Disclaimer: I own everyone whose name you do not recognize… and possibly the bit about iron maidens and all.
Note: Things may seem slow-moving or convoluted, but I promise that there is a point to all of it. I've got three major arcs/time-spans that I want to cover, and the buildup for this first arc may be a little slow, since I want to do this carefully/properly.
Most nights, Sasuke dreamt of trees.
Some nights, he'd see cascading waterfalls too, but a hand always held him back, pulling him by the shoulder away from the raging water. Sometimes there'd be a verbal warning; other times there'd be little holding him back other than a tight grip belonging to a hand that belonged to no-one. Whenever he turned around to look, an unnatural silence would greet him, reminding him that he was alone.
Sometimes the animals of the forest would rush towards the river, beckoning him to follow, in order to end his loneliness by becoming a part of the herd. Each time he followed, the hand would grasp hold of his forearm, yanking him back as though yoked to a chain. Each time, he'd cry out, begging to follow, to stop being alone—and the hand would reluctantly let go.
When he reached the watering hole, he'd bend down to cup it between his hands, drinking from his palms as the others lapped up the water with their tongues. When they had their fill, they'd retreat to the forest, leaving him with the latecomers—the hornbills, the crows…
He always found himself standing across the water from the one-eyed crow that squawked at him pensively, its open eye bleeding red. He often waded across the narrow stream, in an attempt to reach the bird, but the river would widen then, swallowing him whole with its gaping jaws as he lost his footing in the middle of an endless, murky abyss.
Sometimes he'd forget how to swim, upon losing sight of the river banks.
It wasn't long before he began to envision the water as the slow death of dreams.
Sometimes the crow would find him in the forest, whenever he did his best to resist the stampede to the river, sitting alone under the thick canopies of trees. The darkness often came quickly those days, leaving him alone with his gathered firewood, which he lit with a simple fire jutsu. The crow would find him then, sitting opposite the flames, and they'd watch each other until the fire burned out.
I protect you from the trees, the crow chirped once, in human words, when Sasuke asked for the bird's name.
"Are you my brother?" he persisted, but the crow looked away.
"So tell me about the trees then," Sasuke relented, giving in to his only companion. "What's so bad about them?"
They weep for their burning brothers, the crow said, gesturing with a wing towards the pile of crisping firewood.
"Oh," he said guiltily, rubbing his hands together to pick up the heat, "but I need to stay warm."
Watch out for the roots, the black bird cawed, as they're the parts of the tree you never see until it's far too late to stop their growth.
Sasuke shifted nervously as he moved away from an aerating tree root.
"Why do they fear you?" he asked, remembering what the crow first said.
Not me, said the bird, but what I know.
"Is it a big secret?"
Something of the sort.
"Can I know?"
You already know it.
Sasuke eyed the bird dubiously.
"I'd know if I knew a big secret, but I don't. I think I'd remember something so big."
Not when it's hidden inside, and he pictured something of a smile on the winged creature. But once they know that you know it, they'll come for you too.
"But you'll keep me safe right?" The boy asked worriedly. "From the roots."
The bird surveyed its surroundings carefully, its singular red eye blinking as the pinwheel spun into shape.
It cocked its head to the side. I'll see what I can do, it said, before turning and hopping away.
"He's got some kind of memory pocket weaved into his head… largely intangible, of course, but that isn't enough to question its existence."
"Can it be removed?"
The blond man sighed. "I'd rather not," he confessed, "not with the way it's wired into his brain—it works in a similar way to the Hyuuga's cursed seal. Any attempts to remove it could and possibly would fry out his brain."
"So it's a seal." Hiruzen replied, to which the younger man shook his head.
"No. It operates like a seal, but it's much more intangible than that. Whatever it is, it's a masterful application—even I can't penetrate it without risking permanent entrapment."
"Can you guess its contents?"
