"I got us the rides," Fū announced over the wind, gently patting the carapace of the lavender dragonfly on which she sat. She shifted her weight in the six-person saddle that had been lashed around its thorax and looked at Itachi in expectation, who was sitting beside her. "You promised to get us inside Suna."
The team had donned heavy scarves and goggles to shield them from the elements, and Itachi pulled down the cloth that had been protecting his face from the wind. He raised his voice to be heard over the buzz of insect wings. "Have your summons take us down and I'll explain it to you."
Fū rapped her knuckles four times on the dragonfly's body, to signal she wanted the creature to descend. Several of the insect's fellows had also agreed to convey the relief force and their medical supplies to the Sunagakure resistance, and the shadows of the gargantuan creatures were skimming over the desert below. All four alit in the shadow of the wide plateau which cradled the hidden village, far out from the barriers and sentries protecting it. The night would conceal their landing.
Shizune and Sakura worked themselves free from the next row of seats. The younger woman was about to drop down to stretch her legs when she realized the last passenger was having some difficulty loosening the buckles.
"Here, I can do it," she said, reaching for the strap.
Silently, Sai moved his left hand away and allowed her to assist him, displaying neither self-consciousness nor gratitude. His balance was just a little off when his feet struck the sand–he had almost reached out to support the crouch with a right hand that was no longer there. He corrected the miscalculation and stood as Sakura joined him on the ground.
After Jiraiya had disabled the Root seal on his tongue, he had answered all the questions his interrogators had asked him completely yet tersely… as well as those Sakura herself had posed, trying to get to know him as they recovered together in the Amegakure hospital. The normal ebb and flow of conversation didn't come easily to him. Instead, he'd spent most of his time confined to bed filling sheets and sheets of copy paper with unsteady scribbles that were nothing like the fluid, expressive drawings she'd caught glances of in his cherished sketchbook.
"Sai-san, I know this was a hard choice for you to make," she said, her eyes flickering to the scratch through his hitai-ate, "one that took a lot of compassion and a lot of courage, and I wanted to thank you again for agreeing to come with us on this mission. I know how you must feel about Naruto, after what he had to do when your Root platoon attacked us outside of Tonoshō Gai."
His previously blank face contracted with loss; mentions of his brother's death sparked the only emotional reactions she had ever seen from him. "It was like Shin-niisan said–it is better this way. At least when he died, he was still my brother… not my enemy."
"Naruto still feels terrible about what happened. He'll find a way to help you fight again… that's the kind of person he is," Sakura said.
Sai tilted his head in puzzlement. "Can I ask why? I have already given Amegakure's intelligence officers all the information I possess. Once this mission is complete my life will have very little value to you."
"Your life still 'has value' because it's your life. We do things a lot differently than they did in Root. Get used to it. You're one of us now."
"Sakura, Sai-kun, with me, please," Itachi called, as he finished pulling off the protective gear. "We'll be going over mission responsibilities one last time."
Shizune and Fū were already standing beside him, waiting to begin the briefing. Sakura let the thread of the conversation slip loose and walked over to meet her teacher. Sai looked thoughtfully down at his toes and jogged over to join them.
"Taicho, I've prepared the gas grenades for–" Shizune began, addressing Itachi.
"Wait, I'm his sempai," Fu interrupted, blind to the look of annoyance Sakura gave her. "Why does he get to be captain?"
Itachi simply stared at the young woman for several seconds. "That you have asked that question provides your answer. We do not have time for this. If you absolutely must pursue this with me, do so after Naruto and Gaara have been rescued. I will not endanger their safety or that of my teammates–which includes you–over petty arguments about seniority."
A shiver ran down her back as she met his eyes, and she had to drop her own. "Man, you're even better at creepy glaring no jutsu than Pain-sama," she whispered, and then scrubbed her face with her hands and continued in a louder voice. "Never mind… it's kind of habit. This is my first official mission after Yagura-sempai got me out of Taki. I'm still not used to having a captain who'd treat me like an actual human with actual feelings and not a person-shaped jar full of demon. You're in charge–a hundred percent in charge."
Itachi accepting her apology with a curt nod. "We will need to rely on subterfuge rather than strength, as I explained in Ame. Our goal is not to retake Sunagakure, but if we can give their field commanders the impression that we are attempting to do so, they will be forced to withdraw or risk losing their capital."
He looked to Fū. "Yagura has briefed me on your abilities and the progress you have been making communicating with the Nanabi. You will be putting those skills to the test by staging an attack on the village in order to distract their shinobi from the actual aim of this mission–sabotaging their communications.
"The success of this operation hinges largely upon Sai-kun and the high level of security clearance he was granted by Shimura Danzō. According to the intelligence he has provided to Akatsuki, many of the chakra-enhanced locks and barriers in Konoha, and presumably its occupied territories, contain overrides keyed to high-ranking Root members. These keys are changed every three months, but we should still be within the cycle Sai was given when he was sent on the assassination mission. As far as Danzō knows, he did not survive, and in any case a betrayal from a former Root member would be inconceivable to him.
"I will place a genjutsu on the com team to ensure one last message calling for help is broadcast to the main force of the army in the northwest, and then destroy the equipment so the truth cannot be immediately verified. Sakura will be taking care of the messenger birds."
Shizune held out a cloth bag cinched closed with a strip of leather, and Sakura tucked it into one of her supply pouches. "These are the gas grenades I prepared specifically to disable small- to medium-sized hawks. There's no antidote but time. It will leave them too weak and disoriented to fly for days, but it shouldn't kill them."
"Shizune-san, please lead the medical teams to the fortress as soon as we four set out for our portion of this mission," Itachi said. "If the army has not withdrawn by the time you arrive, we've failed. Your orders will then be to extract Naruto and Gaara and get them to safety by air, if at all possible." He exhaled and continued softly, "I also have one personal request. If you can find Kakashi and get him out of there without jeopardizing the safety of the jinchūriki…"
She bobbed her head in acknowledgement. "I'd planned to keep an eye out for him. You didn't even have to ask."
"Thank you," Itachi said. "Any questions?"
The other four shook their heads, and Shizune jogged back to where the Ame medic-nin were milling around the insects. She urged them back into the saddles and Fū raised her hand to the dragonflies as they took to the air again.
They scaled the plateau under Itachi's genjutsu and reached the windswept horizontal plane. Suna's detection barrier was spread over the hollow. Itachi led them to the very edge and stopped, gesturing to Sai. The boy pulled a scroll and inkwell out of his hip pouch and began painting a seal onto the paper with enormous care. The ink was so saturated with blood they could smell it.
