Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, and I make no profit from the writing of this fanfiction.

(AN): Started this the day after posting 20, so hopefully we're looking at a quicker update.

"Shinobi are people who endure to achieve their goals… but depending on what they choose as their goal they change… like Madara and I…"- Senju Hashirama

Blood trickled down his cheek, red flowing free from a shallow stinging cut. The stink of copper was in his nostrils, clouding the edges of his mind in fuzz and enjoyment. A blue tongue slithered between razor sharp teeth, darting out to sample the red trickles that slid by his mouth.

Kisame narrowed his eyes, pinprick fish pupils swelling in the night to try and pierce dark as if he swam the underside of the sea. The air was parched, dry and warm from gouts of flame and irritated his gills.

That simply would not do.

Snapping out a short trio of handseals, the former Kirinin sucked in a deep breath and spit. Water hosed from his mouth, cracking across the distance to slice Itachi's shoulder to the bone. His old partner was slowing, breathing harder and stumbling and failing to dodge as the fight wore on.

Kisame had a vague notion that Itachi had been sick in his mind, an incurable virus creeping through his veins and colonizing the cells and reducing a proud ninja to a dying wreck. Except Itachi had never seemed like a dying wreck.

Itachi was, in Kisame's mind, something between indomitable and unfeeling. A man with absolute mastery over his decaying flesh that could kill pain and ignore discomfort.

Which was why it was so disconcerting to see the younger man stepping away with a wheeze, hand flying up to cover the spray of blood and rush to put a gap between them.

"Step it up Itachi." he ordered coolly, tightening his grip on Samehada and flashing in for another strike. Flesh gave way under the scaled blade, shaving into bloody chunks that littered the ground and burst into lurid smoke.

Ringing sang through his pores, building an urge to heave and empty his stomach.

Shattering the genjutsu with a flex of his massive chakra, Kisame snorted and turned to catch a pair of kunai wielded in the Uchiha shinobi's hands.

One of the black knives flew off into the night, knocked aside with contemptuous ease. The other carved a bloody furrow down Kisame's chest, bringing a faint smile to Itachi's lips as the Uchiha quickly rolled back to avoid the grasping hand of the nukenin.

Crimson dripped slow beads into the devastated ground. Touching two blue tipped fingers to his wound, Kisame numbly raised two bloody fingers to his sight and simply blinked. A slow movement of consideration. Itachi would not be the first person he'd killed after a defection to the opposite side of a war.

He would not permit anyone that betrayed the cause to live.

Itachi knew the moment he saw the subtle shift in Kisame's expression that the casual exchange of blows had come to an end. Perhaps it was the sudden irrevocable strike against the nukenin that precipitated the mood, or it could have been a slow buildup of thought.

Regardless, the next swing of Samehada clove the air apart with a whistle. Ground shattered with a small quake under the strength of the blow as Itachi sidestepped. Flicking his wrists at his former partner, Itachi loosed a spray of senbon that bounced ineffectively off Kisame's scaly hide.

Itachi frowned, weaving through hand seals and spraying off a distracting burst of flame. Embers flickered and died as the Uchiha retreated from the fray. Dark scales sucked in light as Kisame hefted Samehada over a burly shoulder, piercing Itachi with a black look.

The strategy the ill Uchiha had been forced to rely on was ineffectual against such an opponent. Itachi could not outlast Kisame. Not physically, and not with chakra. Trying to wear down the nukenin from a distance was draining more out of him than it was out of Kisame with every nick Itachi managed to land.

Fumbling at one of the pouches strapped to his hip, the Uchiha took a deep breath and coughed. Bloody mucous filled his mouth, which Itachi promptly spit to the side. Murky green shimmered under the moon as Itachi pulled a vial out and held it to the light.

One last option.

Breaking the seal over the tube and guzzling down the drug, Itachi fixed Kisame with a blank stare. Warnings repeated through the Uchiha's mind like a broken record. Poison and hastened death in return for a temporary high and renewed effectiveness.

'You've been shaving years off your life to try and ignore your sickness – just so that you could fight like you once could. It was a stupid, vainglorious thing for you to do.'

Tsunade would undoubtedly be upset. Oddly, no matter where he'd sought medical treatment all of Itachi's physicians had displayed a surprising tenacity and temper when questions of patient recklessness were raised. Was it some measure of sympathy? Or just annoyance at wasted effort and healing?

Sasuke would be enraged.

"My apologies." Itachi murmured, Sharingan churning furiously. "But I need to defeat Kisame and protect this village, even if it costs my life in the bargain".

The drug concoction was sour-sweet, tingling across Itachi's tongue and sliding down the Uchiha's throat. Warmth spread through him from his gut, curling through the muscles and down limbs. The pain that haunted Itachi's lungs subsided at the herald of the powerful drug – allowing the shinobi to take the first deep breath in weeks without the twinge of pained scar tissue. Trembling quieted, restoring a surety of function.