"The Iron Maiden?" Inoichi proposed and the Hokage starred at him quizzically. "There was a theory proposed just after the Second Shinobi World War regarding the survivors of massacres who had been 'allowed to live', so to speak. Yu Shang wrote about the entrapment of the soul in the mind, brought about by the consistent torture of the perpetrators that resulted in deep memory pockets being birthed into existence by the victim's own imagination. He wrote little about the physical aspect of it, but detailed a lot about the psychological deterioration that followed. He referred to them as iron maidens due to their mythological existence and the victim's inability to escape without shredding themselves to pieces."
"Are you suggesting that Sasuke did this to himself?" The old man asked wearily.
"He's certainly maintaining its existence," Inoichi replied, "sometimes even building onto it, with the number of memories he keeps evoking, though it's also possible that it was set up in place by another."
"Itachi." Hiruzen said resolutely. Inoichi could only agree—who else could it have been?
"It's cruel," he concurred, "but then again, I guess I wouldn't expect anything less from a kid that snapped and murdered his entire clan." He watched as the village leader peered through the open door at the dark-haired boy who remained fast asleep on the hospital bed.
Inoichi reached out with his chakra, searching for any eavesdropping ANBU, before pulling the door to a close. Leading the Sandaime into the adjoining room, he sealed them in with the privacy barriers that rose with a hum.
"Hyuuga," he muttered softly, even though they were alone.
The Professor merely sighed.
"Seems you've caught on," he noted, "or the Hyuuga are acting more openly than I thought."
"Rabbit," he offered, and the Hokage's eyes narrowed seriously, "I pulled him aside and reminded him of his first and foremost allegiance, but he did confirm the Hyuuga's interest."
"Will he be a problem?" Hiruzen asked, and Inoichi knew the consequences of answering that question fallaciously.
"His reactions have been a remarkable source of information, but I could have Gazelle watch over him too, for added security."
"I don't want any political intervention that might arise from that potential fallout."
"There shouldn't be any," Inoichi affirmed, "the psych evaluations show that Gazelle's still a lone wolf operative within his team, even despite their well-rated intra-unit evaluations. Panther did well to hold a group like this together, but I doubt they'll ever socialize outside the job, especially once Panther and Falcon retire from the force." He passed the file to his leader, who skimmed through the charts. "Also, it shouldn't interfere with the team's dynamics. If one of their members is a turncoat, even if only for the purposes of his own clan, it's still a violation of village law. The others would be obligated to act against him and bring him in on charges of treason."
"Hopefully it won't reach that boiling point," Hiruzen voiced steadfastly, "we'll just have to nip it in the bud."
They both turned to the monitors as Sasuke stirred, turning over to his side as he pulled the blanket along with him.
"I must ask, Hokage-sama…" the Head of Intelligence queried, and the old man nodded for him to continue, "why you revealed Itachi's escape to him. We don't know how that statement might have affected him."
"Falsifying Itachi's capture would have only had a detrimental effect," Hiruzen responded, "and Sasuke would have learned later, whether through secondhand knowledge or some other means. It's better for him to be in the know, under conditions where we can still actively monitor him."
Inoichi turned back to the screens, palming the remote that would let him zoom in. The young boy had turned again, burying himself under the blanket. "When he wakes, I'll speak to him again. If there's any progress, I'll report it to you immediately."
"Yes," the Hokage replied, heading back to the door, the folder tucked under his arm. "I'll leave you to it. I expect an update by the end of the day."
Out of all the training grounds that littered the innermost compounds to the outskirts of the village, it was often said that Training Ground Three was among the most well-known of them all, for its much frequented memorial stone. During the previous war, it had served as a temporary headstone to the countless graves that couldn't be dug, until proper burials or incinerations could be performed in the various cemeteries both within and outside the walls of the village. There simply hadn't been much time back then, or sufficient security and manpower to organize the searing number of obsequies that came about each day, and most families resorted to incineration along with closed ceremonies and private prayers.
During the war, it had been a luxury to be able to bury your dead.
Most shinobi waited until after to mourn their fallen friends, and Kakashi had attended more wakes than he could count on both hands several times over.
He visited their graves often, when he could, though more often than not he kept away out of shame, and when even liquid courage failed him, he often stumbled over to the one cenotaph that always found him and welcomed him back.