Fū swallowed as she looked out over the village. She shucked the cloth-wrapped summoning scroll tied to her back, as well as the Akatsuki coat, leaving her in a gray halter top that matched her loose pants. She summoned another dragonfly, this one only about the size of a hunting dog, to safeguard her scroll and uniform during the assault.
Once it had departed with her things, she raised her arms into a 'T' and took a deep breath. "Come on, like you promised," she muttered to herself. "It's your brothers we're rescuing, too. All the good luck charms in the world aren't going to save my skin if I charge in there naked."
Although its answer went unheard to all but Fū herself, Chomei acknowledged her request and plates of gray chitin began exuding from her skin. When the transformation was complete, she was protected by a flexible, organic suit of armor that covered her from head to toe. A rhinoceros beetle's horn jutted from the helmet piece, above the clear membrane that shielded her eyes. Finally, two pairs of lemon-yellow wings emerged from her back. She fluttered them experimentally. As they buzzed, her feet were lifted a few centimeters from the ground.
She launched herself up and then did a somersault in the air, laughing for the pure joy of it. "You really did miss this, didn't you, bug? Keep playing nice and we can do this more often."
"You can fly?" Sakura asked.
"Hell yes I can fly," she answered, her voice muffled by the helmet her bijū had created for her. "It's hot as blazes in here, but nobody's going to bash my head in. Without a lot of Chomei's power behind the punch, not even I can break through the stuff this armor is made of."
Sai finished creating the key and returned his brush to its case. He split his thumb with his teeth and pressed a fingerprint in pure blood next to the seal. He lifted the scroll and pressed the loose end between his lips to hold it before the barrier. The characters oozed from the paper and struck the iridescent veil that was shimmering before Itachi's sharingan. The strokes joined and reformed into a very thin ring near the cliff's edge. The chakra within the circle disappeared, leaving a gap for them to pass through. Itachi could detect no other disturbance in the chakra distribution, no warning pulse to inform the Sunagakure barrier team their village had been infiltrated–Sai's key had worked.
"Go around to the warehouse district and enter the barrier from there," Itachi instructed Fū. "I'm removing you from the invisibility genjutsu as soon as you reach it. Make an entrance that will get their attention."
Fū clapped her hands together, and from the palm of her left hand emerged the stout shaft of a club. It was composed of the same material as the armor, as long as she was tall and studded with spikes. "Not gonna be a problem."
She saluted and took off, skimming the outskirts of the village. She executed a loop and dove into the sheet of chakra. A plume of dust and the sound of collapsing masonry surged up from where she'd breached the barrier.
They passed through the ring of ink and made their way quickly to the communications building. A tall antenna had been installed on the roof, to capitalize on the instantaneous communication abilities of Konoha's Yamanaka Clan, in addition to the birds on which Suna had had to rely in the past. The attention of Suna's defenders had been pulled toward the spectacular explosion Fū had created, and under Itachi's genjutsu they slipped inside the building without challenge.
Itachi found them a deserted nook and urged Sakura and Sai to duck around the anxious night-shift workers. "Sai-kun, your part in this mission is done. Stay close to me until we're out of immediate danger. The batteries and communications device will probably be on the second floor–that's where the wires to the antenna mounted on the roof were leading," he said. "Sakura, find the aviary, disable the birds, and rendezvous with Fū and her summons on the roof as soon as you finish."
"Yes Sensei," Sakura murmured.
They split at the stairwell, and Sakura continued up under her own genjutsu. Already undermanned from the disaster during the Chūnin Exams, as Itachi had predicted only a skeleton crew of shinobi remained to guard the structure. She kept her ears pricked for the keening of hawks and soon found her goal. From the hall, she could hear the squawking and shuffling of their wings through the door, as well as the agitated voices of their minders. There were three shinobi on the other side. The door was locked, and, if they had similar security measures to Konoha's, probably alarmed. She pressed her back against the wall, thinking furiously. To get in without alerting building security, she'd need the door to be opened from the inside.
One of the men in the room coughed a few times, his voice rough with age and cigarettes, and with that sound Sakura realized how she was going to make that happen. She sunk her claws into his mind and shortened his breath even further, and made the air around him feel as if it grown even hotter and more stifling.
"Sir? Sir, are you all right?" the kunoichi inside said, loudly and abruptly.
He pushed aside her concern with a few muffled words. Sakura laid the sensation of weight onto the center of his chest and held it there. There was a crash as the man stumbled against a piece of furniture.
The woman swore. "I don't care what's going on outside, I'm getting you to the hospital! It sure looks to me like you're having a heart attack. Yasuo, run down to the cryptography lab and see who you can grab as relief for the two of us."
Sakura ducked around the corner as the door opened, and the two younger shinobi helped their apparently deathly ill superior to the stairs. She spun about and shot her chakra wire at the door handle, catching it just before it closed. Once inside, she pulled out a handful of the marble-sized gas grenades Shizune had given to her and a respirator. She pressed it against her mouth and nose and cinched the straps. This sedative wasn't particularly dangerous to humans, but a whiff would disrupt her ability to function at full capacity, and on a mission this dangerous that wasn't something she could afford. The globes popped with quiet hisses and one by one the hawks began tumbling drunkenly from their perches.
She sidled cautiously down the hallways, avoiding the chakra signatures she could sense around her as she made her way back to the stairs and followed them all the way up. She crouched in the shadow of an air vent to wait, hoping operations had gone as smoothly for everyone else.
"Sakura here; I'm on the roof," she said into the microphone. "The birds are drugged. Didn't have to engage anyone inside, either."
"Excellent work," Itachi said. "I just found where they're keeping the backup chakra amplifier and batteries." The hisses of flame and melting plastic became audible over the radio. "One more minute and we need to be in the air."
They waited for confirmation from Fū, but it didn't come. Sakura let her hand fall from the microphone as she noticed the gray and yellow smudge amidst the rising dust flying erratically toward the communications tower. She risked peeking her head above the rail to get a better look in the light of the streetlamps. Fū's armor didn't seem to be split or bloodied, but she was so disoriented she struck the side of a building and slid to the balcony below. She tried to get to her feet and fell again before she could take two full steps.
Sakura was about to rise to aid her, but dozens of shinobi converged on the platform, more than she would ever be able to fend off. "Sensei, Fū's in trouble," she whispered over the channel. "Serious trouble."
She ducked back into her hiding place as she heard footsteps on the stairs, but relaxed when Itachi and Sai appeared at the door opening onto the roof. Sai folded down to his knees beside her, watching as even more of Suna's defenders converge on their fallen teammate.
"Stay here and stay hidden," Itachi told them. "I'm going to get her out of there."
