NEW A/N as of 9/7/2017 update:
I was gearing to post a new chapter and was rereading this story to get back into grove of it before finally admitting the truth. There was a lot of shit to clean up. So I buckled down and revised chapters as needed and trimmed the fat everywhere else. I'm certainly much happier with everything about this story now. I hope it makes for a much more enjoyable read. Thanks for stopping by. -Cha
Disclaimer: If I owned Naruto, I wouldn't be writing and posting fanfiction here, would I?
I was inspired by GrownRose's 'Demon Bonds.' As I was reading, a little plot bunny was born and the little deviant refused to leave me alone. It has grown into the bunny that swallowed Tokyo. I dedicate this to GrownRose, RayneXHatake, and MichievousPuck. Special thanks to RayneXHatake and MichievousPuck for their input, comments, encouragement and persistent nagging.
The clicking of heels echoes down the empty corridor. The steady cadence precedes a solitary figure before they round a corner into view.
Unhurriedly the individual gradually ascends to the upper levels following the gentle slope through the building. The simple, elegant design takes up far less space than the standard utilitarian staircases hidden behind non-descript doors, never failing to impress first time visitors. The thoughtful structure subtly encourages conversation during leisurely strolls past numerous picture windows and artwork.
The flowing cadence ceases when a young, brunette woman halts before a nondescript door. Balancing a tea tray and paperwork with practiced ease she enters. Crossing over to an expansive desk situated before a series of large windows offering a breathtaking, panoramic view of the village she smiles at the lone occupant of the room.
Finally looking up from the document she was intensely reading, the blonde woman leans back in her chair with a smile as aromatic cup of steaming tea is set on the desktop in front of her next to the papers the brunette brought with her.
"Thank you, Shizune," Tsunade gratefully replies while reaching for the cup and taking a sip.
"You're welcome, Tsunade-sama." Gesturing at the documents she adds, "Those are the official minutes of the last jounin meeting ready for your approval."
Contemplating the papers for a moment, Tsunade sets down her teacup and picks up the pages with one hand while grabbing a pen with the other. With an unhesitant flourish she signs off on the last page.
"Tsunade-sama! You didn't even read them before signing!" Shizune scolds in outrage.
Unperturbed, Tsunade picks up her cup for another sip.
"You were there at the meeting, right?"
"You wrote this up, right?"
"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Shizune replies with another nod.
"Then I don't need to read them. I trust you," the blonde shrugs indifferently over her cup.
"That's not the point! You're supposed to read them, then sign off on them!" Shizune rages.
"C'mon, Shizune," Tsunade rolls her eyes in annoyance while setting her cup down again. "You never make mistakes on the minutes. Besides, they're boring as hell. I remember the meeting quite well, so I know what I'm talking about."
"But Tsunade-sama…" Shizune begins but is cut off by the sudden appearance of a small yellow toad on the desk in front of them.
With a slight nod the toad presents a scroll to Tsunade.
"Greetings. I have an urgent message from Jiraiya for you, Tsunade-hime."
Not bothering to wait for a response the toad poofs out without so much as a goodbye.
Holding the scroll, Tsunade blinks in surprise at the spot the toad just vacated.
"Isn't it customary for the toads to wait for a response before leaving?" Shizune asks in confusion.
"Yeah," Tsunade agrees while breaking the seal on the scroll. "That was weird…" Trailing off her scowl becomes more pronounced as gold eyes intensely scan the parchment before snapping up to her apprentice. "Activate condition Code Orange, Level Three. Assemble all available ANBU squads in my office on the double!"
"Hai!" Shizune snaps out smartly before quickly leaving the office.
When Tsunade took office, she and Shizune overhauled the emergency response system for the village. Breaking the system down into color-coded sections they subdivided them further into additional levels. The lowest, Code Green, is used to spontaneously test emergency response and evacuation time and only has one level. The next code, Yellow, alerts to a possible, unconfirmed threat and also only has one level.
Code Orange follows. It means there is a confirmed threat either already in the village or approaching. Evacuation is not required, as the threat is in a contained area and/or no civilians are at risk. Level Three means civilians and those who are chunin and below are not made aware of the threat, only jounin and higher. Level Two puts all ranks on high alert. Level One the entire village is made aware in preparation of possible evacuation procedures.
The highest alert, Code Red, signifies the village is under attack, there is an impending attack, or an immediate threat to civilian life. Evacuation is guaranteed. Level Two notifies all shinobi to prepare to defend from their assigned position. Level One means all capable civilians act as a last line of defense with whatever is at hand.
While waiting for her people to assemble, Tsunade rereads the scroll before rolling it up and turning in her seat to gaze out the window. She doesn't wait long before the first ANBU arrives. Within twenty minutes Shizune and all available squads not on priority guard detail assemble. Rising from her seat she walks around to stand in front of her desk.
