It came in the middle of the night, borne by a fresh-faced genin who'd been paid fifty ryou by a man in a mask to deliver it straight to Uchiha Fugaku, no questions asked.
Fugaku opened it up with shaking hands, tomoe of his Sharingan spinning as he checked for tags, seal-marks, chakra signatures- any hint or clue at all. There was nothing, only plain string and brown paper covering a plain white plastic box with an ordinary containment seal. It was strangely cold.
"Father, are you sure-"
Fugaku silenced Itachi with a heavy wave of his hand. Mikoto hovered by the doorway, kunai held expertly in one hand and chakra gathering in the other. None of them slept easily now.
With strangely calm hands, he broke the containment seal with a swipe of his thumb. The box hissed and cool mist rose from the edges of the lid that were revealed in the absence of a working seal.
Three pairs of swirling red eyes tracked the movement of the fading fog, burning the impermanence into unforgettable memory. Only water vapor with a slight hint of chakra, too faint to be anything but a brief flicker of blue and then nothing.
Fugaku opened the box.
The Sharingan cut straight through the sudden rush of cold mist and revealed the lump of flesh lying on a bed of ice, white and dotted with clumps of congealed blood. There was a dull thud and Fugaku looked up, Mikoto's ghostly pale face etched into his vision. For as long as he lives, Fugaku will always remember the look on her face, the little 'o' of her mouth, the kunai buried to the hilt in the floor, the faint fluttering beat of her heart pulsing in the hollow of her throat.
"That's Sasuke's ear," Itachi whispered, horrified.
His hands were no longer calm. They were shaking now, trembling violently like leaves shuddering in face of a vengeful wind. He picked out the little placard placed next to- next to- Fugaku shuddered, mind refusing to comprehend.
It was cheap rice-paper, sold in stationery shops, a penny for a hundred sheets. Fugaku held it up to the light, paper shaking so badly he could hardly read what was on it. Itachi's hand braced his arm, forcing it to steady.
The ink was a dull, rusty brown- the color of dried blood, Fugaku slowly realized. There was only a single character, written with a steady hand, brush strokes clean and precise.
There was only the silence, cold and quiet and as heavy as Kaka-nii's flak vest, swallowing him up with its emptiness. Naruto wanted to break it, wanted to paint the walls of the room a bright, loud orange, scream and shout and ruin the silence and laugh and leave the room and play with Ryou-chan and Sasuke and Sakura.
Instead he stayed in the corner of the room, watching the painted pictures on the walls glow and fade, black flashing into blue and back to black again.
An old woman sat in front of the rice doors, white head bent over her knitting, needles flashing like fish scales in her hands. She had walked into the room with him, her bony hands strong as she shoved him into the room and lit up the painted words on the wall with her catra, like Kakashi-nii-san had shown him once, but normally the painted words in the apartment only lit up when Naruto wanted to come inside and he had to unlock the door with his hand on the special picture.
"I want to pee," Naruto said loudly, just because, even though he didn't really need to at all.
"Hush, demon brat," the old fat granny said, not even looking up from her stupid knitting.
She was just like the rest of the grown ups, calling him mean names and glaring at him and Naruto wanted to scream and scream and make her see that he was Uzumaki Naruto, the greatest prankster in the world and Kakashi-nii-san's younger brother!
"Is Kakashi-nii-san back yet?" Naruto demanded, heels drumming on the floor, just to make some noise.
"Boy, the Hatake should be the least of your concerns right now," the old granny snorted, voice old and croaky and sounding like it had come straight from the fairytales about old witches living in the forest.
"I don't like you," Naruto said and slammed his foot down extra hard and didn't even make a face even though it hurt a lot. "I want Shisui back again instead of you." At least Shisui had talked and played with Naruto and the two of them had drawn pictures together of Naruto's super cool Hokage outfit that he was gonna wear when he was a super S-ranked ninja. But Naruto could see how tired Shisui-kun was, with great dark smudges under his eyes and his face so pale and white, even for an Uchiha (Naruto accounted himself a regular Uchiha expert by now, having lived with them for weeks and weeks and weeks. Uchiha were normally rice-paper-pale and when they were in the sun, none of them ever got brown like Naruto but a blotchy shiny red that peeled and then went straight back to being white. Sasuke's family, Naruto thought, was kind of weird.).