Itachi leaped to the neighboring building and made for the balcony on which Fū had fallen. She had struggled to her feet again, using the wall to support her back. Weakened though she was, the shinobi that had converged on her still hadn't closed in to restrain her, wary of her inhuman, bone-cracking strength.
The odds were rapidly approaching a hundred to one… and a about a quarter of the men and women were clad in blue and green. Itachi's teeth clenched. He'd done his best to keep casualties to an absolute minimum, but the situation had progressed past that kind of delicacy. The three tomoe in his eyes split into six and stretched thin, reversing to red on a black field. The ornate carving on the balcony railing began to smoke. Dark flame licked up the stylized stone flowers and vines until Fū was shielded behind a screen of Amaterasu's fire. Itachi slid down the spherical dome atop the building she'd fallen upon, until he found a window large enough to crawl through. It wasn't locked–a stroke of luck–and he worked a kunai under the frame to pry it open enough to admit his fingers.
There were already multiple shinobi inside the house, trying to take her from behind. Itachi silently dispatched them with the kunai in his hand and a touch of genjutsu to silence their cries of pain. He made his way through the rooms to the heat billowing through the open archway that led to the balcony. Someone on the other side attempted to blast apart the wall of flame with a suiton jutsu. It vaporized instantaneously without passing through the barrier, badly scalding anyone too close on the opposite side.
The gray armor plates had peeled back and her wings had retracted into her shoulder blades, leaving Fū in only the gray Akatsuki uniform. The cloth was pasted to her chest with sweat and the sensitive tissue of her eyes, nose, and lips were blistered and red. She pushed herself up and coughed as Itachi approached, trying to gulp down air.
He created a kage bunshin to clear out any opposition on their way out. "I've seen this poison before," he said, as he looped his arms under hers and pulled her up. "I didn't think they'd dare to release an inhalant so corrosive in the middle of their own village. Your bijū should be able to mitigate the chemical burns until we can get you to Shizune. You need to hold on until then."
There were still traces of the poison embedded in the fibers of her clothes; he could feel the skin of his hands begin to itch and throb as he helped her back to where Sakura and Sai where hiding. His clone and the cover of illusion he had pulled over them would buy them only a few minutes.
Struggling to breathe and unable to speak, Fū managed to split her thumb on her teeth and kneel on the surface of the roof to initiate the summoning. The ring of fuinjutsu spread out from her bloodied hand, and above them the same lavender dragonfly they'd rode in on appeared over their heads. It darted to the side of the roof so they could more easily mount–they had just seconds before the creature became a target.
Itachi helped Fū stagger to the saddle. Sai jumped on to the creature's back and found his seat, twisting a strap around in his good hand so he couldn't be thrown off in their haste to flee. Sakura clambered onto the stone rail and readied herself to follow. But as she made the leap, the dragonfly dove abruptly to the right to avoid a stream of fire from a Suna jōnin on one of the rooftops. Itachi reached for her hand, but could not grasp it without relinquishing his own precarious balance.
She grasped at one of the stray lengths of leather that had been used to cinch the saddle tight around the insect's body. Her hands were too slick with sweat for her to hold on for more than a moment, but it gave her time to work her chakra wire into a metal ring riveted to the side of the contraption. She cried out as the metal bracer dug hard into her wrist as she lost her grip with her other hand, but the wire held fast. The buildings of Suna dropped away beneath her as the insect strained to give them more altitude. Bracing himself against the saddle ridges, Itachi leaned out and caught her free hand to haul her up.
No one spoke as the dragonfly strained its wings to propel them west. That spurt of fear at seeing Sakura fall had shaken Itachi. His heart hadn't fully healed from the losses his life had dealt him… and if the wounds were stressed again too soon, it might never.
Naruto inhaled a lungful of the damp, musty air and sighed. Some part of him had been frightened enough to propel his mind down to the depths of the demon's prison, but he wasn't going to surrender to it. He picked himself up from the ankle-deep water and braced himself to face Kurama.
"I'm not taking it," Naruto said, without even looking up. "You're wasting your time."
"You can't be giving up yet," Kurama said.
Naruto raised his face. "I'm not giving up," he said with a shrug. "I've got my plan, and it's this: I don't let you out before Itachi gets here. Kakashi-sensei might not…" he held his breath against the heat of tears, "but at least Gaara and Hinata will probably get out alive, this way."
"But you must–"
"No!" Naruto screamed. "Every word you've ever spoken to me has been a lie. I'm not falling for it this time! If I let you out now, there's no guarantee I can stuff you back in before you massacre everyone... or stuff you back in at all."
The fur on Kurama's back began to lift. "I can give you the strength to withstand Sakumo. You would be safe, you fool!"
"I'm the fool? You're just pissed I wised up enough to stop falling for this trick," Naruto said softly. "I can't trust you, so it has to end here. I'll be able to see my parents again… all four of them. And the Old Man. And Iruka-sensei. It won't be so bad."
Kurama swept his tails across the bars as he paced about in an agitated circle. "You humans have the mercy of death to free you from suffering. We bijū do not. When your soul rises to its rest, mine will be torn into a hundred thousand pieces. The agony will not end until I can gather myself again. It could be years. Decades!" He whirled to face Naruto once more. "You don't understand! I cannot endure that again!"
"That's not my fault," Naruto countered. "You were the one that decided you hated me from the get-go. You were the one that's kept trying to kill my family and my friends. You were the one who threw it back in my face when I tried to look past all that to give you a little sympathy, when I realized you were in pain." He crossed his arms resolutely over his chest. "I gave you more chances than you deserved, and you blew every single one."
Kurama's claws contracted and gouged into the stone. "Naruto, I'm…" His black lips quivered with distaste, and the next word that worked its way loose could scarcely be heard. "…sorry." He raised his right foreleg and pinched his fingers together. A pinprick of light formed between the claw points and drifted down, between the bars.
Naruto hastily splashed backward through the water, wary of yet another trick. The globe was no larger than a marble and came to rest before him, bobbing gently. It had a dark core surrounded by golden fire, gently warm but also possessing a palpable gravity.
"What is this?" Naruto asked, reaching up to stroke it with one finger.
"My chakra and only my chakra. Pure power, free of any taint, to use however you wish."
Naruto let his hand drop to his side. "No. I won't take it."
Kurama's ears folded back against his skull. "I have lied to you, yes, but not this time. I swear on the Rikudō Sennin's five treasures. I have spent so long looking for duplicity among mortals I never thought I would find another besides the sage who would offer me kindness for kindnesses' sake. Please help me."
