allowed themselves to see was a traitor's slut (some never forgot my infatuation with Sasuke), his get and a demon fox?

Watching them play, I was glad to see that Naruto looked far better than he had the previous night. The dark circles were still there, but the lines of grief and taut fragility to his face had eased.

Itachi ran about in his usual carefree manner. With Naruto to distract him, he didn't notice that the other children shunned away from them. I wondered how long it would be before he did, how long before neither of us could protect him from the little hurts that were yet to come. What Tsunade had said was only the beginning. I didn't know what he'd be if he couldn't train as a ninja.

I refused to let myself think about such things, to spoil the mood of the day when I'd been lucky enough to have the time to spend it with the two people I was closest to. Getting up from the mat, I joined in the fun.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we packed up, walking around the village to view the monuments that we never had time to visit, as well as do a little window shopping.

Somehow, our footsteps led us to the front of a store that I hadn't visited for a long time. I paused.

"I think I'll go in for awhile," I said to Naruto. Itachi of course, clamoured to go in too.

"I'll wait outside," he said, leaning back against the wall beside the window display.

"Why don't you come in with us?"

He gave me a reassuring smile that said more than words that he understood. "You'll be just fine without me, Sakura."

The little bell over the door tinkled cheerfully as I entered the Yamanaka store. As always, the lovely scent of flowers suffused the air inside, and I took in a deep breath, remembering all the times I'd come here, of Ino and I together, most usually quarrelling.

"My, my," drawled a sardonic voice into my musings. "Look who bothered to drag her sorry ass in here."

"Ne, ne, Aunt Sakura," said Itachi, tugging at my hand. "Can we get some ice-cream after this?"

"Aunt Sakura, eh?" cackled Ino. "Looks like someone's getting on in years."

"Who's the oba-san, Aunt Sakura?" said Itachi in a whisper that reached the four corners of the store. Ino started spluttering, and I made a mental note to buy Itachi all the ice-cream he wanted.

"Cute kid you got there, Sakura." Ino glared down at him. "I can see where he's got his manners from."

"Must be genetics," I agreed blandly. "Sasuke was always honest." She turned the glare on me.

"Haven't seen you in awhile," she said casually. "Shik mentioned he saw you last night. So you brought the drunkard home, huh?"

"Yeah." I didn't see the need to tell her that it was back to my home.

Ino dug a wrapped candy from the bowl on the counter. "Yo, kid," she said to Itachi. "You want a sweet?"

Itachi nodded eagerly. "Yes, please!"

"Then you'd better call me Ino-san, and none of this oba-san nonsense," she said threateningly, and tossed him the candy. He caught it easily, and I was not the only one to note the swift reflexes.

"Thank you, Ino-san!" Itachi beamed at her, face glowing, and I could see Ino visibly melting at the sight.

"Hmph," she said gruffly before turning to me. "And you? Have you come to actually buy something or do you just like the scenery?"

"I came to talk to you."

"Oh? About what?"

I smiled. "Nothing in particular."

The sentence annoyed her just like I thought it would. "Geez, Sakura, I'm trying to run a business here! I don't have all day to stand around and chat with people who have nothing better to do!" She ran the florist full-time now, after her father and Chouji had been killed in the war. Her mother, crippled with the loss of her husband, had never been the same. I've had enough of people dying, she'd said, before handing in her resignation.

"I don't see any other customers," I pointed out. It was the early evening, before people knocked off from work, and business was slow.

She glowered at me. "Then you could at least buy some flowers to put in your hair or something and cover up that ugly forehead of yours!"

Ooh. After all these years, it was still a sore point for me, but I'd come in here with the express purpose of picking an argument with her, so what could I expect? I'd missed her, missed this. I fell back to the basics.

"What do you know, Ino-pig?"

Her expression changed abruptly, face falling. "I used to call him that, you know?" she said sadly. "For eating all the time."

No need to ask who the him was. Ino had always ranted about being stuck with the lazy bum and the pig, but it had been affectionate ranting. Nice going, said Inner Sakura. You came here to cheer her up and now look what you've done.

Ino turned away, but not before I saw the betraying glimmer of tears. We'd been almost-but-not best friends for all this time, but I stood there watching her pretending not to suffer and felt like the utmost heel.