One blink was Itachi standing still, the subtle marks of pain on his features creating wrinkles around Shisui's eyes. Leaning back away from Kisame, Itachi had been the very picture of a shinobi pushed beyond his limits and struggling desperately to find some way to just stay alive.

The next blink was Itachi driving a fist into Kisame's jaw, striking with more force behind his blow than he'd displayed during the entire duel. Blood exploded in the nukenin's mouth as the strike threw him away in a stunned tangle.

Rolling back to unsteady feet with a grunt, Kisame spat a mouthful of blood and chuckled. Here was the Itachi he'd known. The low thrum of excitement shivered down the former Kiri-nin's spine, and Kisame laughed. "Finally a real fight, Itachi!"

Laughter only lasted long enough for Itachi to close the distance between the pair of shinobi again, driving a crippling knee into Kisame's stomach without a sound. Again the nukenin was sent reeling, finally forcing out a tidal wave of seawater to push the resurgent Uchiha back.

Blood leaked from Itachi's nostrils. Wiping away the crimson trickles with a sleeve, Itachi curled his hands into fists and began to move in slow predatory circles around his former partner.

A sudden thrill of fear mad itself known in the back of Kisame's mind as he moved through the motions of attack, striking out at every opportunity he had to harm Itachi. He knew he was no longer facing the calm soul that rode out stress without even changing expression. The Itachi he traded strikes with wasn't the Itachi that saw purpose in non-violence and detachment.

Blade to blade they pressed, and the swordsman found himself driven back a step by the Itachi that had killed his own family. Cold, ruthless, determined, and indomitable.

"I can take no more." Itachi confessed into the heaving trade of blows and grunts. Tomoe spun and spun, swirling into prongs of Mangekyou. Trading the last of his chakra reserves, Itachi reached.

Orange stars filled the air with a taste of finality.

Most ninja hated hospitals. There was something about the faint bitter tang of antiseptic that constantly made the mind dwell on the bloody reason for the chemical's presence. Gleaming fluorescent light illuminating every corner of the room – every corner of a shinobi's dark heart that they would dearly love to hide. The ever-present medical personnel never a shout's distance away pressed the world in when many of the wounded desperately would have preferred to curl around hurt in isolation.

Hyuuga Hinata was not most ninja. Sniffing the air delicately, the kunoichi smiled at the scent curling through it – rather than blood, it made the Hyuuga relax at the notion of cleaning hurt away. When light shone through her Hinata was keenly aware of her failings, but also her strengths. The smiling faces of the nurses and doctors attending her had comforted a desperately lonely little girl when she'd been a child, and Hinata would never forget that professional but warm kindness.

Coiling green mist shuttered and faded away, warmth trickling away. The med-nin leaned away with a huff of relief, wiping his slightly sweaty brow at the exertion of the healing jutsu. Probing wrinkled fingers gently over Hinata's forearm, the physician assessed the repaired break. Dark eyes observed the Hyuuga with a practiced glance, searching for any sign of pain.

Finding none, the physician smiled at the lavender eyed girl through his puffy white beard. "It seems like everything is doing alright now Hyuuga-san. But don't put any strain on it for a few days. The bone is still tender new growth." he ordered sternly, reaching into a pocket to haul out a sling. "Wear this tonight and tomorrow. It'll reduce the strain on your muscles and give the inflammation some time to subside."

"Thank you." Hinata uttered with a small smile, waving with her uninjured arm as the old man left the room with a grin. Fiddling with the sling for a short moment, the Hyuuga quickly rigged her right arm through the cloth and pulled the string over her neck.

Tracking her pale gaze to the side, Hinata quirked a brow. "You've been very quiet Hanabi-chan. It's not like you."

Glaring at her older sister sourly, the younger Hyuuga sister folded her arms and growled "You've got the weirdest friends nee-san. Especially that old Uchiha."

"You met Itachi-san?" Hinata queried, tossing a quick glance to the empty door with a Byagukan laden gaze before huddling close to Hanabi. "What did he say?"

"He didn't say much." Hanabi bit out, pushing an envelope into Hinata's hand. "Just tossed my way a letter for you."

Cracking open the wax seal with dextrous fingers, Hinata spread the letter over her knees with a hand and began to read. Seconds ticked through minutes as the Hyuuga heiress flipped through page after page of coded notes and ignored her increasingly irritated sibling.

Tearing the words to shreds with a burst of chakra, after a slow blink, Hinata pushed the shredded lump of paper into the small garbage can at the foot of the hospital's bed and began to run through scenarios in her mind.

Hanabi peeked curiously at the indecipherable lump of paper in the can before poking her sister in the side. "Onee-chan, what did he write to you?" After being ignored outright by her contemplative sibling, Hanabi frowned and began to poke repeatedly.

"Onee-chan. Onee-chan. Onee-chan."

Grabbing her younger sister's eager fingers with an amused look, Hinata hopped to her feet and strode purposefully for the door. Hanabi followed silently only as long as it took the Hyuuga sisters to leave the building before starting up her questioning again.