Naruto drew the small orb closer to his chest. It buzzed against his fingers, but the power was neutral, without the sickening anger Naruto had felt from Kurama's 'gifts' in the past. "You'd better not make me regret this," he warned the demon. "This is your last chance. Your last chance."
He bowed back into the shadows. "You won't. Swallow it, and you'll see."
He swept it hesitantly onto his tongue and closed his teeth around the light. He fell back into the desert and into his body as he swallowed, still trapped in the packed earth Sakumo had used to get him out of the way. The seed of chakra seemed to bloom inside of him, without pain, without anger, filling and filling and filling him with its power.
The light glowing from his limbs broke the crust easily; one jerk and it crumbled like wet sand. He saw Sakumo turn and swipe at him with the chakra sabre, which he ducked with barely any effort. The speed with which he could now move was beyond exhilarating. He dodged another blow and swung his foot around in a kick that sent the man bouncing into a boulder several meters away.
He smashed the earthen matrix still entrapping Kakashi, Temari and Maki. Astonished, Kakashi pressed his fingertips to the tear in his coat. The blade had split a few of the mail rings but left only a shallow cut on his sternum. He got up and stared at Naruto in naked awe for a few moments before refocusing his attention on his father. The color was not returning to his body as it reformed after the blow.
He made no moves to attack them again, and he simply stood silent with his eyes fixed on his son. The chakra sabre fell from his hand. "I never thought I would have the chance to hear you say that, Kakashi," Sakumo murmured. "The night I took my life, the knowledge I would be leaving you to face the world alone was my greatest regret. I thought you would hate me for my choice until the day you died... I never expected you to forgive me for it."
With a gust of desert wind, Sakumo's body collapsed into a drifting pile of white leaves and ash, with a corpse clad in a prisoner's jumpsuit swimming in the material left behind. With the threat gone, Naruto felt the power melt out of him, and they were left in darkness once more.
"W-what just happened?" Maki asked, as she picked herself up and brushed the dust from her sleeves. She worked her foot under the torso of the man lying on the ground and flipped him on his back. He was a stranger to them all and clearly very dead.
"I wish I knew," Kakashi replied, in a rough voice. "My father was no sealing master. He couldn't have broken the compulsion himself. I think there are a few more secrets to Edo Tensei we haven't learned yet."
Kakashi pulled the scabbard off the body, inserted his chakra sabre into it, and strapped it across his chest. He adjusted his shoulders so its weight settled properly on his back. He looked back at Temari.
She was on her knees beside Baki, and had just pulled the dog tags out from beneath his vest and snapped off the lower portion as a memento in case his body couldn't be recovered.
"There will be time to mourn him later. This still isn't over."
She turned away from her teacher's corpse and stood, her face wracked with pain but her eyes dry. "I know." She went to retrieve her tessen and fastened it on her back with Maki's assistance.
"Naruto…" Kakashi began. "What was that light? For a minute I almost thought you were the…"
Naruto could only shrug, exhausted and shaken. "The what?"
"Not what, who," Kakashi corrected. He pulled his headband over his sharingan and fished into his pocket for a packet of soldier pills and tossed one back. "Never mind. It's probably the chakra exhaustion. I never bought all this prophecy garbage anyway."
Once Temari had reclaimed her fan, they scaled the ridges about the fortress and crested them to find the tide of people was flowing backwards–the joint forces were withdrawing.
"That must have been Itachi," Naruto whispered. He let himself sag with relief against a rocky outcropping. "I don't know how, but he did it."
Temari pushed forward. "Let them go!" she cried to her soldiers. "Let them take their wounded and go!"
She hurried down to the valley floor to find her brothers. Naruto and then Kakashi followed her, while Maki disappeared into the crowd of weary defenders. A heavy droning from the air stopped Temari in her tracks. The men and women looked up and began hastily moving out of the way as the contingent of dragonflies dropped out of the inky sky.
The lead insect touched down in the open area in front of the fortress, and Shizune jumped from its back. She had a relieved smile to spare for Kakashi. "Itachi and his team should be right behind me. He was worried about you." She let her eyes fall. "So was I."
"Yes, I mean, as a former year-mate in the Academy and all," she clarified hastily. "And Jiraiya wants to rendezvous with you just inside the Ame border to work on Gaara's seal outside of a heavily populated area. He'll be waiting at the sixth southern checkpoint." She dipped her head. "If you'll excuse me…" She ducked by him, straightened, and began shouting orders to start unpacking supplies and setting up triage procedures, pressing anyone who could still walk into transporting the injured inside.
When the last of the joint forces had retreated deep into the maze, quiet fell. One by one the puppets still hovering about the battlefield dropped out of the sky. Sasori was standing by the ruins of the arch, Gaara and Kankurō by his side, and Temari hanging back by the walls.
Kakashi found Naruto again with the Suna shinobi. "Sempai…" Kakashi said to Sasori's back, for the first time using the word without mockery. "I think I misjudged you."
Sasori looked over his shoulder, his expression unreadable, and collapsed. Kakashi sprang forward to catch his body as it clattered to the ground. He looked at the hand that had brush Sasori's bare chest as he'd fallen, and realized with horror that his palm, and the blackened wood of Sasori's torso, were saturated with liquid. He brushed the dirt and ashes away from the canister embedded in the puppet body. A portion of the steel was deeply dented, and fresh blood well up from the crack in the metal. "Naruto, go find Chiyo. Now. Run."
"There's nothing she can do," Sasori said. He was struggling to summon enough strength to manipulate the mechanism that allowed him to speak. "I'm the only one that could repair the seals sustaining my core, and I don't have the time left."
Kakashi shut his eye for a moment and withdrew his hands. "I understand. Are you in pain? Is there anything that you need?"
"No," he murmured, looking with confusion at the droop of Kakashi's head and shoulders. "Why would this turn of events upset you? You don't even like me."
"Maybe I changed my mind," Kakashi said. "I've seen a lot of comrades die. I did everything I could not to add any more people to that list… and I failed. Again." He swallowed. "Do you want me to stay with you until…?"
"I'm not even sure why, but yes… I think I would. Kankurō," he said, as he heard the two brothers' footsteps near. "I'd like you to salvage whatever you can from what remains of my collection. I also kept a small workshop in my suite in Amegakure. Everything in it is now yours, with one exception.
"Gaara, the drawer third from the left and second from the top has a false back. Inside the compartment you will find a lacquer box containing a small emerald pendant that belonged to your mother. You can have it."
The noncombatants had begun to edge out of the fortress and had reached the battlefield below. Those not searching frantically for missing loved ones began to clump around Sasori as he lay in the sand, silently thanking him for his sacrifice. The ring of solemn quiet was broken by a child's shriek, in jubilation rather than pain, as the little boy spotted his mother and father in the crowd. The man whirled around to scoop him up and the woman threw her arms around them both.