"Jiraiya sent an urgent message that Uchiha Sasuke is currently inside Konoha." She briefly pauses to give a moment for the news to sink in to the shocked assembly. "From what he has learned the Akatsuki recently regrouped and already collected almost all the Jinchuriki. Except one." Tsunade doesn't bother unnecessarily identifying who's left while feeling the tension in the room rise. "Sasuke is assigned to capture the last Jinchuriki. Keep in mind he was trained by Orochimaru and has been affiliated with the Akatsuki for the past three years. Consider him extremely dangerous and approach with caution. I do NOT want him leaving Konoha. A live capture is not a priority. Squad captains, get with your platoon leaders for sector assignments. Ermine-taichou, remain for a minute. Everyone else, dismissed."
The ANBU disappear instantly, leaving only Shizune, Tsunade and a kunoichi in a painted, porcelain ermine mask. Unlike most ANBU whose hair is still visible around the mask, Ermine uses a black hairnet to obscure her distinctive dark red coloring. The blonde eyes the ANBU for a moment before speaking.
"I briefly considered ordering you to remain as my personal guard before remembering I'd be wasting my breath," she smirks, knowing the kunoichi was grinning behind her mask. Her eyes and voice grow stern as she continues. "You will lead your squad in the search for Uchiha, but you are NOT to face off against him alone."
When Ermine shifts her stance Tsunade raises a hand to silence any protest.
"I know you too well, gaki. You're twenty and one of my best ANBU, but you're not invincible. As soon as you start fighting, he'll figure out who you really are. You are to avoid it at all costs, if not, then only with your team. Is that understood?"
Ermine hesitates before grudgingly agreeing. "Hai, Baa-chan."
"Good. Now get with your platoon leader, Hound, and get out there with your team."
Ermine nods before disappearing.
Releasing a heavy sigh, Tsunade walks over to one of the windows to look out at the bright sunny afternoon. Spring arrived early, making Konoha greener than usual for March.
"Do you think they'll manage to apprehend him this time?" Shizune asks, moving to stand next to her master.
"Kami, I hope so. Alive too," she replies, reaching up to rub her eyes. Dropping her hand she adds. "The information he could provide would be invaluable in destroying the Akatsuki. More importantly, I don't want to give him a chance to regroup for another attempt on Naruto."
"The replacement the Akatsuki would send later might be worse," Shizune points out.
"True. Which is why I'm hoping for a live capture."
"Then why not make a live capture a priority?" Shizune asks in surprise, turning to look at her mentor's profile.
"I'd rather see Uchiha dead than escaped. He's slipped through our grasp too many times. Chances are awfully good he'd do it again."
Turning her gaze back out the window, Shizune remains quiet for a moment before speaking again.
"If a live capture is successful, would you allow him to rejoin the village if he's compliant? Many still want to see the Uchiha clan resurrected."
Tsunade's head snaps around to her apprentice, causing her to recoil slightly.
"Hell no!" she growls. "Not if I can help it. Not after all the shit that little prick pulled. His clan name does not exempt him from the laws of Konoha. Anyone else would be punished severely without question."
Seeing no further protest, the busty blonde calmly returns her attention to the view.
"But the council…" Shizune begins hesitantly after several minutes.
"Are not in charge," Tsunade finishes with a growl, glaring at Shizune out of the corner of her eye.
"Hai," she replies quietly.
"Do you really think the Akatsuki would send Sasuke? I mean, they have to know he's wanted here."
Within thirty minutes of Tsunade receiving Jiraiya's scroll, the ANBU quickly mobilize and are currently conducting an intensive search of the village and surrounding areas. Ermine and the rest of Squad 17 patrol their sector, carefully scouring part of the forest and the training grounds for any signs of Sasuke.
"Probably," Ermine shrugs with a quick glance at her subordinate Hare before leaping off another branch. "He may be wanted, but he knows the village better than any of the surviving Akatsuki members we know about."
Hare shakes her head in disbelief. Her pale, long blonde hair is intricately braided to keep it out of her way, but still visible around her mask. Ermine repeatedly tried convincing her to cut it to a more realistic length, but Hare stubbornly refused despite threats of using a fire jutsu or a kunai. She eventually came up with an intricate variation of a French braid that also served to hide its true length.
"Still seems pretty stupid when we're after his head."
"The Teme's actions belie a lot of villagers' proclamations he was the most brilliant thing since the invention of chopsticks," Ermine snorts dismissively.
Hare and Squirrel laugh as they continue scanning the forest.
"How do you think Sakura's gonna react?" Hare asks after a few more minutes of silence.
Ermine glances over her shoulder to her left flank at Hare. The blonde can tell without seeing her face she was scowling.
"How the hell should I know? You were best friends with her. You should know."
"You were her teammate," Hare shoots back.
"Haven't been for years, Hare. You knew her longer."
Ermine sighs before looking over at Squirrel, who flanks her right.
"How do you think Sakura will react, Squirrel?"
The question startles Squirrel enough into nearly missing a branch. Reworking his footing he glances over at his teammates. In addition to intensely scanning for any signs of Sasuke he tuned them out as usual when they'd get into one of their little squabbles. He'd mentally work through kata routines until they finally exhausted whatever argument they were having and hated it whenever they dragged him into it because he always ended on the losing end.