"I should've been here…"
Raising a hand over his covered left eye, he let the cold metal of his slanted protector benumb his fingertips.
"I wasn't in the village, where you might have been." The contrite sentiment was spoken softly, prohibiting the wind from carrying his words over to any eavesdroppers or passers-by. "I would have failed you again."
He paused in thought, picturing the revenant's reply. "Not that I think you're weak, but… you might not have seen this one coming. I didn't, and they used to say that he and I were of the same mold." He let his hand fall back down to his side, before slipping it into his trouser pocket.
"Then again, the higher you rise, the further you fall is the saying." Kakashi thought of his former teacher, who had suffered a premature death in order to perform the biggest sacrifice this village would ever see. His thoughts vaulted to Orochimaru as well, golden child of the Sandaime, who had been slated for Hokage candidacy up until the moment his true nature was uncovered. The Sannin had then made a run for it and escaped the village safely, befitting a shinobi of his skill level and status, but his reputation had been shot to pieces the moment he crossed the gate.
Itachi had done the same, and Kakashi doubted that he would ever be found unless he wanted it. Of the same mold… The kid had been a genius too, after all.
"One of your cousins survived," he added as an afterthought, "Sasuke, his younger brother. They think Itachi tortured him into silence. I think they're just trying to measure the kid's stages of grief and hope that he doesn't try to send himself over too." He crouched down to the level of the memorial, eyeing the name of his one-time friend.
"He's like me, now." Kakashi mused thoughtfully, glancing overhead. "With family who died by their own hand…" Death by prodigy was the term coined for it. The Uchiha had always regarded their clan as the crème de la crème—it'll take an Uchiha to kill an Uchiha, he had overheard once in the ANBU locker room, a simple reminder that Obito had been the only one of their kind he considered good enough to call a friend. Ironically, that very Uchiha axiom had come to pass. The same had been said about his father during his glory days—it made some kind of morbid sense that a man so renowned would only be felled by his own hand.
Tilting his head to take in the full panorama, Kakashi monitored his surroundings surreptitiously. He wasn't a sensor-type, but tracking had been one of his specialties from the start, and cooped together with just under two decades of high-level battlefield experience, it went unsaid that there were few who could catch him off-guard.
He felt a rising inclination to respect whoever was watching him now.
Forming a few quick, imperceptible hand seals under the guise of clutching his hands together over his knees, he formed a shadow clone, merging it with a subterranean technique to summon it under the soil. His simulacrum would know what to do upon locating the target.
He unclasped his hands, waiting patiently for the wrap-up.
Well prepared for the return of the copy's remnant chakra and newfound memories, Kakashi turned sharply towards the direction of its dispersal, biting into his thumb as he formed a quick flurry of well-practiced hand seals.
Slamming his palm against the ground, he watched as a dark-skinned pug surfaced, its paw raised in greeting.
"The target dispersed my copy," Kakashi ordered curtly, "follow my chakra pattern to the site of origin and get his scent."
Adhering to the sudden command, the clothed ninken headed out immediately, moving at top speed through the trees, while his summoner stayed behind, surveying the landscape for other insidious observers. Finding none, he pursued his trusted hound.
"Any success?" he asked, arriving at the scene to find the pug encircling a few trees, industriously sniffing the ground. "Whatever you can glean, I want it memorized."
"Yeah, yeah," the dog replied, glancing up, "though I'm surprised you didn't go after him yourself."
"Just keep at it."
Wide eyes narrowed perceptively, before returning to the assigned task. "It's to do with the recent… proceedings, isn't it?"
The silver-haired shinobi remained silent, arms folded across his chest as he leaned against one of the trees. Sinking into reflective rumination, he replayed his relayed memories from the shadow clone. The encounter had been brief, with his duplicate finding the target within moments of inception, intending to yank the culprit ankle-first into the ground. What had happened instead was a debacle of sorts, as the target had reacted against the maneuver by anchoring his feet with a well-calculated amount of chakra atop the soil. In turn, the stranger had also lashed downwards, instantaneously plunging into the ground to grasp hold of the clone's retreating hand, before wrenching the copy up to the surface with enough chakra-infused strength to rival Tsunade of the Sannin.