"Don't be sad, Ino-san!" Unexpectedly, it was Itachi who came up, hugging Ino around the legs with his chubby arms and looking contrite. "I won't call you oba-san anymore, and you can have my candy."

Ino choked back a laugh. "Not like Sasuke after all, then," she murmured, softly enough that only I could hear her.

"Or maybe, what Sasuke might have been," I said, feeling that loss all too keenly. "So, how about that ice-cream, Itachi?" I was eager to change the subject, and Naruto had been waiting outside long enough. He came to me quickly enough, (after Ino had convinced him that he could keep his candy, she had plenty more, a bowlful, see?) slipping a small hand trustingly into mine.

"Wait," called Ino as we were leaving, rummaging with something behind the counter. She came up with a white hibiscus, a rare colour in such a flower. "Here."

"A gift? For me?"

"What do I look like, a charity? I just thought it would go with your hair, that's all, forehead-girl."

She was back to normal, and I hid a grin. "How much?" I said grudgingly. It really was lovely.

"We import it from a special hothouse, so you can't find it anywhere else." She batted innocent eyelashes. "It's quite expensive."

Damn woman, if she thought she could make me pay an exorbitant amount by jacking up the price…

"I'll expect to see you in here at least once a week," she said. "And you can bring the little cutie with you too."

Now it was my turn to blink away tears, touched by her gesture. Ino was never one for words. It was her subtle way of saying that she still cared, and that she accepted Itachi as well, no matter what other people said. I foresaw the flower shop being a sanctuary for the two of us in the weeks to come.

"If I'm free," I said noncommittally, because it was what she expected. The bell tinkled again and we were out.

"Had a good talk?" inquired Naruto, falling into step beside us.

I smiled. "Better than I expected."

"Aunt Sakura says we can have ice-cream!" cried Itachi excitedly, bouncing between us.

Naruto shot me an amused look from the corner of his eye. "Did she? It's best not to disobey her then," he said, to Itachi's joyful shout.

I was beginning to believe that males of all ages were pigs. After breakfast, we'd had a picnic lunch. Barely an hour after that, they'd had ice-cream (and tea cakes, and cookies). I didn't need to worry about Itachi spoiling his appetite. Scarcely two hours later, he and Naruto were already planning what to have for dinner.

Stuffed to the gills, I sighed and listened to their chatter, wondering if I was going to burst at the seams by the end of the day.

"Itachi-kun, your Uncle Naruto is going to take you to a very special place for dinner."

God no, please tell me he didn't mean –

"Ichiraku's!" crowed Naruto, fist pumping the air in enthusiasm.

I almost fell face first onto the paving.

"Where's that?" said Itachi eagerly, skipping ahead with Naruto.

"It's my favourite place of all. Have you tried ramen yet?"

Itachi shook his head.

"You poor boy! Your Aunt Sakura shall not abuse you any further," vowed Naruto. "She shall treat us to ramen tonight!"

The hell I was. I ran to catch up.

Dinner was an enjoyable affair, with Naruto treating us in the end, because Itachi and I didn't eat half as much as he did, and ANBU earned more than regular nins anyway, so I'd be damned if I paid for Naruto's gluttony.

We took the longer route back to my house, Itachi skipping between us, enjoying the scenery, as well as each others' company. It was rare that we got to spend time together, what with our schedules, and we both knew that reality would intrude too soon into this peaceful moment.

Then I spotted a familiar figure far ahead taking a turn off the main street onto a beaten path. So did Naruto.

"Here," I tossed Naruto my house keys. "I'll be right behind you guys, there's someone I need to speak to for awhile first."

The forested area that used to be the hangout for Team Eleven (I could never bring myself to call it Team Gai) was much the worse for wear. Craters dotted the landscape, while trees and broken bits of shrubbery littered the ground. It was not the work of a single day; he must have been coming here to work off his grief for more than a week now, to judge by the damage. Even as I watched, another tree exploded as he slammed a palm into its trunk.

"That's called ecological vandalism, you know," I called.

Neji paused in his single-minded destruction of Konoha's forest.

"What do you want?" It was said flatly, with no intonation at all. If I'd thought him unfriendly this morning, he was even more unapproachable now.

"I came to thank you," I said. "For this morning. You didn't have to help me."

"Consider it my duty."

"Look, about tod -"

He cut me off. "If you have nothing more significant to discuss?"