"Was it an invitation? No, it's too long for that." Hanabi mused. "A business deal? Too clandestine for that. And personal." Snapping straight with a thought, the genin pointed a dramatic finger at Hinata.

"It was a love letter!" she accused.

"Absolutely not." Hinata replied blandly, scanning the surroundings as she turned down a side street. Stopping abruptly and turning to face her sister, Hinata ruffled the younger girl's hair with affection. "It's best if you forgot you saw or heard anything Hanabi-chan."

Scowling up at Hinata, Hanabi slapped the hand away and began to run down the street towards the Hyuuga compound. "Stupid Onee-chan!" she called out, playing the part of annoyed younger sibling to the letter. "I'll find out what you're up to." she swore as she dashed through the gates.

Ignoring the younger Hyuuga's characteristic outburst, Hinata followed along at a more sedate pace, musing all the while. Itachi was quite the commensurate shinobi.

And blackmail material would always be a lovely present.

"Keep pushing it." Kakashi ordered, running a hand through his spiky silver mane and peering ahead into the dim. "Kisame's trail is leading us close to the border with Tsuchi no Kuni. If he crosses, we're not going to follow him and incite an international incident."

"We should follow the bastard wherever he goes!" Naruto barked in disagreement, cracking her knuckles with a grin. "I'm looking forward to kicking some ass!"

Coughing in derision, Neji rolled his eyes. "Naruto, there's a reason that crossing the border unannounced with such a force as this would be an international incident. Bad feelings with Iwagakure still run high after the Third Shinobi World War, and any undocumented team like this that travels in force could incite a war. I fundamentally refuse to incite a war simply because you couldn't contain yourself."

"Bastard!" Naruto replied back without any real venom. "I know that, I just thought that.. ah..."The blonde paused, struggling to complete her thought. "We could just explain things to them?" She concluded lamely.

Sasuke laughed, receiving a more heated cry of "Bastard!" from the blonde kunoichi as he leapt past. Scanning the ground with Sharingan and picking out the faint details of tracks, the Uchiha frowned when they suddenly cut off.

Calling for a sudden halt, Kakashi consulted with Pakken worriedly before addressing the group at large. "The trail's cut off. Clone I suspect. Double back and look for a split in the track."

Huffing with annoyance, Tenten spun about and jumped off into the trees. Neji followed along the forest floor, Byakugan glaring as the Hyuuga prodigy scanned the lower canopy for clues.

Gai folded his arms over his chest, sending a worried glance at Kakashi while their team fanned out. "This doesn't fit the character profile, Kakashi." The jounin conferred in low tones. "He should be looking for us, or at least not running away like this. I don't like it."

Shrugging back, the Hatake flung a darting gaze at Naruto as the exuberant blonde crashed through the bushes. "People change. Minute to minute, day to day, year to year. No one is really static." Nodding in the direction Sasuke had taken off in, Kakashi gave a pointed blink. "And who's to say that we have accurate information anyway? The game of deception is at the heart of being a shinobi."

"Well he's certainly not acting in the way I expected." Gai mused, raising thick eyebrows. "After a life like that, I had little hope for anything but murder".

"Sometimes all you have to do is build a bond." Kakashi returned sharply, aware they were no longer speaking about Kisame at all. "Comrades are people we hold close to our hearts, and being so close to that heart enables them to change us in ways no one could have expected."

Touching down with all the quiet grace his noble upbringing had instilled, Neji sighed. "Gai-sensei, Kakashi-taichou, I have found the trail we're looking for."

"Go on". The Hatake prodded.

"Five kilometers back along the trail we followed there is a gap." Neji explained in a rush. "Fifty meters from there a trail resumes. I've already confirmed the tracks come from the same individual."

"A large enough leap not be noticed, but able to be performed by anyone skilled in taijutsu." Gai pointed out before pursuing his pupil through the underbrush.

A quick bark from Kakashi brought the rest of the team in an orderly line as the jounin sensei following his colleague.

Sasuke blinked, a slow red flicker in the night as he watched the leaders of their squad putter about comparing multiple trails and arguing for specific motives in the dark. Ignoring the pair of impromptu rivals, the Uchiha suspiciously observed his surroundings.

There was some measure of instinct that cried out to tell Sasuke that he was not where he should have been. A breathe of suspicion and aptitude.

'We're wasting our time.' The Uchiha realized with a cold shudder. Cutting into the argument, Sasuke turned a red look at Kakashi. "I didn't see it before, but we're just wasting our time around here while Kisame heads back to Konoha."

"Think about it."Sasuke cut across Gai's protest mercilessly. "Kisame is just running muddy trails up and down the countryside to fuck with us. He's not bothering to hide, because he isn't scared of what we can do. He's convinced he can do what he needs to do before he flees the country. And there's nothing to do here except hit Konoha. Or someone in it."

Twirling an idle crow feather between pale fingers, Sasuke graced the group with one last confirmation before he recklessly broke formation toward Konoha.

"He's trying to kill Itachi".