What caused his clone's dispersal was not the observer's highly commendable chakra control, but the fact that the figure had had such an awfully familiar presence.
"It's strange," the ninken noted, circling the disturbed patch of dirt where Kakashi's clone had been forcibly surfaced, "there's your scent, and then there's another… but it's not anybody else."
"Describe it in detail," the jounin urged, his worries confirmed, "I need to know the exact similarities."
"It's frightening, that's for sure… but it's not a perfect match. I mean, it's definitely got your scent to it. Ordinary hounds probably wouldn't be able to differentiate between the two." The pug's headband gleamed as the sunlight caught it between the leaves. "Other than that, there's nothing really. No discerning or distinguishing scent markers. I'll remember the odd one, but other than that, I doubt it's much to work with. The scent vanishes underground too. Whoever he is, he's very good."
"That goes without saying," Kakashi added, "I barely noticed his presence, despite his proximity."
The man had been hooded and well masked. He had also operated in a way that deterred the clone from seeing the upper half of his face. Rubbing at the phantom pain on his wrist from the forceful extraction, he recalled the unadulterated shock that had reverberated through his system the moment they came into contact, allowing the stranger to dispel his counterpart with an unrestrained strike to the neck.
That one moment of contact, however, had given him plenty of food for thought.
"You think it's them?" the hound asked.
"Not here," the Copy Nin responded warningly, lowering his voice, "and if so, it means that home ground's more dangerous than I thought."
"Internal, you mean?" the pug followed suit, remaining intentionally vague.
"More like personal." Kakashi corrected, his lone eye narrowing at the thought. The first inkling that anything was wrong had come several rotations back, when his ANBU unit Alpha VI had come under heavy political fire and the Sandaime had forcibly separated the well-coordinated team for vague, unspecified reasons. He had kicked up quite the stir then, citing injustice and negligence towards the proper formation of black ops units. It was, after all, a well-founded practice to keep coefficient units together to ensure maximum success, and his team never fell short in that regard. It had remained unspoken, but the Copy Nin had always prided himself on looking underneath the underneath, and he knew instantly that he had been the hellfire's target, not his team. The dispersal of his team had merely been an attempt to throw him off-kilter… and it almost worked.
If it wasn't for the Sandaime's intervention and compromise to let him keep one member of his team and give Raidou the promotion he deserved, with his best friend to boot, Kakashi wasn't sure that he would have let the incident slide without quitting the force or doing something equally drastic to that effect. The council would probably have chided him for acting entitled to certain courtesies rarely accorded to the rest, but he was never one to let political manipulations such as these pull one over on him.
After all, he was never the type to willingly throw his friends and teammates away.
The events that followed soon after that had been much more subtle, at least on the political scale. His new team, though still dubbed Alpha VI, had been assigned to a series of inter-related infiltrative missions around the border of Kaminari no Kuni and its vicinity between there and Kumogakure no Sato. They had been assigned the role of playing anarchic mercenaries intent on freeing small villages just inside the Kaminari border from the 'oppressive rule' of their Daimyo. Nothing ostentatious, but just enough to remind the appropriate parties of the attempted coup d'état on Mizu some time back. The idea was that if Kumo centered its attention on the potentiality of a civil conflict, they would spend less time antagonizing Konoha's borders.
So far the mission had proven fruitful, and the Raikage had been ordered by the Lightning Daimyo to take charge of the situation and end it. Most Kumo-nin unnecessarily teetering on the border had been withdrawn to investigate the civil takeovers, giving Konoha the opportunity to strengthen its own borders without hindrance.
The problem, however, that had arisen was during his team's third stint, when several members of Kumo's very own black ops had been there to greet them, citing knowledge of their mission. The battle that followed had been short, but intense, and Keitaro had come out of it with a nasty wound across his shin that took a while to clean. What had been stranger was the fact that none of the Kumo warriors had had the proper chakra-infused markings of a legitimate soldier of the distinguished Kumo force.