I gave up. Some people, you just couldn't get through to, and talking to Neji was like banging your head against a brick wall. Naruto had managed to reach him before, mainly because he was persistent, and more importantly, possessed a very hard skull. If he wanted to pretend that this morning hadn't happened, I was happy to oblige.

"We killed her," said a low voice behind me, as I turned to leave. Neji hadn't moved from where he stood, his back still facing towards me.

I stopped. "You can't know that," I told him.

He threw back his head at that and laughed silently. His shoulders shook with it, before he finally stopped, gasping for breath, one hand braced against the bole of a tree.

"Did you know," he said, and I was suddenly reminded of Kabuto in his dark cell, telling me things I didn't want to hear. His voice had the same, slightly hysteric quality. "That I almost didn't recognise her when I found her? Ibiki spoke the truth. She was good at everything she did, became so good at disguising herself, that even our own side couldn't recognise her."

I felt the blood drain out of my face. He couldn't mean…

"So you see," he laughed again, but it was closer to a sob, "We did kill her after all."

There was nothing I could say to that, no comfort I knew to ease his pain that he wasn't already doing. I'd thought yesterday was bad in terms of truths revealed. This threatened to top it off. I didn't know whether to leave him alone, or to stay and make sure he was alright, but he took the decision out of my hands.

"This is not your place, Sakura," he said quietly. "Please leave me be. At least when I'm alone, I can pretend she's still here." He was right. It wasn't my place at all. For him to have even revealed this much to me spoke of his mental state.

"If you need someone to talk to," I offered before parting, knowing it was futile even while doing so, but unable to leave well enough alone, because it was a healer's duty to ease pain.

He didn't answer. But then, it was not as if I expected him to.

Naruto had stayed and talked for awhile, before leaving to meet Hinata, and Itachi had been put to bed, sleepily enthusing about all the new ramen flavours he was going to try. (Naruto, you are so dead. As if I didn't have enough to handle without having to deal with a growing ramen addiction.) For once having nothing pressing to do, I allowed myself to sprawl across the sofa after cleaning up for dinner, mind drifting.

It had been a long, exhausting day, and there were so many things to think about, I didn't know where to start. I had to decide what to do with Itachi, on a permanent basis. What could he do, with the legacy his father had left behind? His was a bloody heritage, and without the skills the academy could provide, I shuddered to think what would happen to him in the future. Sure, I could teach him what I knew, but it wouldn't be enough, wouldn't be the same as formal training.

Then there was what Kabuto had said. You can't keep the child. He might have been lying, but the damage was done. If I lived the rest of my life with Itachi, there would always be that seed of doubt about whether I'd lose him one day to an unknown threat. It was Kabuto's revenge, in a way.

And then there was Sasuke. In my quest to discover who he'd been in his missing years, I'd found unpleasant things that should have been better left undisturbed. If any of what Kabuto had implied was true…

I found that I didn't really want to think about Sasuke.

You haven't mourned him yet.

Naruto had said that before he'd taken his leave, looking worriedly into my eyes. I'd looked away with a forced laugh, unable to bear that penetrating gaze that seemed to see right through me. I don't know what you're talking about.

He took me by the shoulders. You loved him for a long time, and you probably hated him for much of that time too. But I haven't seen you shed one tear for him yet.

I save my tears for those who deserve it, I'd said coldly.

Then cry for yourself if not for him.

I leaned my head back and considered his words. Didn't he understand? I was sick of crying. Tears had come so easily to me before and they'd never solved anything. I sighed. After such a day, I was too weary to sort out all my feelings. They were too tangled to identify them singly, and going to bed suddenly seemed like a very attractive option.

A chakra signature that was entirely too familiar coalesced at my window. I sighed. I should have known I couldn't get away for long.

"Back so soon?" I said, turning my head to observe Kakashi, perched upon the windowsill like a huge grey bird of ill omen.

He looked tired, and it occurred to me to wonder why he'd come here. It didn't seem as if he'd returned home at all.

"I'm beginning to think," he said slowly, "That the Feudal Lord's wife is an imbecile."

"Cat ran away again?" I asked sympathetically.

He heaved an irritable sigh. "I wouldn't be surprised if it did. But no, something more valuable than a pet went missing this time. Heirloom jewels," he elaborated.