"I invoke the Self-Incrimination Addendum," he replies, shaking his head and causing the black fringes of his bowl cut to flop around his mask.
Both kunoichi glare at him.
"What the fuck, Squirrel?" Ermine snaps. "You're not in court or before the council. You can't invoke the Self-Incrimination Addendum because you're not giving official testimony for anything!"
"Ah, but my dear taichou, the addendum can be invoked in any situation where one's actions or words may result in possible harm against that individual. It's especially significant when dealing with sadistic taichous and vindictive teammates," Squirrel replies knowingly.
"That's total bullshit, Squirrel," Hare scoffs.
"Not at all. Ask Ibiki-san. He is the one who explained what the Self-Incrimination Addendum applies to after the last argument you two made me the victim of."
"We did not…" Hare defensively begins before Ermine abruptly stops.
Hare and Squirrel silently land next to her on the branch. Standing with her arms akimbo, Ermine scrutinizes the area around them. Her teammates notice how tense she is and wait for her to speak.
"He's not here," Ermine finally states.
"There was always that chance…" Squirrel begins before being cut off as Ermine whirls on him.
"C'mon. I've got a really strong feeling where he is right now."
Before either can ask, Ermine shoots off in another direction. Within minutes they get their answer when they arrive at the Uchiha district.
"Squad 11 has probably already thoroughly searched this sector," Squirrel points out.
"Yeah, but how long ago?" Ermine asks, enhancing her senses with chakra. "Don't argue. I've got a really strong feeling Sasuke's around here somewhere."
"Isn't that like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack?" Hare asks, eyeing the many abandoned buildings.
Ignoring the question, Ermine moves toward the Uchiha Senbei bakery located near the entrance of the district. The Kyuubi had taught her how to heighten her senses to animalistic levels and is picking up faint traces of Sasuke's distinctive chakra.
"Gotta hand it to him, he covered his tracks very well," Ermine mutters just loud enough for them to hear. "So well it'd be invisible to a typical shinobi. I'm barely picking up his trail. Stay sharp."
Knowing how keen her senses are, her teammates nod as they silently follow her into the bakery, alert for any traps. After Sasuke left, Ermine extensively researched the Uchiha clan, especially those members closest to him, looking for anything that'd give her an edge against him. His entering the bakery owned and operated by his aunt Uruchi and uncle Teyaki makes sense.
They carefully examine the entire structure, but Sasuke's trail seems to disappear in a tiny office located off the kitchen.
"Looks like Sasuke may have been in this bakery, but it appears he entered and left the same way. It's a dead end," Hare comments from the kitchen area as she studies the walls.
"No. We're missing something." Ermine crosses her arms before coming to a decision. "Hare, go back to Tsunade-sama and ask her to converge all ANBU here. Sasuke's here somewhere and we've got to flush him out."
Hare hesitates, looking as though she's going to protest, before nodding and taking off.
"Keep looking," Ermine orders Squirrel as she pokes around the desk.
Nodding, Squirrel starts examining the area around the tall bookcase lining the wall across from the desk. He notices a very slight disturbance in the dust on the floor. Moving up from the floor along the bookcase, he carefully scrutinizes the books and scrolls stuffed haphazardly onto each shelf. After determining there are no traps, he starts tilting books toward him to see behind them. When he picks up a scroll full of recipes it triggers the bookcase to slide into the wall revealing a secret passageway. The movement is so smooth it barely disturbs the dust.
Ermine comes to stand behind Squirrel, studying the dark passageway.
"Great job," she pats his shoulder. "Stand guard," she orders, stepping toward the passage.
"Not alone," Squirrel stops her with a hand on her arm. "You said Tsunade-sama ordered to engage only with your team."
Ermine's head cocks a little and Squirrel senses she's smiling at him.
"His trail is hot now. By the time reinforcements arrive he'll be long gone. You need to stay here and let the others know about this passageway." Before he can protest, she grabs him by the shoulders to peer intensely into his black eyes. "I don't want any more of my friends injured 'cause of him. I'm the only one who can take what he dishes out."
"It could be a trap and other Akatsuki members might be at the other end waiting," Squirrel reasons insistently, placing his hands on her shoulders.
"Possibly. I'm definitely not picking up any other signatures passing through here. He came alone. But his pride can't take it if he has help taking me down."
With grudging reluctance Squirrel releases Ermine and watches as she disappears into the dusty passage.
"What the fuck did you say?" Tsunade growls threateningly at Hare as the ANBU recoils slightly.
"Um, Ermine-taichou requests a call for all ANBU to rendezvous in the Uchiha district. She's certain Uchiha Sasuke is in the immediate vicinity," Hare repeats nervously.
Tsunade narrows her eyes before turning to Shizune.
"Mobilize all ANBU to converge on the Uchiha district immediately."
Shizune immediately leaves to carry out the order. Tsunade turns her attention back to Hare.
"Squirrel remained with Ermine, correct?"
"Hai. He was helping her continue investigating the bakery for any signs of Sasuke," she replies with a nod.