Chrysanthemum stung his nose, the heady, woody scent of autumn choking through every inhalation. White petals tangled through his rough black mane as he leaned in to set a pure white bouquet among the hundreds of flowers dedicated to the deceased.

Uchiha Sasuke breathed, straightening his stiff spine to look out over the crowd. Grief haunted every corner and face.

Fingers trembling with a compulsive need to smoke the stress away, Nara Shikamaru stared away into the horizon with a blank stare.

Aburame Shino absently flipped his pair of dark glasses, his ragged brown bush of hair revealed in a rare display. The emotionless facade inherent to his clan cracking around the seams.

Tears streamed freely down Yamanaka Ino's face, the blonde woman weeping silently and as gracefully as her natural beauty demanded.

Inuzuka Kiba stared straight at the Rokudaime Hokage, a red hot scowl written across his face.

Clenching his meaty fists in distress, Akimichi Chouji watched the funeral proceedings with heavy lids.

Rock Lee's breath was heavy and full of the wet sound of despair, somber black covering his form without a hint of the usual exuberant green or cheerful orange in sight.

Raising her chin in a grim defiance, Tenten watched the procession of well meaning dignitaries and commoners laying flower after flower.

Fingers trembled around a worn lighter and carelessly crushed carefully rolled tobacco as Nara Shikamaru struggled to light up a cigarette in ritual of memory.

Hyuuga Neji merely looked tired, the lines of stressful years crinkling around a dead white gaze. The lurid green of the Branch Family cursed seal lay bare to the world as the jounin stood with his grieving kin, determined to stop hiding the shameful secrets of the Hyuuga.

Glaring with hate-filled white eyes at the Hokage was the newest leader of the Hyuuga clan. Death hung as a wall between them with a demand to never forgive and never forget.

Hanabi stared across her sister's casket, myriad flowers piling ever higher as she held the Uchiha's gaze.

Dwindling away as the sun sunk to the horizon, the last in a line of well wishers lay a pure white lily over the coffin. Stained fittingly crimson in the dying light of the sun

Born in the shadow of death, an eternal enmity.

Blood dripped hot and red from his fingers, staining the loam of Hi no Kuni's forests as Kankuro released chakra strings with a scowl.

"You're doing better." Chiyo offered, her typical mocking subdued as she watched five white puppets drop to the ground in a clatter.

"But not good enough." Kankuro growled, whipping his fingers again in an effort to give life to the puppets.

Clattering in reply to the twitching chakra strings, the five puppets twitched. One even stood on shaking limbs before Kankuro cried out in pain.

The skin of his fingers peeled back further, exposing red muscle and the Kazekage's brother finally allowed the puppets to drop with a clamor.

Showcasing his torn fingers to his mentor, Kankuro waited patiently as Chiyo hummed over the injuries.

"You're determined." the puppet master cackled as her hand glowed green with healing chakra. "Reckless, but determined." Veridian wreathed fingers danced over her apprentice's and drew rent flesh and quivering muscles into their natural alignment.

Kankuro grinned before throwing his hands out to the side, chakra strings snapping back into place before drawing up the puppet.

"Be careful with those." Chiyo ordered half-heartedly before scanning the horizon.

Green leaves and trees pressed in on every side, stirring the faint impression of claustrophobia and the painful siren of memory in Chiyo's mind. Closing her eyes, the retired kunoichi sucked in a whistled gasp and dismissed the ghosts of a war concluded decades in the past.

It was the height of irony that she'd made a reputation for herself on the battlefield for slaughtering the Konoha-nin in droves. Then off it for developing poison after poison that slithered through their veins and strangled them in their sleep. Or had, until Tsunade-gaki became skilled enough to cure every attempt she made.

And now Chiyo's old bones creaked under her skin as she moved to aid the kin of those that had murdered her son and daughter-in-law. Fate was a harsh mistress.

Wood clicked and shook madly as chakra strings snapped again, and Chiyo snorted and shook her head. "Come little brat, it's enough for today."

"We have to get a move on if we're going to make it to Konoha by daybreak." she clarified when Kankuro sent her a murderous glare. "Pack up."

Scowling in frustration, the Kazekage's brother pulled a weathered scroll from a belt pouch and snapped it open. A long roll of paper hung in the faint breeze for a suspended moment before Kankuro reached bloody fingertips out and dragged them across the scroll.

Painful heat blossomed in his fingertips, which Kankuro promptly ignored as he formed a shaky one handed seal and sent the five white puppets into the trans-dimensional other.

The faint tap of a boot on branch overhead spurred Kankuro to direct a sharp glane up to his sister.

Temari lightly touched down beside Chiyo, readjusting her jostling fan at her hip before casting one final scan of the forest around them.

"Come on." the blonde barked, narrowing irate blue eyes. "You've rested and fooled around long enough. Gaara will scalp us both if we waste time."

The threat was delivered with a hint of lighthearted humour at the expense of their ever-serious younger brother. Unsaid between them was the constant thankful relief that they could jest at Gaara's expense. As opposed to a childhood where their powerful child brother would murder at the drop of a hat.