They had lain low after that, cutting off all communication with Konoha in an attempt to weasel out anymore successive attempts on their lives. Nothing had followed and they carried out the rest of their mission with relative success, though the episode weighed far too heavily on Kakashi's mind to let him think that it was anything but related to the problems he had experienced back at home.
If those men belonged to Kumo, then it meant that Konoha had a security leak. Perhaps even a plant that had yet to be ferreted out. But if they weren't…
Kakashi's eye narrowed at the implication.
"Pakkun, I need you to prep the others about this," he ordered solemnly, as the ninken stood to attention, "I'm not letting this one slip."
"Enter," Inoichi announced, looking up from his paperwork to regard the ANBU member that silently stepped into the room.
"Inoichi-sama," he greeted inquisitively, "is something wrong?"
"Take a seat, Tatsuo-kun," the older man gestured to one of the two chairs opposite his own, pretending not to notice the ANBU's tilt of the head at the mention of his real name.
Codename Gazelle chose to stand, keeping his position, his hands held dutifully behind his back. Inoichi couldn't say that he expected anything less; that kid was always a stickler for the rules, even as a child. There had even been a betting pool at one point within the clan as to whether or not Tatsuo possessed a sense of humor. The answer had been a very definitive no.
"Is this about Rabbit?" he asked, and Inoichi paused contemplatively, before nodding once in affirmation. The young Yamanaka was sharp, the best of his batch, and he didn't put it past him to notice Rabbit's change in temperament after his summoning of the Hyuuga to the adjacent monitoring room in the hospital's restricted wing.
"I know that he's your teammate—"
"That's beside the point," the younger man interjected, "if you suspect that he's a potential threat, there will be no moral conflict on my part. I will do my job."
Inoichi's fingers thrummed his desk. "Very well, then. I've already spoken to the Sandaime about this, but I'd like you to keep an eye on him too. If you spot even a hair out of place on the brat, I want to know."
"Is the captain aware of this?" Tatsuo asked, as the Chief of Intelligence folded his hands together above his workspace.
"No," he replied, thinking of the scarred twenty-something leader of Beta IX, "and neither is Falcon. If a situation arises, they will be duly informed, but until then, your assignment will remain confidential and low-key."
"Understood, sir. Is there anything else required of me?"
Inoichi leaned back in his seat, rotating a pencil between his thumbs and forefingers. "What are your observations thus far of his behavior?" He wasn't the type to actively encourage intra-unit spying on fellow comrades and teammates, as it normally intervened with team dynamics, but he knew that Tatsuo would have no qualms about such things. He wondered if the kid even considered any of his own teammates as friends. As a solo operative, the concept of putting him onto a proper team had seemed outlandish at first, but the Hokage's adamant insistence of promoting cooperation and filling up the open positions left by teams who lost a member had been more pressing at the time. A year had passed since then.
"For a licensed medic, Rabbit is notably untrained in psychology," Gazelle remarked pointedly, "as evidenced when he first moved to grab the traumatized Uchiha. It is basic principle to let the child come to you, rather than invading their personal spaces of safety."
Inoichi remained silent, letting the ANBU continue.
"He has also shown visible signs of agitation and increasing distress since his assignment to our current task. Falcon attributes it to pride," he cocked his head to one side, "stating that the members of the Hyuuga clan rarely take well to being assigned sentinel duty."
Inoichi nodded slowly, the latter half of the report consisting of nothing new. Both the Uchiha and Hyuuga clans had plenty of egoistic idiosyncrasies that were generally ignored unless it involved a major political affair.
Rabbit's changing temperament indicated an amalgamation of things—firstly, it meant that Hyuuga Hiashi and the other elders were probably pressuring the kid in a mélange of ways. It could either mean that he was attempting to use the branch member as a means of communicating with Uchiha Sasuke, or that he was attempting to acquire classified information about the survivor that the Hokage had yet to release to the rest of the council. Both would result in the violation of the ANBU Secrecy Act, and unless caught in the act, the Hyuuga elders would escape scotch-free while Rabbit would be left to fry as a scapegoat. If the medic attempted to spill the beans then, Inoichi was never the type to put it past the Hyuuga clan head to activate the cursed swastika on the branch member's head.