Blowing out a harsh breath of frustration, Tsunade rubs a hand across her eyes.
"Alright. Get your ass back over there and try to keep your idiot taichou from going after Sasuke. Tie her up and knock her out if you have to!"
"Hai!" Hare smartly replies before disappearing.
Racing back towards the district, she's relieved to be out of the line of fire. She deliberately neglected to point out it was probably too late and Ermine is already chasing Sasuke's ass alone.
"ANBU squads have been notified, Tsunade-sama," Shizune reports when she returns to the office minutes later.
Tsunade nods just as a hard tap sounds on the windowpane behind her. Both women are stunned to see Jiraiya waving cheerfully on the ledge outside.
"I take it you got my message if all the ANBU scurrying about is any indication, hime," Jiraiya quips with a wry grin while climbing inside after Shizune lets him in.
"I did," Tsunade answers, recovering from her shock. "But what are you doing here?"
"What do you mean 'what are you doing here'?" Jiraiya asks incredulously. "Didn't the toad tell you I'd be doing a reverse summons on myself to get back here as quick as possible to help protect the gaki?"
"No," Tsunade shakes her head while rising to her feet. "It just handed me a scroll and disappeared without so much as a goodbye."
Shizune nods behind her in agreement.
Slapping both hands to his face, Jiraiya groans in frustration before dropping them to look at his former teammate.
"I hate it when it's mating season for the toads. They start doing things half-assed regardless of how important it is. Anyway, is the gaki okay? Did ANBU nail Sasuke yet?"
Ignoring his questions, Tsunade grabs his sleeve and drags him back over to the window.
"What…" Jiraiya begins in confusion.
"Shut up and come with me. I'll explain on the way."
"Tsunade-sama? Where are you going?" Shizune asks in confusion.
"We're going to the Uchiha district," she replies, climbing through the window.
"Shizune," she pauses before the open window to explain. "Uchiha is too dangerous to leave for just the ANBU to handle. We're going to aid in the apprehension. Tell Ibiki to prepare for a possible new client that needs extra special care when handling."
Without waiting for a response, Tsunade climbs through the window and leaps away with Jiraiya hot on her heels.
Ermine proceeds cautiously through the narrow passage. It's several minutes before she notices the increase of light signaling she's reaching the end and is completely shocked when she emerges from a carved opening in a hillside hidden by shrubs. Looking around, her eyes widen behind her mask when she realizes she's about fifteen kilometers northeast of the village walls.
Recovering her wits she refocuses and scans her surroundings. There are no physical signs of Sasuke, but her heightened senses show his trail bright as day, indicating it hasn't been that long since he passed through there; possibly within the last hour.
Walking over to the nearest tree, she places a palm against the trunk and channels chakra into it. The marker she and her teammates developed will help them track her since they don't have the same keen senses she does. Once finished she cautiously follows Sasuke's trail, leaving additional markers on trees along her path as she closes in on her prey.
Not far ahead of Ermine a solitary figure strolls leisurely across an expansive clearing.
Unlike the other egomaniacs in the Akatsuki, Sasuke knew before infiltrating three days ago he wouldn't attempt capturing the Kyuubi vessel. The odds of capturing Konoha's Jinchuriki increase dramatically inside the village. Her guard would be lower and chances are he'd find her alone training. He doubts the dobe's habits changed at all over the years.
Although Madara assigned him the task because of his familiarity with Konoha he was aware he needed more information in order for his task to ultimately be successful. Having been gone for seven years he's keenly aware there are probably enough changes to confuse him. This little homecoming was always intended to be a simple fact-finding visit. Only a fool rushes in blind.
It's also why he chose to come alone. He didn't need his team dragging him down and clumsily alerting anyone of his presence.
When he noticed the sudden increase in ANBU patrols while lurking around the village earlier, he knew they were somehow alert to his presence. He didn't bother questioning how when he knew he wasn't the cause. It was definitely time to leave.
Just as easily as he slipped in he slipped out of Konoha. The idiots really should've razed the Uchiha district. Leaving it standing was only asking for trouble since they obviously had no idea there are several hidden routes in and out of the village.
A tickling on the edge of his senses stops him dead in his tracks. Closing his eyes Sasuke reaches out further and smirks when he notices the powerful chakra signature closing in on him fast. They must think highly of him to send one of their strongest shinobi. Opening his eyes, he turns to face his pursuer, feeling he should remember his manners and greet whomever is kind enough to see him off. He hopes they at least make it worth his while for wasting his time.
Ermine halts within the tree line, just out of Sasuke's sight. The fact he's looking her direction proves his senses are sharp and he has become more powerful. Clearing her mind, she slowly emerges from the trees, struggling to control her emotions upon seeing her ex-teammate after so long. Their fight at the Valley of the End, and every encounter since then, flashes quickly through her mind, steeling her resolve. It may've been a couple years since they last saw each other, but she's going to end it here once and for all.