Sasori raised his head a little at the sound and, very faintly, smiled.
Naruto soon returned with Chiyo close on his heels, and they wormed their way through the cluster of soldiers. The old woman knelt with some difficulty beside her grandson. She leaned in close to his ear to whisper her question. "I never wanted to air our family's shame in the open, but please tell me before it's too late–is Gaara your son?"
"Probably," Sasori answered softly.
"And all of this…" Chiyo continued. "Did you do it to protect him?"
"What does that matter to you?" Sasori snapped at her, summoning up the energy for one more burst of rancor. "Go away and let me die in peace, you old hag."
Chiyo didn't rise to acquiesce to his request, placing her hand on his shoulder instead. "I regret what I did to Karura. I never stopped regretting it. I left the village for my cottage and my fishpond because I was a coward who couldn't face the suffering of my son, my grandson…" She looked at Gaara. "Or my great-grandson."
"Too little and too late," Sasori said.
"I know," Chiyo acknowledged. "I know. You left before I could tell you what I would have given to you for causing you so much pain. I finished it–the Kisho Tensei. I kept those first two puppets you made, you know… the mother and the father. If you'd stayed, I would have used their bones and those wooden bodies to anchor their souls for you, so they could hold you again with real human hands. How fortunate I never went through with it. There's a better use for that jutsu today, isn't there?"
"But that's a kinjutsu," Kankurō said, horrified. "Chiyo-sama, you could–"
"Hush up, boy. I know what I'm doing. It's a fair trade."
A flicker of blue light gathered in her hands as she laid them over Sasori's core. It grew in intensity and the wood split and cracked, pushed apart from the inside by streams of the same light. The puppet body arched, convulsing, and as it was enveloped completely in the glow Sasori began to scream. It lacked the flat quality of his puppet voice, as if it now issued from a real throat, the visceral cry of a human being in terrible pain.
"Kankurō, hold him down before he knocks her over!" Kakashi ordered, bracing his forearm over Sasori's chest and flailing arms.
Kankurō clamped his hands down just above Sasori's knees. The strange chakra stung their fingers for a few moments more. The glow receded, and Chiyo slumped backward into a cushion of Gaara's sand. Sasori's breathing was ragged and far too fast, as if he'd almost forgotten how to do it. The joint lines on his neck, ribcage, and shoulders were gone, covered with real skin and not cleverly molded rubber. His face was no longer so smooth and symmetrical, the work of a sculptor, but a real human face, still handsome but with more prominent cheekbones and faint creases at the corners of his eyes.
Gaara lowered Chiyo to the ground beside Sasori. His hand hovered above her mouth and nose, and then went to the artery in her neck. "She'd dead."
"How're you feeling?" Kakashi asked Sasori finally.
Sasori pushed himself up, Kakashi's steadying hand on his shoulder. He blinked down at Chiyo for a long time without answering. He reached up to brush his fingers against his cheeks and withdrew them, mystified, when they came away wet. "Alive," he whispered.
With victory theirs, the able-bodied continued with the tasks of healing the living and burying the dead. Itachi, Sakura, and Fū touched down shortly after Shizune had finished setting up a small field hospital, and Itachi and Sakura helped their injured comrade into the tents. Thanks to Shizune's experience and expertise, the casualties were lighter than anyone had dared to hope for.
The non-combatants were hustled out as the day broke, to find sanctuary deeper in the wilderness. Most of the resistance had already moved on. The bodies had all been cleared away, although the ground was still littered with broken weapons and the bloodied sand was beginning to stink in the heat.
Naruto picked his way across the field to the shade of the ruined arch, shooing a slightly baffled-looking Sai in front of him. "Are you certain this is a good idea, Naruto-san?" Sai asked. "We were ordered to assist in the evacuation of–"
"I told you, don't 'san' me," he said. "And it's fine. The last batch of refugees is almost packed up and they're heading out with Temari in a couple hours. I checked. They don't need any more help."
In the shade of the broken structure, Sasori and Kankurō had been working feverishly to sort and salvage whatever they could from the puppets that had littered the battlefield. Kankurō was struggling to pull apart a slightly dented dart launcher, while deeper in the shade Sasori was methodically sealing their finds into storage scrolls, still looking pale and ill from the trials of the past night.
"Hey. You," Naruto called, picking his way towards the man. "There's somebody I'd like you to meet." He nudged Sai forward with his elbow.
"I'm busy. They can wait," he said, without looking up from his work.
"Not goin' anywhere. Give us two minutes and I'll lend you twenty kage bunshin to help pack up this stuff."
Sasori grumbled under his breath and finally acknowledged Sai's presence. "Fine," he said, dropping a multi-jointed arm onto the unfurled scroll. He looked the boy up and down, his eyes coming to rest on the sleeve pinned over Sai's missing hand. "Oh," he said derisively. "That's what you wanted. Explain to me why I should help him?"
"Tell him what you told Sakura while you were in the hospital," Naruto prompted.
Sai unfolded his good hand and held out the sketchbook. "My painting was my life. It was how I fought and how I filled the hours I wasn't fighting. I have no home, no family, and no teammates. Without it, I have nothing left. Naruto said you were an artist. He said you would understand."
Intrigued apparently against his will, Sasori took the book and leafed through the pages. "You are very good," he said at last. "But training to use a prosthetic limb can take months… even years, to reach the level of proficiency needed to hold your own on the battlefield. My puppet collection was decimated and until I can build it back up again I don't have anywhere close to that kind of time to waste on you."
The satisfied smile melted from Naruto's face. "Wait, what?" he sputtered. "The universe gave you a second chance. What you said to Kakashi… you're supposed to have, like, changed and stuff."
"Did you hit your head some time last night?" Sasori asked scathingly. "What about my present situation has given you the impression I'm directing a charity for disabled orphans? Get out of here, Naruto. I am busy."
"But… you decided to help… and you gave Gaara… and your grandma…" Naruto mumbled, trailing off into a groan of consternation. "That's not how this is supposed to work!"
"Either give me those kage bunshin you promised or go away."
From behind a pile of broken puppets, an uncharacteristically nervous Kankurō cleared his throat. "Sasori-san… um, what if you had help rebuilding your collection? I've been studying your notes and technical drawings since I was old enough to read." He licked his lips, brushing aside some of the wooden parts in front of him, and bowed his head. "I've wanted to say this to you since the first time we spoke." He took a breath. "To be truly immortal is to pass the art of creation down from one generation to the next. So please... would you give me the honor of being your first student?"