Once, Naruto had asked him about the search going on outside and Shisui had only smiled a smile that wasn't really one at all, and held Naruto close to his chest, so tightly that Naruto felt like he was going to burst. He didn't complain and only listened as Shisui said that they were trying very hard and if Naruto could just be a little more patient, he would only have to stay hidden away like this for a only a little bit longer, so he wouldn't go missing like Sasuke-
Naruto curled up into a ball, knees tucked in close to his chest, and put his head down. He'd been waiting for so long, first for Kakashi-nii-san to come back and now Sasuke was gone and Naruto was stuck inside this stupid tiny room with the glowing pictures and the old fat lady and he wouldn't cry, he was a big kid now and big kids didn't cry-
"Tch," the old woman said and she put down her knitting for the first time since she'd walked into the room and hobbled over to Naruto, back bent and curved like an ancient tree. She produced a clean white hanky from the depths of her kimono and scrubbed Naruto's face roughly.
"Blow, little brat," she commanded, holding it over Naruto's nose and Naruto blew so loudly that he honked like a goose. He giggled and the old woman sniffed, putting the dirty hanky away.
"We'll find him," the old granny said and she sat down all proper like Fugaku-san made them sit for meal times. "And Hatake will come back for you."
"But how do you know for sure?" Naruto asked, looking down at his socks. They were his favorite, with little green frogs dancing all over the orange background. Kakashi-nii-san had gotten them for him when they went on the big shopping trip after he'd told Naruto that they were going to be living together.
"Because I am very old and I know many things," old granny said, wrinkly prune lips pressed together. "And I also know that it is past time for you to do your hiragana homework."
"Pfffbbbbbtttt," Naruto blew air out from his pursed lips, puffed up cheeks slowly deflating. "I hate homework," he muttered.
The old granny gave him a mean look and Naruto grumbled, but started inching over to the worktable in the far side of the room, dragging his butt slowly over the floor without ever quite raising it.
"Walk," the old lady said, her voice very stiff and cold.
Naruto continued to slowly scooch his butt.
Naruto jumped up and pointed a finger at her. "My name's Uzumaki Naruto and don't you forget it!" he shouted and stamped his foot. "Not demon or brat or anything! I'm Naruto."
They stared at each other for a long time, Naruto growing redder and redder and angrier and also maybe a little scared, but ninja didn't ever back down and he was gonna be the best of them all!
"Uzumaki," the old granny finally said and she looked away. "Go do your homework."
Naruto stomped over to the desk and pulled his chair out and sat down very hard. Then he winced because sitting down very hard hurt a lot, so he rubbed his butt. The pictures he drew yesterday were still all over the desk and Naruto picked his favorite one up- it had him and Sasuke and Sakura all standing together (not holding hands because that was for girls) and Kakashi-nii-san in the back, extra tall and smiley with his eye. Shisui had helped him with coloring in everyone's hair, especially Kakashi-nii-san's grey spikes.
"Come back soon," he whispered at the picture of his family.
There was no window, only the steady flame of a single candle that flickered briefly when Itachi walked in, reeking of sweat and ozone. Dark eyes, nearly the same as his own, looked up and briefly flashed red before settling back to their normal black. Shisui slowly pulled himself up from knees, exhaustion etched into every line of his body, fine wrinkles marring his pale brow.
"Shisui," Itachi acknowledged and put a gentle hand on his cousin's shoulder, stopping him from getting all the way up. "Thank you for coming."
"You called," Shisui said simply, the barest hints of his normally bright smile tugging at his mouth.
"So I did," Itachi said, settling down in seiza next to Shisui, their knees almost touching. The ancient holy tablets seemed to glare down disapprovingly from the walls, fading strokes of black ink painted on wood that had been considered old before the thought of a Hidden Village was first conceived.
"I have a noise cancelling genjutsu in place," Shisui nodded. "Speak freely, no one will be able to overhear."
"Good." Itachi breathed in deeply, chakra drawn up deep inside of him and filling up his chest with flames that begged to be let out. "I have met with the Hokage."
"And?" Shisui's head jerked at Itachi, black curls spilling wildly across his face.
"He suspects as we do," Itachi said, fingernails digging into the hard bone of his knees. "That Danzou is behind his disappearance."
"Suspect!" Shisui hissed and the candle flame guttered, casting strange shadows over his cousin's pale face, highlighting the strong line of his jaw. "We know."
Itachi thought of the soft curve of Sasuke's ear, white with frost and dotted with old blood, resting in a small box. "Yes," he said very softly. "The illusion that Danzou has cast is very strong. He drives fear and madness into all of us, Shisui, fans the flames that were already growing out of control. He's using Sasuke's disappearance to drive us over the edge, exhausting and turning the Uchiha against the Village. It's an illusion that no kai or sharp edge can break."
"Because it's real," Shisui said, voice breaking.