"Search and retrieval of lost items?" I frowned. "That's C-rank, at best. You shouldn't be doing it."

"I know." He rubbed a hand over his face. "But she has the money to insist on A-rank, and God knows we need the funds for the reconstruction efforts."


He blinked at me.

"Did you find the jewels?"

He hopped down from the windowsill. "Turned out to be a simple case of theft. There was a jackdaw nest near her house, and she'd left the jewels – set as a brooch in shiny silver– on a table near an open window. I'm sure you can guess what happened next."

I grinned. "So the great Kakashi spent the afternoon climbing trees?"

"I got pecked," he groused, and I laughed.

As he came closer, I caught a whiff of something that made me sneeze violently. "What the -" I took another, cautious sniff at him. "You're reeking of perfume!"

"Ah, the hazards of our occupation," he drawled. "Madame Shijimi has expensive taste – if not sense of smell – in perfume. And she was…very grateful for the return of her jewels." I could imagine Madame Shijimi hugging Kakashi to her ample bosom while he tried to fend her off. "It's called Exotic Paradise, I believe, though I have to say I much prefer my own Icha Icha Paradise."

I snorted. "Exotic? So is skunk musk, but you don't see anyone spraying it on themselves." Covering my nose with one hand, I pointed up the stairs with the other. "Bathroom's down the hall. Leave your clothes outside, I'll wash them for you."

"That bad, eh?" He looked amused. "I guess I've grown acclimatized to the smell. Or else my nose has rotted off."

I pointed out that I hadn't grown used to it and didn't want to. The perfume was of an alcohol base, with a hideous flowery scent that attacked the tender olfactory senses with all the gentleness of a whack to the face. My eyes were already watering.

"I didn't bring any clothes," he told me. "Do you expect me to sit around in a towel waiting for my uniform to dry?"

An entirely much too tempting image. "You can borrow some of – some of Dad's old clothes. You're about the same size." I said hastily.

Sorting through the overly fragrant pile of cloth on the floor, I was disappointed but unsurprised to see he'd retained his mask (and his underwear of course – If he even wore any, interjected Inner Sakura wickedly – I hurriedly found something else to think about). But then, this was a man who'd kept his face a secret from an entire village, as well as three intensely curious students, so it was hardly likely that he would slip now.

The sound of water pattering on tiles could be heard through the door, and I knew he could sense me standing out here, for a longer period than necessary. I wondered suddenly if he'd locked the door, and if he hadn't, if it was because he knew I'd be out here. I hadn't heard the metallic click of the bolt sliding home.

Coward, taunted Inner Sakura when I turned away. Probably, but I was not about to barge in on a bathing man unless I was sure of my welcome.

He was a quick bather. I'd barely shaken out a suitable set of clothes from the chest in my parents' room when I heard the bathroom door open.

I'd been right about the lock.

I came out into the hallway to pass him the clothes and tell him to try them on for size but the words died in my throat.

Kakashi leaned against the doorway, clad in nothing but a towel and his mask, vigorously rubbing his hair dry with a smaller towel. His forehead protector was slung over one shoulder. I'd speculated at the muscles his thin shirt had only hinted at, and now that his chest was bare before me, I saw that all my imaginings had done him no justice. To sum it up, he was…impressive.

I was staring, the clothes forgotten in my arms, until he cleared his throat. Flushing, I jerked my gaze up to find his mismatched eyes gleaming with amusement.

"I could stand here like this all night if you'd like, but it's really quite cold."

I thrust the clothes at him. "Go – dress," I croaked. "So I can talk – properly – to you." And before the rest of my brain cells stopped functioning. He chuckled low in his throat, a purely masculine sound. So much for not embarrassing myself. If he hadn't known I was attracted to him before, then me standing with my jaw touching the ground openly drooling had certainly clinched it.

The clothes weren't a bad fit. He was taller than my father, but they both had that same breadth to the shoulders. Being a merchant (neither of my parents were ninjas), he'd been away on business trips quite a lot, and he'd loved to wear brightly patterned shirts that had made my mother and I complain he was an eyesore. I'd selected one with more muted colours, printed all over with tiny leaves, but it still brought a pang to see it on another man.