Kankuro wordlessly held out his bleeding fingers to his mentor, waiting for Chiyo's hands to light up with green healing chakra and sooth away the pain.

Merely snorting in amusement, the elderly kunoichi began to wander towards the north with a dismissive shrug.

"Take care of it yourself, gaki." she hooted gleefully. "Perhaps it'll teach you a lesson about obeying your elders and being careful when they tell you to."


Wood scraped over wood, pale pine skittering over dark oak patterns to land in a carefully bordered square.

Glowing cherry red in the darkness, the ember smouldering at the end of his cigarette flared into a brief orange life as Shikaku drew in a drag of smoke. Holding the coarse cloud to simmer inside his lungs for a masochistic moment before heaving an explosive white sigh from his nostrils.

Strong fingers swept back away from a small carved rectangle with the kinsho kanji. The gold general was a curious piece – powerful and next to the King, and just in range of being able to reach for the crown himself. If not for his counterpart staring suspiciously across from the King and the silver general at his back watching every movement.
In Konoha the Hokage was King. And if Tsunade ever had a samurai at her back it was Naruto. Unfailingly loyal with an iron code of honour and integrity.

But sometimes honour and integrity were needed far less than a knife in the dark.

Shikaku narrowed his eyes as he drunk in the greater arrangement of the boards – many more boards hammered together with many more pieces. An ideal visualization for his strategies with a meaning foreign to almost everyone he had ever met.

Only his own Shikamaru had the mind to spot his strategies and assumptions within the chaotic scatter of shogi pieces. His genius son and heir.

Kami, it made him feel every single year weighing down his muscles. Longingly staring at the door of his office, Shikaku indulged himself with the promise to slink home and crawl into bed next to Yoshino.

Undoubtedly the infuriating woman would scowl at him for coming home so abominably late. But if it would net him some of the sleep he craved, Shikaku was ready to cut his losses and take the scolding.

But first, his knife.

Dancing across the tabletop with the tips of his fingers, Shikaku considered piece after piece. The Red Lance was too volatile and given to explosive fury. The Green Bishop was taken with his duties watching over his tokin. The Grey Bishop was a likely option, despite the man's propensity for lateness.

The Black Dragon was young, and ruthless, and possibly skilled enough to do the deed. But locked in eternal opposition with the Black General as he was kept the pair of dangerous pieces occupied. Which may be for the best considering how unpredictable the Dragon was.

Perhaps the first thing to decide would be if there was a need to eliminate the Gold Generals from where they roosted. Or if some mere ploy might tangle them for a time and possibly garner their demotion.

Shikaku reached out and scooped up three pieces marked as neko-tokin and arranged them carefully around the left Gold General. Satisfactory.

Smirking with relief, the Nara knuckled his back and stretched with a great crack. It was time to be getting home.

If he was quiet enough, Shikaku hoped Yoshino wouldn't even notice him sliding between the sheets.

It was 03:54 when one of the night patrols failed to make their randomized check-in.

Jiraiya knew this because he shuddered awake to a clock glaring red 04:04 with a pounding hangover and the inside of his mouth tasting like old boots.

The whistling coded shriek of an owl reverberated through the village, relaying a message of warning to all ninja of ANBU clearance or higher.

Dragging a leathery hand across his lips, Jiraiya scowled at the sensation of drool before the Sennin rolled into action.

Jiraiya gave the toad contract a swift nudge beneath the tangle of his sheets before striding across the room and throwing open the grimy window.

Giving the run-down room a last cursory glance, the Sennin leapt into the cool night air, clad only in his mesh undershirt and brown hakama.

Cold slapped his skin, raising hair and starling the last vestiges of sleep from Jiraiya's eyes. Scanning the horizon for anything unusual, Jiraiya drunk in the sight of a dark purple sky and merrily twinkling stars.

Snorting in annoyance, the Sennin moved across the rooftops, taking notice of black blurs in the dark night.

Altering his path to intercept, Jiraiya quickly came to bear against a trio of ANBU. 'Report.' snapped from his fingers in silent code, and the shinobi quickly found himself rolling his eyes at the flurry of gestures he received in return.

Overeager young pups with delusions about the nature of war was all the three were.

Catching South-East and KIA patrol through the confusion, Jiraiya gave the three a grim frown and took off without another word.

Weaving back and forth to the South would hopefully net him something, since the Sennin very much doubted that any infiltrator that wanted to be unknown would go so far as to kill a patrol squad.

Jiraiya considered the possibility of another hidden village as the culprit, and ignored the keen thrill of fear that coiled behind his eyes at the thought. Living and fighting in two wars had more than destroyed his taste for battle or bloodshed.

But it was far too quiet for invasion.

Taking comfort in the thought, the Sennin gave another scan of the horizon before ducking below the rooftops and leaping through the silent streets.

A thin trickle of chakra reached through the soil beneath his feet every time Jiraiya landed, echoing out in search of another deflecting source of chakra. Only the yawning emptiness of the earth replied.