Stopping several yards from him the irony isn't lost on her. Sizing each other up the entire scene is eerily reminiscent of their confrontation on the waters of the Valley of the End when she chased him to stop him from throwing everything away. Even if she doesn't actually beat his ass, she needs to stall him long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
"Uchiha Sasuke," Ermine declares loudly, breaking the silence first. "I'm placing you under arrest in the name of Konoha!"
Sasuke smirks at the bitch's challenge. Despite the familiar chakra signature, he has no idea who she is because of the distortion caused by that ridiculous mask. Not that he cares. Finding out doesn't matter. She'll be dead soon anyway.
His answer to her challenge is the Phoenix Immortal Fire Jutsu. Small fireballs fly wildly from his mouth, covering for the shuriken he launches. Watching her dodge with a bored eye he idly wonders what she's capable of.
Tsunade arrives with Jiraiya at the gates of the Uchiha district as the rest of her ANBU arrive. Squirrel approaches and bows before his Hokage, prompting the blonde nod for him to begin.
"We found a hidden passage inside the Uchiha Senbei. Seems it's an escape route out of Konoha. Ermine-taichou ordered me to wait and lead reinforcements to the passage," Squirrel reports efficiently.
Hare stands slightly behind him, hoping the Hokage won't direct her ire at her since she clearly hasn't incapacitated Ermine to prevent the taichou from chasing Sasuke.
"Shit!" Tsunade hisses vehemently, glaring hard at Squirrel. "Is it verified Uchiha exited through that passage instead of entering?"
"Ermine-taichou stated the trail was very fresh, indicating he left, not entered."
"Are the premises clear of traps?"
Squirrel and Hare nod.
"Show me," Tsunade tersely orders.
Following the pair with Jiraiya and the remaining ANBU trailing behind, she mutters various threats and curses under her breath, promising Ermine great misery. All of the ANBU manage to fit in the kitchen as the two sannin enter the office to examine the secret passage for themselves.
"The entrance was nearly undetectable," Squirrel explains, gesturing at the open bookcase. "If not for the build up of dust on the floor there would have been no indicator there was even a door here. It was very well made."
Tsunade considers it for a moment while Jiraiya examines the open doorway closely. Stepping back into the kitchen she addresses her ANBU.
"Squads 2 and 11, secure the Uchiha district. I don't want anyone else slipping past us. If there is one secret passage there may be more." The two squads promptly disappear. She then turns to the others. "Follow me."
Finally, she gestures for Squirrel and Hare to lead the way while they fall in line behind them until they emerge outside of Konoha several minutes later.
Tsunade glares murderously around the area, realizing how vulnerable they were without knowing it. Jiraiya's scowl shows he's thinking along the same lines, wondering how many more secret passages lead into Konoha.
"I found Ermine's marker," Hare calls a few yards away.
At Tsunade's nod she and Squirrel continue to lead them through the woods, guided by Ermine's chakra marks.
A quick switch with a discarded log and Ermine effortlessly dodges another fire jutsu. Thanks to the jutsu getting thrown around logs are in great abundance and the clearing is even bigger than before.
Not long into their fight Sasuke realized Naruto's behind the mask, taking the battle to a whole new level. She's not sure what finally clued the idiot in. It could've been anything from her distinctive voice to her winning personality. She thinks he's denser than granite for not figuring it out sooner.
As their battle rages on, Ermine starts thinking there might still be a chance to redeem him. She thought she'd given up on him during the last couple of years, but is reconsidering as they exchange blows and jutsu. Her instincts scream the old Sasuke is still inside somewhere and it's up to her to find him. Dodging another fire attack that slightly singes her, she thinks it's time to poke the hornet's nest.
"Hey, teme! Careful there! You might actually land a hit if you keep randomly throwing around fire jutsu like that!"
Sasuke merely narrows his eyes in annoyance. He has to admit it. Before realizing who was hidden behind the mask, he developed a grudging respect for her ability to defend against his attacks.
"Still bouncing around like a hyperactive dobe while stupidly running off at the mouth, I see," he replies, effortlessly somersaulting out of the way from a barrage of kunai and shuriken. "Thanks for coming to me. Makes my job of capturing your ass easier," he finishes, gracefully landing several yards away.
Ermine pauses to stand with one hand on her hip and the other lightly touching her chest plate as if flattered.
"Why teme! I never took you for an ass man! Explains why Sakura was never able to snag your attention. And here I thought you were more interested in roosters considering how obsessed you were with snakes."
Catching onto the double entendre Sasuke doesn't appreciate her hints that he's gay. Growling slightly, he unleashes a barrage of Chidori Senbon.
Ermine disappears immediately out of range of the needle shaped electricity, searching for an opening. She's got to hand it to him; he certainly got creative with his elemental affinity.
While moving through the trees she considers her strategy. She needs to make him mad enough where he can't see straight, or at least distract him enough while she sets up her trap.
Reappearing in the clearing with a clone, she gathers chakra in her hand while the clone quickly gathers water vapor in hers. Simultaneously they release the Typhoon Water Vortex. Before he can react, strong winds mixing with water vapor swirl around him, blinding his view.