Aniki's the best.
"I've been asked to infiltrate ROOT," Itachi said and closed his eyes.
"You don't mean Danzou's-" Shisui sucked in a sharp breath and he broke seiza, reaching out to grip Itachi's shoulder. "Itachi, you're- do you even know what-"
Itachi opened his eyes, half-hooded lids revealing bloody red pupils, tomoe spinning lazily. "My intention is to find Sasuke and should it come to it, to kill all those who would threaten the peace of the Village." He drew in a ragged breath, fire deep inside of him growing until it felt as if everything inside was turned into nothing but ash and dust.
"You can't tell me that the Hokage would ask something like this of you." Itachi could see Shisui's breath curl in the air as he hissed, waves of heat flickering from behind lips bitten down to bloodied flesh.
"I will do whatever I can for my brother," Itachi said, looking straight ahead at the massive engraving of the Uchiha fan under the holy tablets, carved with painstaking attention to detail. "And if it means losing myself, so be it."
Shining Sun of Our people, I give myself unto you and pray that this unworthy one is payment enough. Amaterasu, Divine Radiance of the Heavens, destroy this Darkness and return my brother.
"I can't let you do that."
Itachi's control over his Sharingan snapped, the mundane world crashing back down on him, fate lines of the world dissolving into thin air.
"You're the future Head of this Clan. You can't risk yourself like this, not with Sasuke already missing." Shisui's grip moved from Itachi's shoulder to his hand, his fingers tangling with Itachi's. His skin was feverishly warm and sticky with sweat.
"I won't let you do that to yourself," Shisui said fiercely. "I won't let you destroy yourself trying to keep the damned Village together."
Itachi swallowed, thoughts moving slowly, adrift in a sea of thick honey. "It doesn't matter-"
"It matters to me," Shisui said, grip tightening, eyes bright. "Threaten the peace? You know, even better than I do, how fragile the Clan is right now, especially with Sasuke's kidnapping. One wrong move and we'll be at war with the Village and Danzou has no better excuse to put us down, like we're all a pack of rabid dogs. You can't tell me that it wouldn't be your job to stop that from happening, even if it means killing your family."
Itachi shook his head slowly, Shisui's voice ringing in his mind, drowning out all other sounds but the sweet chime of his words, intoxicating and deep with power.
"Shisui." Itachi's Sharingan slowly unfurled in his eyes, instantly cataloguing Shisui's trembling face, the chakra burning bright in his fingers, tracking the flow of chakra from his cousin's body to his own. "Release the genjutsu."
Shisui drew back, giving Itachi a crooked smile. "I had to try," he said and pulled his fingers back, ending the illusion. The cotton wrapped around Itachi's head slowly dissipated and he found that he could properly think again.
"Why would you do this?"
Shisui's smile slowly faded away and when he reached out again, Itachi saw that there was no trick, only Shisui's hand gently cupping Itachi's face. "Let me go in your place," Shisui said, as if that were answer enough.
Itachi tasted ashes and dust. "And if I said no?"
"Then I'll knock you out and go anyway." Shisui's eyes bled red and Itachi saw the pale reflection of his face mirrored in Shisui's circling tomoe, Sharingan reflected in Sharingan. "I'm better suited for this job anyway. I'm stronger than you in genjutsu and Danzou has no reason to suspect anything from me."
"Better suited to kill clansmen?"
"You're needed to lead the resistance and convince the elders," Shisui said quietly. "I'm just a branch kid, blessed with the favor of the main family and a gift for party tricks. I'm replaceable. You-" Shisui's fingers tightened, the tips of his nails pressed against Itachi's cheekbone, tiny pinpricks of pressure. "-you're not."
Itachi jerked his head away and out of Shisui's reach. "You're not giving me much a choice."
Itachi closed his eyes, the fire in his chest burned out and nothing remained but the scorched wasteland where his heart used to be. "Go," he said raggedly.
Itachi turned his head away, his fingers digging into the hard muscle of his thighs. "Get out!"
Shisui left, leaving Itachi alone in the dark room, with only the silent holy tablets looking on. They said nothing as he sat in perfect seiza, tears slowly, steadily dripping down his face.
They left Hiroki his life and not much else.
Kakashi kept an eye on Radiou as Genma tended to the boy, hands glowing a serene bluish-green that radiated in bursts from his hands. Tenzou kept himself busy in the field, a troop of clones busy repairing the earth so it looked less like a war zone and more like a normal training field.
"How much longer?"
"Just give me a couple more minutes." Genma's voice was strained and Kakashi could only imagine how pale his face was underneath the implacable porcelain mask, carved in the form of a howling wolf.