"Being my what?" Sasori asked, rubbing his forehead with one hand and then sweeping it back over his hair.
"You said I had talent. What am I supposed to do with it here? Baki is gone and besides you, the best of the Puppet Corps are either dead or've thrown it in with Konoha. I may still be a genin, but I've already surpassed every puppeteer loyal to the resistance. You need an assistant and I need a teacher. I'll do anything you ask. Please."
"This is a truly awful idea," he said. "Wanting to learn from the best is admirable; I don't fault you for that. But unfortunately for you, the best puppeteer in the world happens to be me. In case you somehow failed to notice, I am very possessive of my time and I hate children. Nor do I think your sister would approve."
"She doesn't have to approve–she's decided to stay in Suna to lead the men in Baki's place. She's better at that kind of stuff than I am," Kankurō said. "And I'm not a child. I'm taller than you!"
"You're not doing a very good job of endearing yourself to me."
"Yee-up, looks like everyone's problems are solved!" Naruto announced. "Kankurō, you're definitely coming back with us to Ame. You two can be impatient and mean and full of yourselves together." He clapped his hands together in glee. "It's perfect. The perfectest!" With that, he grabbed Sai and marched back the way he'd come.
"So, uh, Sensei… could you help me get this catch apart? It's all bent," Kankurō said, holding up the complex steel contraption.
Sasori sagged back against the canyon walls, massaging his eye sockets. "I have agreed to nothing. Don't you dare start calling me that."
"…Guess that's a no. Never mind."
"That's not what I said," Sasori quipped, peeling his eyes open again. He selected a pair of small pliers from the tool kit beside him. "Bring it over here. I'll show you."
"Are the pair of you sure you want to be present for this?" Itachi asked the two boys sitting with him around the breakfast table. The kitchen at the small military outpost on the Ame border was cramped and the plaster moldy in the corners, but it was warm and reasonably dry. "This is the last chance you have to get out of range if Gaara-kun's seal augmentation fails. The men stationed here have already–wisely–evacuated along with Shizune and Sakura and the injured under their care."
Naruto drained his bowl of rice porridge and licked the last of the broth off of his lips. He batted aside a scrap of paper covered in Jiraiya's notes and put the vessel down. Most of the horizontal surfaces had become a mess of ink spots and unfurled scrolls over the course of the last four days. "Already made up my mind. Don't worry so much–Gaara's got this. He's not going to lose control."
"Yeah, I'm sure," Kankurō said. "It's not like he's about to admit it, but I think my brother's pretty scared. I want to be here if he needs me."
Itachi shrugged faintly in defeat and returned his attention to the simple meal. Kankurō was probably right–Gaara had refused the offers of both breakfast and conversation and was still stretched out on one of the thin mattresses inside the barracks, although he did not need the sleep. When they finished, Naruto collected and hastily rinsed off the dishes before pushing open the door to inspect the preparations outside. It had taken several days, and a great deal of heated argument, before Jiraiya and Sasori had hashed out a technique to lock the demon's consciousness away from Gaara's own.
The two sealing masters had arisen very early to take advantage of a break in the rain. Jiraiya had cleared a wide circle in the mud and leveled it to a perfect platform with a doton jutsu. The smooth surface was dense with the whorls and flourishes of three villages' sealing styles, only a few of which Itachi could recognize. The rings in the center would loosen Gaara's native seal, those in the middle would modify the patterns, and those on the edges would generate barriers to contain any demonic power that managed to leak through.
"Jiraiya, are you done yet?" Sasori called testily across the circle.
"You really want me to rush triple-checking something like this?" he said, looking up for a moment. He tapped the edge of the brush against the ground, examining the alignment of several elements. Satisfied, he put it aside and looked over his shoulder at the three young men who'd appeared behind him.
"I wouldn't want to go out for beers with the guy, but one thing he isn't is sloppy with his fuinjutsu," Jiraiya said vaguely in Naruto's direction. "Wonder where he picked all this up."
"His grandma Chiyo, I bet," Naruto supplied. "She died in the siege. I wouldn't mention her to Sasori if I were you."
"Her? Her poison concoctions drove Tsunade nuts during the Second Great War. Must've been one hell of a talented old lady," Jiraiya said.
The door in the dome-shaped building creaked and Gaara emerged blinking in the sparse sunlight that had tunneled through the cloud cover. "You're finished?" he asked hesitantly.
"All we're waiting on is you," Jiraiya said.
A thin stream of sand poured down from the opening of his gourd and collected in the mud under his feet to raise him a few centimeters above the ground. It carried him silently to the exact center of the sealing circle and rejoined the earth, not disturbing a single line.
"Ready?" Sasori called.
Jiraiya consulted the page of notes beside him one last time. "As I'll ever be," he answered.
Itachi preemptively activated his Mangekyō sharingan and gestured for Naruto and Kankurō to take several steps back. If both the barriers and Gaara's will faltered, containing Shukaku would fall to him. Jiraiya and Sasori both knelt to execute a long chain of synchronized hand signs and released the power into two sets of small circles drawn against the main ring. The lines filled with light like molten metal flowing into a mold.
There was an explosion and a swirl of sand, followed by a deep, sustained roar like an encroaching sandstorm. The grit was halted by the barriers that glowed to life at the edge of the array, but they did not stop the wind. The stooped trees around them shook violently, and the windows of the army outpost rattled in their frames.
Just when Itachi was sure the straining barriers were about to snap, the cylinder of sand swirling around Gaara reversed direction, pulling inward and away from the edges of the seal array. The cyclone grew tighter and tighter, slowing its furious spiral until the sand was suctioned into the gourd on Gaara's back, tamed. He dropped to his knees, groaned, and collapsed onto his side.
Jiraiya allowed the tension in his arms to relent, as did Sasori. The puppeteer had less natural stamina than Jiraiya and the resealing had taken a greater toll on him. He sat heavily, resting his elbows against his knees as he caught his breath.
Jiraiya got up and brushed some of the dirt from his pants. He sighed gustily, shaking his head. "I'm going to need a drink–or six. That was one of the scariest goddamn things I've ever done. Looks like it worked, though."
Naruto moved to go to Gaara's side, but was stopped by Itachi's upraised arm. "Don't. Let me."
Itachi wrapped Susanō's ribcage and bony arms around his body, extending one to delicately turn Gaara on his back. The boy groaned again and rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Gaara?" Naruto ventured. "How you doing?"
"Head hurts. A lot. And it feels… weird. Really, really weird," he said, letting his hand drop to the ground.
"Like good weird or bad weird?" Kankurō asked anxiously.