Unperturbed, Sasuke merely smirks before releasing a huge fireball into the roaring winds.
Ermine's stunned the wind and water combo isn't extinguishing the flames. Instead, the fire is turning the water into scalding steam, making the growing vortex even more dangerous. She quickly realizes her error; there isn't enough water to extinguish the fire and the wind is feeding it. Arching a brow, she figures she is just gonna have to fight fire with fire. Or close enough.
Flashing a few signs for Ash Pile Burning, she quickly blows out a steady stream of ash into the winds. The maelstrom is widening fast and will soon engulf her position. Preparing to dive for cover, she snaps her teeth hard, igniting it.
Hare and Squirrel easily guide the others by Ermine's chakra markers until halfway through the woods a huge explosion nearby rocks the area. The shockwaves shake the ground, knocking down weak trees and branches and drawing out muttered curses from the group as they dive for cover.
"All clear," is called by different ANBU when it's deemed the danger has passed.
Regrouping they move towards the battle they can now clearly hear. Inwardly Tsunade devises several creative punishments to make up for the stress she's subjecting her to as they arrive on scene.
The blonde Hokage soaks in the details at a glance. Ermine and Sasuke fight hard and fast, exchanging blows in the middle of a newly formed, shallow crater nearly the width of the clearing. All grass and shrubbery are completely burned away. Many trees are completely uprooted and broken or have all the branches blackened and charred down to the trunks.
Releasing an exasperated breath, Tsunade shakes her head before turning to her shinobi.
"Get in there and apprehend the Uchiha!"
Hound stepping forward with a raise hand attracts everyone's attention and halts all movement.
"Tsunade-sama, let them finish." At both Tsunade and Jiraiya's questioning gaze he continues. "Sasuke won't run. He has to prove himself against Ermine once and for all. His accomplishments mean nothing if he can't defeat her, regardless if her capture is his mission. Besides," he shrugs, "he can't escape with the number of ANBU and two Sannin present."
Studying the ANBU with wild silver hair poking up from behind his mask, Tsunade considers his words before giving in.
"Alright. Let them finish this. Spread out around the battleground. I don't want Uchiha escaping this time."
"Hai," her ANBU cry before scattering.
"Hm, seems like we have an audience," Sasuke mutters as he uppercuts with his right toward her throat.
"There goes your chance of escape," Ermine quips, blocking the blow before ducking under his arm.
Coming up behind him, she attempts to hit him on both sides of his neck with the sides of her closed fists at the same time.
Spinning around, he brings up his arms together in front of him before throwing them out wide to deflect the blows. He immediately follows with a forward kick.
"I don't plan on leaving until we finish this, dobe. I can deal with them easily enough later."
"Really?" she drolly asks.
Throwing her arm into a downward block she grabs his leg. Twisting around, she drags him into a throw causing him to roll on the ground away from her.
"I thought running was what you did best. You always run when you think you're too weak to win instead of seeing things through."
Having immediately regained his feet, Sasuke growls at the jab before charging again.
"Oh? Did I strike a nerve?" Ermine mocks as she blocks and counters every blow. "Guess I should be sorry, but can't help if the truth hurts. Didn't think you'd still be so sensitive, especially when you ran away into the great, wide world for strength and power."
Gaining the upper hand, she grabs his arm and twists around again, tossing him over her shoulder out of the crater, landing him on his back. As he clambers to his feet to face her, she continues.
"If that's still sticking in your craw something fierce, then maybe you didn't accomplish everything you wanted. Hmmm…" She pauses in mock contemplation before counting off on her gloved fingers. "Let's see. Your goals were to kill Itachi and restart your clan. Well, you killed your last living relative, but haven't restarted your clan. Oh, yeah!" She slaps her masked forehead like a thought just occurred to her. "You want to destroy your home village! Well, clearly you're not strong enough for that if you were running again until I caught up. First smart thing you've done in years, teme."
Sasuke seethes and glares before charging again with a primal yell.
Ermine continues dodging and blocking his strikes with deliberate ease to piss him off more.
"Oh, c'mon! I'm only repeating what I know you've spent hours obsessing over. It's not my fault you went chasing pipe dreams and empty promises."
"Words are all you have when you don't have the skill to back them up, eh dobe?" Sasuke mocks as he unleashes a fierce barrage of punches. "Or did you forget you lost at the Valley of the End?"
"Guess you could see it that way, teme," Ermine answers with her own flurry of punches. "But you're conveniently forgetting I held back and didn't go for the kill. That's gotta keep you up nights wondering did you really win or would you've survived if I hadn't just scratched you."
Sasuke over extends with a punch, giving her a chance to nail him in the back with a roundhouse kick that sends him sprawling.
"And rumor has it you didn't really kill Itachi either," she points out. "That he died reaching his limit. That's two battles casting doubt on your victories, teme. Shall we go for three?"