"It looks good on you," I said, arranging the collar and lapels of his shirt the way my mother used to do with my father. He stared down at me. The forehead protector was back in place, and the one grey eye I could see was inscrutable. I was abruptly very aware of our nearness to each other.

We both remained silent for a long moment, and I felt a different tension in the air that hadn't been between us before. "Last night," he said finally. Paused. "Last night was a mistake." I felt my stomach turn leaden and numb.

"I see." I looked away, feeling humiliation looming like some huge, unstoppable thing.

"But I'd like to rectify it now."

What? Did I just miss some part of the conversation? I must have been gawping up at him with the most ridiculous expression on my face because he suddenly smiled. "That means I'd like to kiss you again," he confided in a whisper. "This time while in my right mind."

"Oh," I said, feeling foolish.

I waited for him to lower his head, and he seemed about to, but then his eye narrowed and a hand came up to touch my bottom lip. "Who did this?" The quiet anger in his voice was rather alarming, and gratifying. I'd almost forgotten about it; the lovely afternoon spent in bright sunlight and good company had gone far towards expunging the morning's unpleasantness. There had been little bleeding, and I'd healed the surface of the wound so that it wouldn't be visible unless on closer inspection – I hadn't wanted anyone to comment on how I'd gotten it – but the lip was still tender.

"It's nothing," I said. "Just an accident." I didn't feel like telling him how I'd come by such an injury. Somehow, I didn't think he'd approve of what I'd done.

"Does it have anything to do with how you left in a hurry this morning?"

Goddamn, but the man was sharp, and he'd find out the truth sooner or later, but I would rather not talk about it tonight. It was late, and I didn't want to dredge up the darkness in that cell and then have to face the real darkness on my own, so I only said, "Yes," and when it looked like he was going to ask me further, "But don't ask me now. I'll tell you some other time."

You could always ask him to stay, whispered Inner Sakura treacherously. You wouldn't be afraid of the dark then.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "In the morning?" he asked. I didn't know if the implications in that question were real or imagined, put into my mind by my Inner voice.

"You going to stay the night again?"

He gazed at me solemnly. "Only if you want me to."

I opened my mouth to tell him to stay, or better yet, to kiss me, but suddenly the words wouldn't come. Standing before me dressed in my father's clothes, it was as if the shade of my father was coaxed from my memory. My throat felt tight.

"Why did you really come here tonight?" I asked instead.

"What do you think?" His voice was low, husky.

I took in a deep, shuddering breath. "I think you should come back when you're dressed in your own clothes again."

His visible eye closed as his head dipped once, in acknowledgement or acceptance for what I had said.

"Goodnight then," he said, and was gone, leaving me staring out an empty window into the night.

I started to turn off the lights and lock the windows (Konoha's borders were secure, but there was still the common burglar to worry about), when there came a light tapping on my door.

It couldn't be Kakashi again, since he'd just left, and Kakashi wasn't in the habit of using doors anyway. Neither could it be an urgent summons from the Hokage; the messenger would have called out by now. Tired and irritable from my long rollercoaster day, I thought to ignore it at first, but the knocking was insistent.

"All right already, I'm coming!" I yelled with bad grace. Whoever was here at this hour better have a damn good reason.

I opened the door to find Itachi, the older, deadlier one, on my doorstep.

He took off the straw hat that kept his crimson eyes shadowed. "I heard that you're sheltering my nephew," he said.

To be continued

A/N: And yet another cliffhanger! I seem to be inordinately fond of those, or at least, that's how my mind orders the chapters.

For those who were disturbed by the interrogation scene, please keep in mind that it is Kabuto talking here, whether it's true or not is up to you to believe him. (As a side note: I really doubt that a guy wearing a large purple bow could possibly be straight. Surely I'm not the only one who suspected Orochimaru was gay?) I know this chapter came in really late, but it is very long, as you can see, and I had quite a few plot kinks to iron out. I do not know if there is such a thing as a white hibiscus, but I believe that with genetic modification, anything is possible.

I recently received an email notice about writers not being allowed to respond to their reviewers in the chapters (Thanks Snotty Chim-Chim!), and to play on the safe side and still poke one in the eye of FFN, any and all response to reviewers will be on my profile page. So there. They can't keep me from talking to you guys. To those whom I sent that email on to, sorry if it was a bother, I don't have anyone to send to who's on FFN, so I picked reviewers at random!