Kakashi kept a constant finger on Radiou's pulse, too fast and weak for his liking. His skin was cold and pale from blood loss, but he was breathing regularly, even if his chest rise was a little shallow. Kakashi took what good news he could get.
"I've done the best I can." Genma drew himself back onto his feet and staggered a little, waving off Kakashi's attempt to help him up. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just." He barked out a rough laugh. "This fucking mission."
Kakahi pressed a hand against Hiroki's bare forearm, sending out a pulse of chakra. There was only carnage underneath his fingertips, chakra coils torn and shredded like wet tissue paper. It was convincing enough to pass off as a jutsu backlash, chakra exploding in Hiroki's coils after a misformed attempt to try out a higher level technique. "This is very good work." He would never be able to form another jutsu again.
Genma rubbed the back of his neck, tilting his head in appreciation. "Yeah, well. You can thank me by taking us all home, Captain."
Kakashi stood up, absentmindedly cracking the joints in his fingers. "Cat, leave it as it is, we've got to get moving back to home base."
Tenzou looked up from his perch on a slowly growing boulder, where he'd been shaping it to his precise specifications. He'd managed to stay away from Hiroki's body since the fight, contenting himself with surveillance and cleanup duties. "We're going back to the square?"
"We have to maintain our cover. With Gari reported missing and Hiroki's freak accident, they're going to be suspicious of anyone who leaves Iwa in a hurry. They're going to swing by to interrogate anyway, we're fresh-faced foreigners from Lightning Country."
Genma shifted his mask enough to swig from his canteen. "I can't wait until we're out of this damned hellhole." The strip of skin visible was pale and shiny with sweat.
"How're we going to explain Tiger's injuries?" Tenzou asked, leaping off his rock and trotting over. He stopped a good five feet away from Hiroki, never glancing over at the body on the ground.
"We're not special intel operatives trained to maintain a cover under this kind of pressure," Kakashi said quietly. "We may have to rely on the Liar's Palace."
Cat's fists tightened, the only sign of his discomfort. "Oh."
"Try to contain your enthusiasm," Genma tried to joke, but it fell flat. The corners of his smile never reached his eyes.
"For what it's worth-" Kakashi paused, throat working. He looked down at Radiou's still body, wrapped in spare blankets and covered in aluminum bunting to keep in heat. Normally, Raidou was a sprawl of limbs when asleep, a mountain of a man with giant feet sticking out from under a blanket that barely covered his ankles. There was nothing normal about him now, lying down ramrod straight, blood seeping through hasty bandages. "I never intended to draw his attention to our team like this."
"We know," Genma said, not unkindly, but the corner of his mouth twisted downwards, and Kakashi looked away, unable to bear looking his subordinate in the eye.
"Let's get going," Kakashi said, clearing his throat, and bent down to carry Raidou in his arms. He was heavier than Kakashi remembered, a messy tangle of long limbs and mangled bits of plate armor. He carefully avoided looking at the half-healed remnants of Raidou's chest.
"You alright, kiddo?" Genma asked, slinging his medic's kit over a shoulder with only a slight wince.
Tenzou wrenched his gaze away from Hiroki's sleeping face and turned the face of his implacably smooth Cat mask over to Genma. "Yes," he said, calm.
"Seals on three," Kakashi said and closed his one good eye, tasting ash and dust in his mouth.
"Iwa Military Police," Kanryuu knocked against the granite wooden door, stone rippling outward from the epicenter of his fist.
Shizuka chewed absently on her toothpick, riffling through the papers the office monkeys had passed onto them on the way out. "They must be piss fuckin' poor if they're squatting in old Genjihara's dump."
"They're from Lightning, they probably don't the difference between a hovel and a garbage dump," Kanryuu snorted and knocked again, hard enough to shift the grain of the stone. "Besides, the Ministry of Imports probably billeted them here so they can pocket the difference and buy whores with the extra money."
"You have such a way with words, Kanryuu," Shizuka said drily just as the door slid open, revealing a pale faced young boy with large round eyes and hair messily tied into a topknot.
"How can I help you sir, ma'am?" he asked politely, eyes widening a little as he took in the police insignia embroidered onto the front of their vests and chakra sticks hanging off their belts.
"We here to ask a few questions regarding an incident that occurred a few hours ago in the Village and we have reason to believe the culprit is around the area," Shizuka reeled off, adopting just enough of a hard and polished tone that the boy automatically straightened his back.
"Of- of course," the boy said. "I don't know know what's going on, but if you would like to come inside, I can get Ichiro-nii to answer some of your questions."