Air whistled by as Jiraiya crouched in the dirt and bounced in a great arc. Cresting over an apartment building, he craned for another look about.

Flickering orange shone in the corner of his eye.

Descending in a stomach gripping free fall, the Sennin reached out and grasped hold of an overhang, swinging back up to stare off to the Southwest.

All was blank for a tense moment, until just as he was about to dismiss it as being a product of his hungover mind, the orange shone again.

Powerful legs kicked against the shingles beneath Jiraiya, cracking them with the force of his leap.

It only remained to be seen who wanted to be known, and why.

The age-worn surface of the desk beneath his fingertips was still a foreign sensation. Carved lovingly from one of the increasingly rare great trees grown by the Shodaime's Mokuton jutsu, marked with ink stains from clumsy late nights, the Hokage's desk was just as hereditary as the white and red hat.

'Hiruzen was here' shone stark white against the dark wood, carved into the surface with a kunai, and Sasuke found himself snorting with a bitter amusement.

Handed down from his predeccessors indeed.

Glowing white under the pallid electric tubes adoring the ceiling was a bottle of sake tied about with a ribbon. A gift with no name or address attack, only a note telling him that from one drunk to another they knew very well the burdens of the office.

Tsunade's vices were many, Sasuke mused. Not that a realization of the weakness inherit in vice stopped him from pouring the alcohol down his gullet and savoring the burn in his stomach.

At least he'd survived until the second week of his new job before he'd broken down and begun to indulge in the need for drink.

Sasuke vaguely remembered decades in the past the faint voice of his father warning him against alcohol, loose women, and monetary greed. Two out of three was par for the course as far as the Uchiha was concerned.

He never did very well under his father's tutelage in any case.

A groan shook him from his reverie, and Sasuke cast a bleary glare at the lounging form of his childhood sensei.

Kakashi lay crumpled on Sasuke's couch, surrounded by bottles, many empty and some knocked on their sides half full. It left the sake dribbling out over the low table and into the carpet.

The Hokage's office reeked of booze.

Old Mitokado would have a conniption at the thought. Just when their notoriously alcoholic Godaime stepped down to enjoy her retirement, the Hokage's hat passed to an Uchiha with no concern for the dignity of the office.

Sasuke gave a low chuckle in bitter amusement.

A low moan resounded again as Kakashi shifted and slumped off the couch.

Rising unsteadily to his feet, Sasuke stumbled across the office with a hand on the wall to steady his steps. The Uchiha fisted the back of the ANBU-nin's flak jacket and dragged Kakashi back onto the sofa.
Sasuke nodded in satisfaction at the snores that began to fill the air and grabbed a last bottle for himself off the kotatsu.

Warm summer air ruffled his clothes as Sasuke sunk down on the windowsill, striding it as if it were a horse.

"What the fuck do I do now, Naruto?" Sasuke wondered aloud rhetorically. Taking a swing from the mouth of the bottle, the Uchiha gave the crescent moon as soft smile as it hung low over the village.

Protect Konoha.

The shattering of the bottle on the ground far below was a faint tinkle in his ears, ignored as the Rokudaime Hokage stifled hot tears on the back of his arm.

"Damn you!" Kisame snarled. A raw sound of exertion as he felt his arms struggle beneath the effort of holding up Itachi's shimmering orange blade and preventing it from crushing him.

With a heave of effort, the nukenin shoved away the sword and dashed forward. Bringing Samehada about, Kisame thrust it directly at Itachi's glowing red eyes.

Only to growl in frustration when yet another strike deflected off the strange ghost that Itachi had summoned to combat him with.

"Tch." the swordsman grunted, shoving the tip of his scaly blade into the mud and bringing up his hands. Chakra flared in wisps of blue as Kisame inhaled, holding his breath as pressure built in his gullet, and then let it go.

Water burst like a stream from a hose, frothing white in fury and slamming into Itachi's towering giant skeleton with a crack like thunder.

"Suiton: Suikōdan no Jutsu!"

The impact threw the Uchiha from his feet, sending Itachi desperately clawing into the ground as he struggled to regain his footing.

Another slam of force broke into Susanoo as Kisame brought Samehada down in an overhand slash. Deflecting again, the nukenin scowled before wrapping two hands on the blade's hilt and hammering away with it as if it were a bludgeon.

Slapping Kisame away with a giant ghostly six-fingered backhand, Itachi rose and began to make slow deliberate steps toward his former partner.

"Your death comes for you Kisame." Itachi drawled out, staring down the nukenin with a cold hard stare. "Have you come to realize yet what you truly are?"

Susanoo reached out, scooping up the struggling nukenin and squeezing. Flesh collapsed red and wet, blood running out between the cracks of giant orange fingers.

Then the red turned to clear water and the mushed gore in Itachi's grasp melted away.

Laughing rung out behind him, "Save your cryptic shit for when you kick the bucket, Itachi!"

Giving a great sigh, the Uchiha spun on his heel to meet Kisame riding a towering wave. Water swept down, buffeting against the transparent armoured bones in a gurgling rush.