Roaring in rage, Sasuke fires up a Chidori and charges. He smirks in triumph when he pierces her heart, then growls in annoyance when she poofs out of existence. A hand grabs his shoulder, spinning him into a chakra infused punch that snaps his head painfully back. Grabbing his hair, Ermine drops back, thrusting both feet hard into his stomach and knocking the wind out of him. Rolling backwards onto the ground she channels chakra into her feet and jointly kicks both legs upward, sending him soaring to the other end of the clearing. Deftly rocking back then forward to gain her feet she leisurely walks toward him as he groans and staggers back to his feet.
"You know," she begins conversationally, "the fact you're having doubts shows you might finally be wising up that you were wrong. Owning your mistakes is the first step toward fixing things and making them right."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Sasuke rages as he forms the Chidori Spear and thrusts the pole shaped electricity at her.
Rolling out of range, Ermine swiftly regains her footing and counters with the Petal Dust Dance. Smirking behind her mask, she stands by and watches him leap, flip and roll all over the clearing, attempting to keep ahead of the swirling cyclone of petals attacking him. Idly she muses she should probably credit the late, not so great Fuka for showing her the technique in the first place, but figures screw it. Why credit the tramp since she kept trying to suck out all her chakra in the first place?
Letting the cyclone break up, she strolls over to a panting Sasuke now on the far side of the field.
"What I'm trying to tell you, teme, is that it isn't too late to repent your sins and start over. You're just being a typical guy and not bothering to listen when a woman is talking to you."
Still breathing hard, Sasuke straightens up to glare at her.
"You love to hear yourself talk, don't you? This is the same crap you spouted at the Valley of the End! Haven't you gained enough brains to hate me yet? Why are you still trying to bring me back? I don't intend to return to a village of betrayers responsible for destroying my clan!"
"Wow, teme, most I've heard from you in ages. Was starting to think you weren't capable of sentences beyond five words," Ermine quips before continuing. "And you're still buying that shit Madara's spewing?" she asks incredulously. "I told you the last time we ran into each other, Madara is manipulating you for his own goals."
"His goals run parallel to mine. I will destroy Konoha," he replies in a deceptively calm voice.
Ermine studies him for a moment before speaking.
"Do you trust Madara?"
Taken aback momentarily, Sasuke arches a brow.
"Then why listen to him?" She asks quietly. "You're much smarter than that. You never took anything at face value. Hell, you still don't or you wouldn't have survived a predator like Orochimaru. The Sasuke I knew and respected was cunning enough that if he didn't figure out the truth then he'd find it." She catches the slight flicker of shock on his face before it disappears. "Honestly? I doubt that's changed or you would've considered your obligations complete once you killed Itachi."
Sasuke arches a brow before replying.
"Have you been working in Torture and Interrogation? Because you still need a lot of work on your mind games."
"Looks like you finally found your funny bone, teme!" Ermine laughs before sobering again. "Nah, just calling it as I see it. You distanced yourself from those who cared about you because you were afraid we'd change your mind. It's easier to keep doing what you know is wrong if there's no one around to scold you for it," she shrugs. "Well, if you truly believe the village is guilty of destroying your clan, I'll make you a deal. I swear to help you uncover the truth if you return home and give up being an avenger."
Sasuke stares at her for a few moments, his face inscrutable before suddenly blasting a fireball at her. Unable to dodge in time, Ermine throws up her arms to shield her head as the flames engulf her. His smirk turns into an annoyed scowl when she poofs out of existence.
Reflexively he spins around, drawing his Kusanagi to block Ermine's katana strike. She barely flits away to safety when he channels lightning into his blade, cutting through the middle of hers. Tossing the hilt, she rolls away, arming herself with a pair of trench knives in one fluid motion.
Standing a few yards away, his sword ready and still blazing chakra, Sasuke arches a brow at the familiar looking blades.
Cocking her head slightly, Ermine holds one higher in her ready stance while channeling chakra through both blades.
"They're Asuma-sensei's trench knives on loan from Shikamaru," she answers his silent question.
"Fitting considering you'll be next to die while using them."
He charges again, brutally striking downwards, but is surprised when she puts her raised forearms together with the points of the knives downward to successfully block his sword.
"I'm obligated to avenge Itachi for his forced sacrifice for the village and sparing my life," he grinds out, taking advantage of their close proximity and immobility as he presses down on her blades. "Itachi wanted me to grow stronger to kill him, making him pay restitution for his sins against the clan on behalf of the village."
Ermine shifts slightly, locking their blades more tightly.
"Then Itachi really killed the clan to protect and preserve the village. Think about it, teme. Why would he care if the Uchihas initiated a civil war? If he hadn't wished to get caught in the middle, he could've taken off with you and let things play out without feeling guilty enough to have you make him atone for his sins. You say he sacrificed everything for Konoha, then would Itachi really want you to destroy it? That's obviously what he didn't want. And if Itachi was a hero, then why let himself be painted the villain?" Ermine searches onyx eyes, seeing the confusion and turmoil swirling through his mind. "There are too many questions and not enough answers. We need to find the truth."
Sasuke looks like he's caving before snarling and shoving her off of him with his foot.