"Much obliged," Kanryuu smiled, revealing tobacco stained teeth and several gaps in his smile. The boy flinched a little at the sight and Shizuka gave him a slight kick, annoyed that he was frightening the little kid. Kanryuu smiled even wider, enoying the reaction. It never got old.
They were politely seated in a tidy, though cramped sitting room, stuffed with boxes and boxes of what Kanryuu assumed to be filled with fabric and whatever the hell the merchants were selling. "Sorry about the mess," the boy apologized, clearing off a chair and kicking aside a box full of receipts and papers. "We're packing up to leave soon and it's gotten a little bit crazy."
"Not a problem," Shizuka said easily, kicking back in the chair and giving the kid a smile. "Nice place you got here."
Poor bastard flushed to the tips of his roots and mumbled something before scurrying out of the room, presumably off to find Ichiro-nii.
"And you kicked me for smiling at the kid," Kanryuu muttered. "You have no sense of mercy or fairness."
"Your smile isn't exactly the pinnacle of beauty," Shizuka shot right back.
"Yeah well, I could say the same of yours," Kanryuu said and dodged a half-hearted punch to the arm.
Their argument was cut short by the arrival of Ichiro-nii, hair slicked right back in the style that Lightning Country men favored, stinking of camphor grease and an overpowering cologne that made Kanryuu's nose itch. He looked pale and overworked, dark circles coloring the skin under his eyes.
"It's an honor to meet you both," Ichiro said, exhaustion making his voice rough. "My apologies for the wait."
"Quite alright," Shizuka said, leaning forward in her chair and giving the new boy a look up and down and sideways. "You must be Ichiro-nii."
"Yes, that's me," Ichiro said, settling onto a ratty looking footstool and running a hand through his greased hair. "Ryou said you had some questions about some incident or another?"
"Several hours ago, an important member of our community and his student went missing. The student was eventually found, but he's severely injured, and his master is still presumed to be missing. We believe that the culprit fled to this general area, judging by the evidence we have so far." Ryou, the boy who met them at the door, popped his head around the corner and colored a little at seeing Shizuka's face. Kanryuu winked and made sure to flash his tattooed arms, enjoying the way the boy's face whitened.
"This is the first I've heard of anything like this," Ichiro shook his head and he looked truly regretful. Kanryuu read nothin' but pure stinking truth on his face and scratched the left side of his nose to let Shizuka know. "I'm afraid I've been home all day and a good part of last night, so all of this is news to me."
"If I may ask what you were doing?" Shizuka asked delicately, while Kanryuu flexed his muscles to look as threatening as possible in the background. No need to let anyone know he was anything more than a dumb piece of hired muscle.
"My cousin and our hired bodyguard seemed to have come down with food poisoning," Ichiro sighed and his shoulders slumped. "I've been up all night cleaning up after them and trying to get their fevers down.
Shizuka clucked her tongue. "My sympathies."
"You can send them to Genjihara after I'm done with him," Ichiro frowned. "It's the damned food they serve in this inn that made them sick. I know at least three other families on this floor who've complained about the meals here this entire month."
"It must have been a terrible ordeal," Shizuka nodded. "And if I may be so rude as to ask, is there any way we can confirm your presence here?"
"Ryou can," Ichirou gestured behind him and the boy smiled tentatively at them from behind the corner. "He was with me all night, holding back Riku's hair as he threw up all over the bathroom. And let's see...old man Shinta downstairs at the reception desk. He's always down there and he can tell you that the last time he saw us was late yesterday afternoon."
"That's very helpful," Shizuka nodded and tapped her finger against her leg. We're done here. That was good, he really needed to use the bathroom and maybe they would have enough time before their next assignment to hit up the lamb spice shop that opened up near HQ.
"We're very grateful for your help, Ichiro-san. We've intruded on your hospitality long enough and we must get going anyway."
"But I haven't even offered you tea," Ichiro protested as Kanryuu stood up, knees pooping and joints cracking.
"Maybe next time," Shizuka smiled and got to her feet as well, chakra stick thumping against her hip. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Ichiro-san." Kanryuu gave his normal farewell nod and headed out the door, just in time to see Shizuka give the poor boy lurking in the background a smile and suggestive wink.
"They're cute when they're like that," Shizuka laughed, shutting the door closed behind her and sealing it with a sharp twist of her chakra.
Kanryuu rolled his eyes. "Can't get any men your age so you've stooped to robbing cradles now, is that how it's going?"
"Oh hush," Shizuka said, scribbling Subjects 1472A clear; no follow-up recommended onto her notepad. "Or we're gonna go spend our lunch break at Riko's cafe."