"Like there's more room than there was before," he said. He sat up and pulled his knees under his chin, so he could gaze out at the temperate rainforest infringing on the clean lines of the base. "Everything is so quiet now. It's… nice."
Itachi dispelled Susanō to allow Naruto to step over the lip of the stone platform, and he crouched next to Gaara. "Want any breakfast? I saved you some."
He nodded yes. "Thank you. Could you bring it out here? I think I want to be alone for a little while more."
"Sensei, what about you?" Kankurō said, jogging over to give Sasori a hand up. "You're looking kind of wobbly. Eating is a thing you have to do again, remember?"
He pushed away his new protégé's assistance with an irritated glance and headed inside himself. "I'm fine and perfectly capable of getting my own breakfast." He looked over his shoulder. "And how many times have I told you to stop calling me 'Sensei'?"
Gaara chewed on his bottom lip for a few moments, reconsidering his request to be left alone, and then pushed himself to his feet to follow the others inside. He was a bit less cautious getting up than he should have been, and once he stood the aftershocks of the resealing struck him full force. With their backs turned, no one noticed Gaara stagger as his vision went abruptly black. But as it always had, the sand whispered from its container to protect him, catching him before he could fall and strike his head on the stone beneath his feet.
The sound of it whipped Itachi about. "You said the seal took," he hissed accusingly to Jiraiya. "If Shukaku can still manipulate the sand it still has a hold over his mind."
"It did take!" Jiraiya protested. "I checked the array three times. I don't half-ass these things!"
Gaara recovered rapidly from the dizzy spell and gasped as he felt his shield brush his skin. The amorphous cloud pulled back and took on a distinct outline, the grains winking in the shafts of sunlight piercing the mist. A woman unfolded from the sand shifting lazily around Gaara's body, She wore the long robes of Sunagakure, her hair cropped at her chin. She held her hand out to Sasori.
Shocked into speechlessness, Sasori stepped back across the sealing platform to meet her. "No, no, Karura…" he said after a long, fraught pause. "You don't want this for him. You can't possibly."
She still did not speak, but tilted her head reprovingly.
"I can't," he whispered. "I don't know anything about being a father!"
"Hey, look at it this way: no matter how much you screw it up, you'll still be doing a better job than the only other dad he's ever known," Naruto said.
He looked over his shoulder to scowl at Naruto's interruption, and when he turned back to his lover her image had dissolved. The sand twined back into the gourd and the stopper crystallized in the opening.
Gaara pushed himself up to a sitting position, his eyes averted from Sasori. He inhaled shakily and scrubbed at his face with the white sash wound around his chest. "Naruto... what you said to me in the desert. You were right. All this time, she has been here with me."
Sasori schooled his face into the expression of bland contempt he usually wore and turned his back to Gaara… but managed only two steps before he winced and turned around. "Here," he said, sliding his hand under Gaara's arm. "Let me help you up."
Amegakure was tense and stuffed to bursting with refugees, but in Nagato's absence Mei and Tsunade hadn't allowed Konoha's forces to gain a significant foothold within the borders. All current members of Akatsuki were in Ame to observe Gaara's official induction into the organization… a rare occurrence. It was to take place the morning after he arrived into the city, and the invitations had come in for them to convene early.
Naruto yawned and trudged up the grand staircase to the assembly hall. Itachi had had to badger him out of bed, and, still sleepy, he trailed after his brother's more assertive steps against the marble. He snapped his mouth abruptly shut when he noticed Sakura was waiting just outside the door to the meeting room. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Sakura-chan, I'm really sorry, but you're kind of not invited to this one. I was going to take Gaara out for some hot pot after the meeting's over. You should find Hinata and Kankurō… and maybe Haku and Kimimaro too, and see if they all want to come–like a little welcome-to-Ame party."
"I know I'm not invited," she said, rankled by the reminder of her status compared to her teammate. "I'm not waiting for you. I'm waiting for her," she said, looking past Naruto's shoulder to the blonde woman coming up the stairs. "Tsunade-sama, I'd like to talk to you." She brushed past Naruto to stand before her as Tsunade reached the second floor.
Tsunade crossed her arms beneath her ample chest to regard Sakura knowingly. "I've got a pretty good guess what this is about. You want me to teach you to become a healer, don't you?"
"No," Sakura said.
Tsunade's eyebrows arched, caught by surprise.
"I know a little–enough to get by as a field medic–but that's not my path. I don't have a kekkei genkai or a bijū or a summoning contract or a noble clan lineage. My chakra reservoir is average. I'm not very strong and I'm not very fast." Sakura balled her fists. "I can't help take back Konoha like this. I can't avenge Sasuke like this. I'll never measure up to the rest of my team like this."
"Then what is it you want me to do for you, Sakura?" Tsunade asked her.
"I plan to be worthy of one of those coats someday–someday soon. The only advantage I'm ever going to have is my mind, and two great masters: one of genjutsu, and one of medical ninjutsu. The techniques aren't so different, really. With genjutsu I can manipulate the senses. Misfire nerves. Freeze muscles. That's all the heart is–a muscle."
Tsunade's spine went rigid and her arms dropped to her sides. "You're asking me if I can help you learn to kill someone with only a thought?"
"No one has ever succeeded in bringing involuntary muscles fully under the control of an illusion before," Itachi said. "Even I can't kill with genjutsu alone."
"First time for everything," Sakura said.
"You could take down shinobi no one else in the world could touch–assuming you lasted long enough in a battle to fire it, which is where you're really going to need my help," Tsunade said, with a wicked crook in her lips. "An undetectable, unblockable, unavoidable one-hit kill…" She shook her head in incredulity. "If you really do manage to create this technique, it would be as revolutionary as Namikaze Minato's hiraishin. " She looked at Itachi. "I know her chakra control must be good. How good?"
His skeptical expression had started to unlace. "She has the greatest natural aptitude I have ever seen… bar none. That includes myself."
"Then I'm game to at least try." Tsunade planted her hands on her hips. "Hey, Uchiha. Want to put anything down on this? Say, a thousand ryō if she gets it within three years of today? What's your bet?"
"Gambling is not my pastime of choice," he said, lifting his brows.
Tsunade clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Come on,loosen up a little. A thousand ryō is nothing–just a friendly wager. If I'm cutting into my barhopping time to help train this kid–and I have to put up with a prig like you while I'm at it–the least you could do is make it worth my while."
He considered Sakura's painfully earnest face and finally conceded. "Two and a half years."
"Two years," Naruto added. "Because I'm going to let you practice on my kage bunshin if you help me come up with a study plan for the mountain of sealing technique books Jiraiya-sensei gave me." He moaned piteously. "Homework... my greatest enemy."