Itachi reached out and twisted his left hand, curling down the humanoid's left arm and the shield it was clad in. A clear gong rang through the air in an eerie ring that seemed to come from the inside of the Uchiha's head as the Yata Mirror changed it's chakra nature and vanished Kisame's waves.

Then Itachi was heaving, white fire obscruating all thought except for the pain and burn inside of his lungs. Itachi collapsed to his knees, sinking down with trembling exhaustion as his body rebelled against him. Another choking churn had blood and vomit pouring down the front of his collared shit.

Digging his fingers into the mud, the Uchiha shook away the trauma with sheer willpower and raised burning eyes to the sight of Kisame taking advantage of his weakness and striking the Uchiha's chakra construction with savage blows.

Cracks began to grow, dark and crooked on the inside of Susanoo's transparent rib cage. Orange chakra bent inward at each blow. Itachi's eyes widened with a thrill of panic.

One last backhand slash, and the humanoid construction broke away with a shattering tinkle like glass. Orange shards glinted through the air before dissolving into mist.

Blood began to well from under Itachi's eyelids, marking red tear tracts down his cheeks like grotesque tattoos.

Kisame gave a sharp grin of victory, whirling Samehada back around and over his head. Identical white smiles shone from both the shark-man and shark-blade's unholy hellmouths as the scaled sword came down with a whistle.

Throwing himself up and forward and to the side, the Uchiha gasped at the effort that saved his life.

But even the ever stoic Uchiha could not contain the scream of agony that burst forth from his tortured throat when Samehada bit into the flesh of his right forearm. Bone cracked under the blow, flesh obliterated and torn through by the shaving scales of the blade.

Itachi's severed hand hit the mud, twitching slightly as abandoned nerves gave a last confused shudder before falling still.

Kisame's smirk was short lived when the Uchiha brought his left hand around with a short black kunai grasped in painful white fingers. Flesh parted for the second time as Itachi's momentum swung him about and slammed the dark iron blade into Kisame's throat.

Pulling straight out reduced the nukenin's neck to a bloody ruin, crimson pouring out and into his jacket.

Itachi yanked his obi off his waist as he panted with anguish and fear – the sight of his blood spurting out more disconcerting than the Uchiha would have cared to admit. The thin cloth was thrown about his severed stump and tied off with a hand and gritted teeth.

Kisame reached a trembling hand to his throat as he stumbled back, the expression on his face almost pitifully confused. Beady black eyes sought out red orbs and seemed to search for something.

Whatever the Hoshigaki had been attempted to find, Itachi couldn't have said. The shark-man's eyes hardened a moment later, and then he toppled backwards with a thump.

Turning unsteadily on his heel, the Uchiha stepped away. Red eyes stared fixatedly on his pale and severed hand, and Itachi stumbled drunkenly towards it.

"My hand." he breathed, weak knees collapsing under him as shock set in. "My hand." Itachi repeated numbly, crawling through the muddy and bloody battlefield to take the amputated limb and curl around it.

Resting one cheek on the ground, Itachi's red eyes faded to coal black as he strained to take in the distant east horizon.

Vermillion peeked over the trees with the first taste of dawn, and the Uchiha smiled despite the creeping blackness spiralling inward from the corners of his vision.

Darkness took him, filling the world and his mind until the only thing Itachi was aware of was the slowing sound of his own beating heart.

Then warm hands were curling around and under him, with a gruff voice in his ear.

"Don't you dare die on me gaki. If you do your brother is gonna kill me."


Mist breathed out from between Shikamaru's teeth like smoke as he moved through the chilly autumn streets of Konoha. Ino and Chouji had long since broken off at his insistence. Ostensibly because someone had to report to the Hokage about the failure of their mission. And arrange for a coffin to hold Asuma's bones in properly as opposed to a filthy ragged sack.

Truly because Shikamaru wanted to speak to Kurenai by himself. The guilt was hot and thick on his shoulders, bleeding between every crack of his soul with a taste of failure and shame. If only he'd been smarter, or faster, or stronger, than Asuma may not have died.

Dew coalesced on the rusting iron lamplights as the yellow glow in them sputtered and died under the fiery early morning light.

Shikamaru turned down a side street, halting to take in the rows of urban residencies and the quaint little similarities and differences of each homestead. He was stalling he knew as he stared down at his long shadow reaching along the street.

Dark words for dark men.

Striding down the sidewalk, Shikamaru counted every passing home with dread until he stopped at one with shining new silver numbers. Seventeen.

He remembered when their team had helped their sensei move into the first house the Sarutobi ever owned. It was a bright day, filled with laughter and jokes and a delicious barbeque.

Happy times that could never be the same again, reduced to fragments of memory.

Shikamaru steeled his nerves and reached out for the plain silver knocker, hammering slowly on the wood and then folding his arms behind his back to wait.

Minutes trickled by, and just when the Nara reached out to knock again, the door swung inward.

Kurenai peered at him with confused, bleary eyes before giving a beaming smile and knuckling a sleepy scarlet orb. "Back already Shikamaru?"