"No need to get nasty," Kanryuu said grimly. "The old hag likes touching me in inappropriate places too much for me to ever feel safe eating there."
"She pinched your butt once!" Shizuka laughed.
"The last man I saw touch you without your permission ended up in the hospital for a month and a half," Kanryuu sniffed.
"I was being nice," Shizuka said and she was admittedly right. The poor bastard right before that one had ended up permanently disabled. "Lamb shop on Sakurai street?"
"Now we're talking," Kanryuu said and twisted his heel against the cool stone floor, turning rock solid ground into a silk smooth puddle. It felt pleasantly warm and dry against his bare feet. "Next stop, lunch."
"Why is it that you're the one always initiating the burrowing jutsu," Shizuka complained, but she grabbed his arm all the same as they sunk into the ground, sucked in by a gently swirling vortex of molten stone. "And you always do it funny, it makes me dizzy whenever I get out."
"No side-along comments while I'm working a jutsu," Kanryuu snorted as they disappeared into the earth, the liquid floor instantly hardening into solid rock where they once stood.
"You're scheduled to leave in a few days," the chuunin commented idly as she looked over their papers and stamped them with the official seal of the Ministry of Borders. "Why so early?"
"We're all out of stock actually," Riku grinned, tossing his braid over a shoulder and giving her a wink. "And we're a little homesick for real mountain air after a month here."
"Any plans on coming back?" the chuunin smiled coyly, leaning against the desk so he was afforded a better look down her shirt.
"Maybe," Riku said and with an elegant twist of wrist, wrested the papers out of her grasp and back into a worn leather pouch. "What do you think about summer in a year?"
The chuunin laughed, loud and bright, throwing back her head to reveal the smooth curve of her neck. "It's a miracle how you get any girls at all if that's all the smooth talking you have," she said.
Riku wiggled his fingers at her. "Ah, but I've got the magic touch."
The chuunin's bright grin turned salacious. "I'm beginning to see why," she said huskily.
"Oi, Riku," Ichirou shouted from the front of the wagon, impatiently flicking the reins. "Put it back in your pants and let's get going."
Riku gave her a regreful look and tucked his leather pouch away. "Next time, my fair ninja lady?"
"We'll see," she said, amused, and waved him away.
Riku hopped up onto the wagon with a bounce in his step, jostling elbows with Ichirou as he fought for space on the front seat. It only took a sharp tug and a click of Ichirou's tongue to get them rolling and out of Iwagakure for the first time in almost a month.
Genma visibly slumped forward, tension practically leaking out of him as they drew farther and farther away from Iwa's gates and towards home.
"Tired from flirting?" Kakashi asked, feeling the faintest tendrils of genjutsu tangle themselves around him and hide the gates from view. There was a reason guides were only needed to bring people in and not out.
"Just tired," Genma said, pinching his nose and rubbing his temples. "Got a massive headache that refuses to go away."
Kakashi gave Genma a side-long look. He was deathly white underneath his tan, with great dark bruises under and around his eyes. Kakashi wondered if those were lingering after-effects from being in such close range with Gari's kekkei genkai. "You're pushing yourself too hard," Kakahi quietly observed. "You shouldn't have healed my leg last night."
"It's a necessary allocation of resources," Genma said immediately. "You're the Captain and you're the only one who knows how to get us out of this shitshow intact and back home."
"You're our only medic," Kakashi said and flicked the reins, even though Jin hardly needed the direction or the motivation. "And Raidou is the most critically injured."
Genma jerked his head towards the back, though it was covered by a tent of oilcloth, hiding Raidou and Tenzou from view. "You now, back during the war, I thought they were, not joking, but you know how it is with soldiers. Seeing it for real, in person." He shuddered. "I don't even know how Tsunade-sama managed to save so many of his victims."
"You did good," Kakashi said and felt Genma start a little next to him, shoulders tensing.
"We're all still alive," Kakashi said and pressed closer against Genma. "You did enough and more, soldier."
Kakashi felt the way Genma relaxed, inch by inch, and started to lean against him. They sat in quiet silence for a long while, passing through empty canyons with nothing but the sound of Jin's hoofbeats beating in counterpoint to their hearts.
Kakashi pushed them harder and faster as the air changed, turning wetter, the ground growing soft and lush with moss. They had erased all traces of the wagon and cut the horse loose some fifty miles back, close to a civilian homestead, and ran like proper ninja with nothing but the wind in their faces and chakra willing them forward.