"Sakura, don't go anywhere," Tsunade said. "As soon as I get out of this meeting I want to see what you can do."
Tsunade had been the last to arrive outside the grand hall, and when she, Itachi, and Naruto shut the doors behind them, the meeting began. Gaara was given the same oath Naruto took, quickly and with little ceremony. He slipped the green ring on his left thumb, the only place it would fit on his thin fingers.
When the induction was complete, the Deva Path prepared to speak. "Konan has just received word that Kiri has formally entered into an alliance with Konoha and occupied Suna," he said. "Shimura Danzō's attention is turning to Iwa and the riches of their mines, which puts us in a very precarious position. Kumo is neutral and has chosen to remain so as long as they have the luxury, but they have made it clear they will offer no aid to us. Even with my rinnegan and six jinchūriki on our side, Akatsuki is going to be hard-pressed to hold back the combined might of three great villages."
"We already have allies in Fire Country," Kakashi said. "Good ones. People I trust, that want this war over and the real Hokage back in that office."
"And in Water," Mei put in. "I want my homeland back as much as you do. Yagura and I left friends and family behind in Kiri just like you did in Konoha, and as brutal as Madara tried to mold us to be, he failed as often as he succeeded. Kirigakure wasn't always like it is now. Under the Niidaime, the village was prosperous and peaceful. There are rumors Hoshigaki Kisame may be losing the loyalty of some of the Seven. Not all of the Hozuki could have forgotten their elder's legacy. They would make for powerful allies."
"They would be welcome," the Deva Path said, and nodded. "There will be few great battlefields or grand charges in this war; our numbers are too few. We will fight as Akatsuki has fought before… wherever the people of Storm Country need us, we will strike fast and hard, and then we will melt back into the mist. We will become the ghosts in the rain.
"Konoha's defeat will no doubt prompt swift and vicious retaliation, but the advantages and information we gained from it are beyond price. We know that Shimura Danzō is very likely using a stolen sharingan to sway the opinions of his allies in his favor. According to Itachi, who knew its original owner very well, this genjutsu is imperfect–and it can be broken. Edo Tensei likewise can be defeated, and that knowledge will ripple quickly across the continent. We have already been approached by envoys from Iwa, Kusa, and Taki looking for alliances. The Tsuchikage is an opportunist and has no loyalty to anyone but himself, but as long as our interests align he can be trusted to support us with Iwa's considerable military power. Our missions in the coming months will focus on counterintelligence and sabotage. Ōnoki has already pledged significant sums to arm and equip our shinobi, and will be sending members of their Demolition Corps–including one of his own students–covertly into Sunagakure to support their resistance. Our aim is to do anything we can do to keep our enemies unbalanced and spread too thin to mount a focused invasion.
"To that end, I would like to solidify the partnerships among previously unassigned members." He looked warningly at Sasori. "The existing arrangements are not negotiable."
"I haven't complained, have I?" Sasori said. He turned his head to sigh in Kakashi's direction, who had taken the place beside him. "Just don't be late to our next mission. You cannot even comprehend how much waiting for people irritates me."
"Why?" Kakashi asked, genuinely curious.
"Personal reasons I would rather not discuss," Sasori said stiffly. "Why is it so vital for you to be tardy everywhere you go?"
"Personal reasons I would rather not discuss," Kakashi said.
"Why do you feel the need to mock someone both less forgiving and more powerful than you are?"
"He isn't mocking you," Itachi cut in, before the conversation could take a turn for the violent. "Believe me."
Sasori's look of annoyance transformed into something far more thoughtful, and the conversation subsided when the slightly puzzled Deva Path gathered himself to continue. "Naruto, as you already know, will be partnered with Jiraiya to further your knowledge of fuinjutsu, as he suggested to me while we were in Uzushio. Mei, Tsunade, your work together defending Storm country from Konoha's incursions was excellent, and I would like it to continue. Gaara will be working with Itachi; I believe their respective strengths in offensive and defensive techniques will complement each other well. Yagura, now that Fū has gained sufficient rapport with her bijū to make an effective field agent, I would like you to work with her as your full and equal partner. I trust there are no objections?"
Naruto opened his mouth, looked at Gaara, looked at the Deva Path, and thought better of it.
"Then this meeting is adjourned," the Deva Path said. "I will have specific assignments to distribute to each team within the coming days. It is very likely this will be the last time we are all assembled here. When Akatsuki was reformed seven years ago, it was conceived as an organization of outcasts and criminals. I never imagined it would bring together so many shinobi from so many places with such strong convictions. I wish all of you luck. You are dismissed."
Instead of following her partner as the group filed out, Konan turned back to wait for Itachi to pass the threshold and said, "Wait. I need to speak with you. Sakura, Naruto, stay for a moment as well. You'll want to hear this too."
Konan pulled a small envelope from a pocket concealed in the seam of her coat. "I finally got to the mission report submitted by the captain of the team Pain-sama sent to Oto. He'd heard an interesting rumor. Orochimaru is keeping a young man with black hair prisoner in his maximum-security medical research facilities. By the time the team found one, that particular base had been abandoned, but this symbol had been engraved into the wall of one of the cells." She opened the flap and extracted the slip of thin paper within.
Itachi accepted it from her and unfolded the paper with one hand–it was a smudged graphite rubbing, nothing more. The stylized uchiwa was a little lopsided and lumpy, as if it had been burned rather than scratched into the stone from which the imprint had been taken. He raised his other hand to the paper, caressing the lines with his thumb, so overcome with elation he could not put it into words.
"Sensei?" Sakura prodded. She reached for the paper herself, lowering his hand with her own so she could see what was printed upon it, and gasped when she recognized the Uchiha crest. "I don't believe it," she whispered, one hand against her heart. "He's alive."
"And he needs our help," Naruto said. "Konoha is going to be after Orochimaru too, aren't they? Somehow we'll have to get to him first."
Itachi tore his eyes away from fan and looked up at his two students. "I'll get him back," he said. "If it's the last thing I ever do, I'll get him back."
I would like to thank everyone who stuck it out to the end of this story. Daybreak Part II is extremely unlikely to happen. I started writing fanfic as practice for a real fiction writing career (hey, it's been done), and with three completed novels under my belt I feel like I'm ready for the real thing. I do not plan to quit fanfic forever, but whatever I post will most likely be one- or two-shots and probably not be about Naruto.
I will be adding a few short stories and the first several chapters of my original YA fantasy novel, tentatively titled Glasswings, on my Fictionpress account in the coming year. If you enjoyed the worlds of Naruto or Avatar: ATLA/LOK, you'll probably like Glasswings.