The shinobi attempted to force his features into a smile, truly. But all Shikamaru could manage was a pained grimace that made the dark bags under his eyes and the bruise curling about the corner of his jaw more noticeable.

Raising a thin dark brow, Kurenai placed a hand over the swell of her stomach and shook the sleep away. "Is everything alright Shikamaru?"

Shikamaru swallowed thicky, thinning his lips as he reached for words that could press across at his sensei's wife in the best way that such foul news could be portrayed.

Red eyes tracked a slow blink over his shoulder and then down the street, narrowing as they turned back to Shikamaru. "Don't tell me that fool husband of mine has gone and gotten himself drunk on the way back. He'll be sleeping on the couch for a week!"

"Asuma's dead." flew from his lips, and Shikamaru closed his eyes against the way that Kurenai went pasty white at his words. Fuck, he couldn't manage to say something a little more sensible?

Another thick swallow. "I mean – shit." Tugging nervously at the tip of his ponytail, Shikamaru met Kurenai with a solemn gaze. "The mission went bad. We – I fucked up. It's my fault, I'm sorry." Perhaps it was for the best that all eloquence deserted him.

You couldn't pretty up murder.

Kurenai nodded dumbly, pale as a corpse. The pregnant kunoichi's lips flapped uselessly for a moment, before the woman was able to muster a low croak and stumble back inside.

The door slid softly shut with nary a creak.

Glass shattered, a great cacaphony of noise that shuddered high and clear into the Nara heir's ears.

It failed to covered the sound of Kurenai's shriek that vibrated through the walls. A tortured, animalistic sound that began high and lowered until it was nothing more than broken sobs and the low keen of grief.

Shikamaru pulled a cigarette from his front pouch, lighting up the stick with a shaking hand around his sensei's light. A slow pull in, and the Nara threw his head back to stare up at the sky.

Indigo threaded through with the red of the dawn.

Hands clenched tight until the pop of his knuckles was audible.

(AN) 7000 some words here. I had to push around for the count. Much writing lately. Much update. My beta team is kind of off the grid this week, and I don't want to wait for them to trickle in to post this. So I'll just go ahead and write away and let them back edit chapters until they catch up.

In other news, university is over for the summer. I'm working more and writing a lot more. It makes me wonder how the hell some writers manage to write like 130 stories and they're all of a decent length.

I've decided to change the name of "The General" to "The Kingdom" if any of you are waiting on your hands for that. I doubt many are, but I felt like it should better reflect that the story is equally Sasuke and Naruto centric. Speaking of which – The White Snake is best said as Team Seven centric.

I've also started a Hobbit fic that wouldn't' leave me alone called "These Old Roads". Check it out if that's a fandom of your's. Maybe feed me back on what I should do in the long run. Moving on.


1) Kabuto and Cells – Orochimaru as a scientist would probably have samples of his DNA rolling around in different bases and study his own genetic manipulations.

2) Kisame and Konoha's barrier – He picked it up from Itachi when the Uchiha let them in the first time to search for Naruto.

3) No one but Itachi is aware that Sasuke is from the future. Others are aware that they're from the future. But as of this point no one is aware that anyone else is from the future.

4) Naruto's power incontinence – I laughed a bit. But I'm only feeding her slowly. As of yet Sasuke is running around doing everything, which would piss her off and make her want to build her strength too. But without the do or die advancements of before, she's not growing as quick. Don't worry your heads overmuch. If the first half of this story is Sasuke-centric, the second half is Naruto-centric, and she'll catch up.

5) Where is all this? Kisame was in the woods waiting for Itachi because Itachi wandered into fire country on his own. Then Itachi jumped ship and left Kisame waiting about, who then decided to go after Itachi when he learned about the betrayel. And he purposely muddled his tracks up and put clones out to distract people before sneaking in to find Itachi.

6) Why does Gaara have future memories but Naruto does not? Because the seal difference between them is significant. Gaara's seal has always bled Ichibi into his mind, and what he's seeing are the Ichibi's memories. What Yugito and Killer B have are their own actual future memories, the reason for which is still a secret.

7) One reader raised the point of Naruto being childish, and yes at time that can be annoying. But realize that Naruto IS childish. If Naruto was not a childish fool, he would have given up a long time ago and become a realist in the manga. It's only his stubborn foolishness that allows him to persist making the choices he does. I plan to break Naruto of that and make her grow up, because this isn't a shounen manga. But at the same time I still have to work with what I'm given.

8) Itachi is always Sharingan'd up for two reasons. One, it enables him to intimidate shopkeepers for pocky. And two, it's a habit of years due to his formerly deteriorating eyesight.

9) If I had to pick a song for this fic, it'd be different based on the character. I often associate Sasuke with "Broken Inside" by Broken Iris, and hearing it reminds me of this story.

That's all for now.

Apparently there's formatting issues with this chapter. I went in and unformatted and reformatted because something with italics. But I don't see anything myself so I have no idea if it worked.