Tenzou ran point, arm streaming behind him like twin blades cutting through the wind and Kakashi followed up with Raidou on his back and Genma guarding their rear, the two steady points of chakra that anchored Kakashi in the mind-numbing run towards the end. Hours passed in this mind numbing state, legs growing leaden and tired as they pressed forward relentlessly.
They were only an hour's hard run to the border when everything fell apart.
In the span between one heartbeat and another, Kakashi felt his grasp on the world shatter. He slammed to a sudden stop, tightening his grip on Raidou to keep him from slipping. Automatically he breathed in, searching desperately for the two anchors that kept him tethered.
Ahead, Kakashi could see Tenzou's porcelain white cat mask, chakra signature fluttering and beating in confusion. On his back, Raidou's much slower and fainter signature washed slowly at the edge of his senses. That only left-
Tenzou leapt past him and down onto the ground where Genma lay, crumpled in on himself. "Genma, are you with me?"
His limbs were splayed like a broken doll's, face white in the reflected moonlight except for the great ugly big bruises circling his eyes.
Kakashi carefully laid Raidou down on the ground next to Genma and called forth a spark of lightning to his fingers. Carefully, he brought his fingers over to Genma's still face and Tenzou automatically drew back.
He gently flicked open Genma's eyes and checked the pupils. Blown and unequal. Kakashi extinguished the light and reached down to pinch and twist Genma's earlobe. No reaction. Pulse: faint and irregular.
"What's going on?"
Kakashi didn't answer and instead tilted his head to the side, brushing aside Genma's hair to reveal deep purple bruises behind Genma's ears. With delicate fingers, he probed the base of Genma's skull and felt a slight depression near the bottom, right near the border of his occipital and temporal bones.
"Brain bleed," Kakashi said grimly. "And it's a few days old, judging by the bruising and the state of his pupils right now."
"It's been four days since the fight with Gari," Tenzou said, horrified. "You can't mean he hasn't-"
"It's a miracle he's lasted this long," Kakashi said, quiet, remembering that brief moment when Genma's head had snapped back and hit the ground while cushioning Raidou's impact.
"We're so close to Grass, if we could just carry-"
"It's hard enough with Raidou on my back as it is," Kakashi said. "Carrying Genma would just slow us down even more."
"You can't mean we abandon him to his fate," Tenzou hissed, shoulders tight.
"Not quite," Kakashi said and pulled his dogtags over his head. He held them out expectantly. "Take this and run to the outpost we have by the Grass-Fire border."
"This is an order," Kakashi said flatly. "Take my tags and run and get reinforcements. Grass is small enough that you can cross it in a few hours if you run hard enough and we're close enough to the Grass-Earth border as it is from here. They'll have enough power there to use summoning transports to get here."
Kakashi could see the Adam's apple in Tenzou's throat bob as he swallowed. "Do you understand, soldier?"
"Sir, yes sir," Tenzou said and he took the tags.
"Good. We'll be waiting."
Tenzou saluted, fist over his heart. There was no better farewell than the sight of him dissipating into thin air, inky black cloak fading away until the only thing Kakashi could see was Tenzou's ghoulishly grinning cat mask, until that too disappeared into the night.
"Are you ready, Uchiha Shisui?"
Shisui held the mask up in the light. It looked surprisingly plain and ordinary looking in the fluorescent light, nothing like the mask of terrors that haunted every small child's nightmares, dripping with the blood of strange enemies.
"As ready as I ever will be Hokage-sama," Shisui said and slid the mask over his face, securing it with a chakra string. He blinked, adjusting to the heavy weight of porcelain pressing against his face.
"You go with my blessings and the hopes of our Village," Sandaime-sama said slowly, smoke-roughened voice especially hoarse.
"No pressure," Shisui tried to grin but the mask was too heavy and strange on his face to allow for any expressions. He settled for saluting instead, bowing deeply as he went down on one knee.
"You have asked for no better pair of eyes, Hokage-sama," Shisui said and rose up. "I'll end this, one way or another."
Sandaime-sama said nothing and watched as Shisui instantly vanished without even a disguising puff of smoke or leaves to hide the disturbance, living up to his nickname. He waited in silence for a few moments, before clearing his throat rather loudly in the empty room.
"You may come out now, Uchiha-kun," he said gently.
Itachi stepped away from the corner, shadows dripping down his front and pooling at his feet until his entire front was revealed. Trace bits of inky shades still clung stubbornly to his hair and the curve of his jaw, giving him a faintly sinister appearance.
"Hokage-sama," Itachi bowed.
"I have done as you asked," Sandaime said.