Secondly, it also meant that the Hyuuga clan was getting nowhere with their machinations. Had Inoichi been the first to bust their cover by confronting the kid? Why else would the kid be so stressed out? Or had Hokage-sama also intervened? He knew that all political maneuvers until then were merely precursors leading up to the true fight that would occur during the next council meeting, when all factions would stake their claim over the last Uchiha.
Hokage-sama had been steadily deflecting all calls for a full council meeting, citing immediate security concerns and damage control before he presented everything to the council's scrutiny. They both knew, however, that even the God of Shinobi wouldn't be able to hold out on their demands for very much longer.
"If I may ask," Tatsuo conjectured, "will our clan also be bidding for the opportunity to raise the child?"
Inoichi regarded him with a speculative look.
"No," he answered definitively, "Not by a long shot."
By the time he awoke, the strange dream had ended, and a voluminous throbbing had filled the empty crater it left behind. Wiping his sweaty palms across the blanket that covered him, he surfaced to see the same blond haired man sitting by his bed, clipboard in hand.
"Sasuke-kun," the man greeted, as he pulled himself upright, simultaneously raising the pillow behind him. "Do you remember who I am?"
Sasuke stared blankly at him for a long moment, trying to put the man's familiar face to a proper name. It was a clan head, he knew—his father had made him memorize the faces of the council long before he entered the academy, but that had been so long ago…
"The mind reader," his voice croaked hoarsely as he tried to form the words, "Yama—Yamanaka…"
Another lesser clan, his father had said. Catching the gaze of the blond man, he realized that he had said it out loud. He quickly broke eye contact, looking away.
"—Inoichi," the man finished for him, professionally ignoring the gibe, "Yamanaka Inoichi, and I'm the one who's been checking up on you."
"Inoi… Ino," Sasuke rolled the familiar name around his tongue, "Like the girl."
"My daughter Ino is your classmate, yes." Inoichi remarked, tapping his pen against the clipboard. "Are you two friends?"
"She talks a lot," he said curtly, "and says she knows everything." He tilted his head sharply towards the older man, his eyes fixating on the man's own. "My brother knew everything." He felt the pang of sadness pulling at his chest and glanced down at his hands. "Now they're all dead."
He turned towards the window, which was still blocked out by a curtain, and wondered if one of the ANBU that frequently watched over him was there, hiding among the elusive shadows.
"I don't want to be here," Sasuke confessed, and the older man's eyes narrowed slightly at the statement.
"Where do you want to be?" Inoichi pressed on, when he didn't continue. There was some sort of controlled urgency in his tone—like there was something he wanted him to say.
Sasuke maintained his silence as he scanned the room, finding the black mounds on the ceiling that indicated the presence of video imaging devices.
"You watch me from another room," he deduced easily, "it's how you know when I'll wake up." He stared at the places the ANBU agents had stood when the Sandaime had been in the room. "Then why all the ANBU?"
"They're here to keep you safe," he was told, and he stared mirthlessly at the blond man as he jotted something down on the clipboard.
"Safe?" Staring down at his palms, he pictured his once bloody hands. "Safe from me…" He worked his way around the thought. "You want to keep me safe… from me."
He repeated the phrasing wordlessly, keeping his head down.
"I have strange dreams," he admitted, pulling the pillow down as he curled onto his side, "and I don't know what they mean."
"What do you dream of?" Inoichi asked, and Sasuke saw the genuine curiosity on his face.
But once they know that you know it, they'll come for you too.
"Roots," he answered, welcoming the thought.
Kakashi remained visibly impassive as he resealed the scroll, handing it back. Hiruzen clutched it tightly.
"Until he's reassured that our village remains unaffected by the massacre, his actions have the potential to undo many of Konoha's undertakings thus far, including your recent mission. If he chooses to play up the loss of the Uchiha clan as a major depletion of our resources by soliciting the clientele of other nations, he risks attracting Kumo's attention back to our doorstep." The Sandaime sighed wearily.
Review, please! This was a taxing chapter, but things are moving steadily along...