Shaking her head, Ermine watches as he attacks again. It's time to end this. Using a Kawarimi to switch with another log to put some distance between them, she slices her thumb with one of the knives and slams her hands down on the ground as Sasuke charges. He barely maintains his footing as the ground suddenly becomes pink and sticky.
"This is the Toad Mouth Bind," she explains cheerfully from her crouched position yards away from him. "We're trapped in the stomach of the great fire-breathing toad of Mount Myoboku. You were unconscious when Ero-sennin first used this around us, so you won't remember it. I've gotta point out there's no escape." Ermine explains cheerfully from her crouched position a couple of yards in front of Sasuke.
Glaring hard, Sasuke cuts his feet free, somersaulting forward to slice downward into a startled Ermine. He swears up a storm when she poofs out again.
The real Ermine and several of her clones wait patiently outside the stomach. She remembers Sasuke got the full story of how Itachi broke out from the stomach the first time after Baa-chan healed him. Knowing he can do a lot of the same things Itachi could she figures he'll probably use the Amaterasu to break out. Her theory is proven correct when black flames blow open a hole in the sidewall, prompting the clones to immediately surround him as he emerges.
"Some things never change, dobe. Figures you'd resort to old, tired tricks," he laughs mockingly, wiping the blood from his eyes.
"Even old dogs learn new tricks, teme. If ya want to learn that lesson the hard way, then go ahead and move. Otherwise freeze where you are and surrender," Ermine calls back pleasantly.
Sasuke smirks back, not taking the threat seriously. In a blur he shoots forward to engage the nearest clones certain that since Naruto has been battling him for over an hour now she's likely fatigued, which will also affect her clones.
Unfortunately for him, the moment he makes contact with a clone, they explode. It's all he can do to awkwardly maneuver to keep from getting killed. Through a pain filled daze he realizes moments later he's flat on his back. A shadow falling across him captures his attention and he blinks several times to focus on Ermine looming over him.
"Iruka taught me his Capture Perimeter Barrier Jutsu. Nifty little trick. The target enters an area filled with explosive tags and when the signs are activated the target is contained. They try taking off and boom! Buh-bye and nice knowin' ya!" she explains gleefully. "I just added my own twist, combining it with my clones. So, you might wanna seriously consider surrendering, teme, or I WILL shove a Rasengan up your ass and it won't be like you remembered."
Tsunade, Jiraiya and half of the ANBU close in to surround the pair. Ignoring them, Sasuke frowns in confusion as he stares through the eyeholes at those familiar blue eyes.
"Why do you try so hard?" he rasps. "Why not kill me? Anyone else in your shoes would."
"Do you want to die, Sasuke?" Ermine asks instead without missing a beat.
He doesn't answer and looks away. Rolling her eyes she sighs before continuing.
"Dying is easy, but won't change a damn thing. But alive you've still got a chance."
Sasuke's black eyes snap back to her.
"A chance? For what?"
"To make a difference," she quietly replies. "Doesn't matter if it's in your life or someone else's. Or even just to right a wrong. You can't do that dead. 'Sides," Ermine's gaze intensifies, "you of all people know what it's like for those left behind. You know how much it hurts. Whether you admit it or not, there are some, besides me, that still give a shit about your ass. That's why I keep trying so hard."
A tense silence falls over the clearing as the two Sannin and ANBU wait for his response. For a moment a brief flicker of defiance flares across Sasuke's face, but it disappears quickly as he closes his eyes.
"Squad 13, Hare and Squirrel. Take Uchiha Sasuke into custody. Security ward at the hospital. Notify Ibiki," Tsunade promptly orders.
"Hai," the ANBU answer.
Moving forward quickly they secure Sasuke with chakra restraints. One pulls out a black cloth and secures it around his eyes. Once ready they leave immediately.
"Downgrade condition alert to Code Yellow. Squads 1 and 5 patrol the area and check for any traveling companions. The rest step up patrols in the village until we have confirmed the threat has passed. Ermine, Hound, remain here. Dismissed."
The rest of the ANBU disappear immediately, leaving only four people in the clearing.
Tsunade eyes Ermine and Hound for a moment before speaking.
"Get in regular uniform and report to my office in the next thirty minutes." Her eyes narrow dangerously at the silver haired ANBU. "On the dot, Hound."
Hound sighs and nods answering, "Hai."
"Hai," Ermine acknowledges before both disappear.
Turning to look out at the catastrophic damage done to the clearing, Tsunade sighs wearily.
"This area certainly isn't going to be the same. That crater is probably going to turn into a shallow lake when it rains again."
"Neither will the village," Jiraiya mutters dryly. Glancing over at Tsunade, he answers her questioning gaze. "If anything Sasuke said is true about Itachi, the battle has only just begun and may trigger a holocaust."
With another heavy sigh Tsunade nods, leaving with him to return back to her office.
Ermine-A short tailed weasel naturally found in artic and sub-artic regions.
Senbei-A type of rice cracker.
Self-Incrimination Addendum-equivalent to citing the fifth amendment.
Fifteen kilometers is about nine and a quarter miles.