"Mere words cannot express the depth of my gratitude." Itachi flicked a finger and the darkness at his feet seeped into the floor and faded away. "He is-" Itachi paused and the unnaturally smooth facade of his face rippled.
"He is very important to me," Itachi continued, with some difficulty.
"If there were any other way," the Sandaime began and then stopped. Mere words could not express the depth of his regret and sorrow.
"If only," Itachi said and closed his eyes. Sandaime suspected it was to hide the Sharingan. Or, perhaps tears. He was not sure.
Kakashi woke up, drowning in a pool of his own blood.
He gagged, trying to deal with sudden influx of memories rushing in from the death of his watch clone. Bile rose up in his throat he instantly spat it out and at the intruder hovering over his face.
Muscle memory propelled chakra through his fingers, calling up the burning white lightning that left blue streaks in his visions. Kakashi thrust forward blindly and was rewarded with a sharp hiss and the smell of burning fat.
Retreat, retreat. Kakashi scrambled backwards, feeling the comforting solid stone at his back and shoved his forehead protector up. Color bloomed into existence as Obito opened his eye and Kakashi recognized the tell-tale shock of white hair and round glasses.
Kakashi bared his fangs and went in for the kill.
Hard steel bit into the fleshy part of his palm but he pushed forward, lightning crackling in his palm and cauterizing the wound shut instantly. He wrapped his bare hand around the blade and pulled.
The intruder grunted in surprise and Kakashi brought his other hand to slam against bony ribs, hearing the satisfying crack crack crack as costal cartilage smashed under the force of his blow.
It earned him a sharp whine of surprise and Kakashi growled, making sure to grind his fist even harder into bone and blood.
Fingers scrabbled helplessly against his arm but Kakashi paid it no mind. He flipped the blade in his bloody, chakra-blazing hand and held it against the fuckface's throat.
"Hello," Kakashi said, glorying in the stink of fear and pain rolling off of Kabuto in waves. "That's very rude of you, dropping in unannounced."
Kabuto whimpered, looking strangely young and vulnerable, round glasses nearly twice the size of his face. Kakashi frowned. This was Kabuto. He had the grey hair, the glasses, even his chakra moved the same way, sickly sweet and twisting in strange patterns that gave him a headache if he tried to focus too hard on it. And yet baby fat still clung to his cheeks and he was no where near as strong as Kakashi remembered.
"Please," Kabuto moaned piteously. "Please don't hurt me, oh please oh please."
Of course, Kabuto would be ten years younger here. Kakashi had no idea how old the boy truly was back when Kakashi had first met him at the chuunin exams, but he looked about twelve or thirteen here, round face only hinting at the hard planes it might become in the future. What was he doing here, in this godforsaken part of the country?
"Please sir, I didn't mean to-"
It took only a moment's hesitation and Kabuto opened his mouth, spewing out a cloud of poisonous gas that burned Kakashi's eyes and nose. He flew through a series of one handed seals and blew it away with the strength of the north wind, watching in deep satisfaction as the jutsu also tore mercilessly at Kabuto's skin.
The wind faded away in a few moments, leaving only a battered Kabuto learning against the wall of the stone cave for support, armor torn to shreds.
"Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?"
Kabuto gave him a flat, unreadable look that sent uncomfortable shivers down Kakashi's back.
"We could do this one way or another," Kakashi said and waved the blade in his hand, sending a single spark of lightning through it. "How did you know I was here and what do you want?"
Something in Kabuto's face shifted and Kakashi doubted it was the physical threat that made him twitch. He could only guess at the strange machinations of the child standing before him. Was he working for Orochimaru? Akatsuki? Kakashi tracked his every movement with Obito's eye and committed it to memory.
"I've been sent by a collector," Kabuto said slowly, in a sweet little boy's voice. It made Kakashi's teeth itch and hackles rise.
"Keep talking," Kakashi said.
"He knows of your reputation as the Copy Ninja. I was sent to acquire your Sharingan."
"You wouldn't be the first," Kakashi said and flicked the blade in his hand, splattering blood onto the floor. "As you can see, I still have my eye."
"I am, admittedly, not your match in a physical fight," Kabuto said and then paused. Slowly, carefully telegraphing his movements, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"Your teammate in the wolf mask currently has a basilar skull fracture, suffering from severe internal bleeding and increased ICP. If he doesn't receive treatment in the next three hours, it is almost certain he will die. Your teammate in the tiger mask is suffering from hypovolemic shock that is guaranteed to decompensate in the ten hours and has a developing infection that's threatening to go septic." Kabuto smiled.
"I can heal them," he said, "in exchange for your Sharingan."