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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-27 03:53 pm

for: [profile] oceansex

For: [profile] oceansex
Title: And Time Runs Out
Rating: PG-15
Summary: War is on the horizon for Konoha and its allies, and the very idea of what it means to be a ninja is being threatened. But Naruto has never been one to surrender, and for both their sakes, Sasuke finds it’s time to lay his demons to rest.
Warnings: Violence, language, smexing, and fluctuating POVs.
A/N: I must apologize most sincerely to my recipient. I wrote this very close to the deadline. :’) I did try to incorporate the song you requested. Credit for any and all coherency belongs to my dear friend and beta, an amazing writer in her own right, who I cannot name at this juncture. I hope you enjoy!
Mod note: Reminder for the author/artist of this submission, please do not reply to comments signed in, if you want to reply anon commenting is enabled.






~*~


"I've had this secret

And I feel it's time that you should know

When I'm in your arms, it turns me on.

But I've got a conscience too….

So this is the last time that I'll hold your hand.

I want to kiss you on the mouth and tell you

I'm your biggest fan."










"My Name is Trouble" – Nightmare of You


~*~


The walls of Konoha seemed like they reached the sky.


Ambassador Toshihiko had seen them once before; he’d been younger then, a different man, both naïve and idealistic. It had been another time, during another war; they had fought on an uneven playing field, and been swept from it by ninja like those within these walls. It had been like they were mortals standing in the dirt while Gods fought above them in the skies.


And now, it was the Gods’ turn to be brought down to earth.


The ambassador signaled his procession to a halt. From somewhere beyond the closed gate, a single bell clanged. Then with the rasp of stone on earth, the doors unbolted and swung inward.


Lax security, Toshihiko thought, for a ninja village.


His first glimpse of Konoha’s interior was not what he had expected. It was not a maze of hidden buildings; there were no men in black lurking in the alleys, no stink of death in the air.


It shone. The sun fell unusually bright on rows of red tiled roofs. Phone lines ran along the cobbled main road, passing over noodle shops and wet markets. Between the windows, rows of washing were hung out to dry.


Barely visible in the distance, the facial likenesses of seven people were carved into the rocky cliffs.


The seventh face had been spray-painted to include a magnificent orange mustache.


Toshihiko sniffed.


There were two ninja standing on either side of the great doors – guards, or gatekeepers. The elder of the two – perhaps a veteran gone to seed - wore standard black-and-green, while the younger flaunted regulation in baggy clothes and sunglasses.


"Forgive this unannounced intrusion." The ambassador bowed. Behind him, four dozen samurai followed suit. Their heavy armor clanked. "I am Toshihiko Hokuto, humble ambassador from the Land of Iron. It is urgent that I speak with your Hokage on behalf of General Himuro."


The older man’s expression – what was visible of it – went from mildly interested to vaguely surprised. "I don’t recognize that name."


The ambassador bowed again. "General Mifune passed from this world several months ago. Our Samurai Nation does not presume to be important enough for its every development to reach your… network."


"Ah."


"And I am afraid I cannot discuss the matter with anyone but your Hokage."


"If you insist." The man turned to leave, then stopped, hands in his pockets. "Oh. One thing. Diplomats are given the honor of an escort into the village by our border guards. They seem to be missing."


"Ah." Ambassador Toshihiko made an expression of regret. "I’m afraid something unfortunate has befallen your men." He stepped aside, and the samurai parted to reveal a wagon, covered in tarp and piled high. A still, pale arm, streaked in dried blood, dangled down one side.


~*~


When the Hokage came, he was alone.


Many in the Samurai Nation had grown up hearing legends of the Yellow Flash, and how Konoha had been unbeatable so long as he was alive.


How like his father this boy was, Toshihiko thought. A worn blue hitai-ate cut through the mess of bangs on his forehead, pushing wind-tossed golden hair down into blue eyes. He stood with feet braced apart, arms crossed. His jacket looked like a re-imagination of his father’s, black with orange flames.


And yet while Namikaze Minato would be remembered for defending his village to the death, Uzumaki Naruto would be the one to let it fall.


Toshihiko sketched a bow. "I come as the ambassador of a new regime, Hokage-sama. This is the dawn of an era, and we extend the arm of friendship anew. As a sign of our good will, I have been sent to warn you of certain… ill tidings. Unfortunately, it seems I was too late."


"You’ve got a bunch of my people dead in a cart." The Hokage’s mouth was pressed into a hard line. "Cut the shit."


Toshihiko gestured behind him. "Your men were under attack when we found them. They seemed unable to use their chakra, and with jutsu failing they were quickly cut down. It seems some unknown force was impairing their abilities”


There were twelve scouts on rotation at any time in the forests of Konoha. That day, there had been six ninja out on courier and body guarding missions.


There were eighteen bodies piled high on the wooden cart.


"I dunno about ‘unknown,’” the Hokage said, a hint of red flickering behind his eyes. “You’re standing right in-fucking-front of me."
Toshihiko looked regretful. “I’m afraid you misunderstand. This is not an isolated incident. The other great ninja villages are already beset, bereft of their power and open to attack. The Land of Iron offers its assistance in the hopes that nothing similar will happen to you."


The Hokage looked like he wanted to tell the Land of Iron exactly where it could stick its offer.


"General Himuro wishes to convey an offer of protection. He would like to move some of our armed forces to assist you by encircling your village walls."


The Nanadaime grit his teeth. "I bet he would."


"Of course, we would want assurance of your cooperation in turn." Toshihiko paused. "We encourage you to accompany us back to the Land of Iron. Our men stationed here will maintain radio contact, to ensure there are no unwarranted… disturbances. Disturbances we would then be forced to bother you with in turn, Hokage-sama."


"Yeah," the Nanadaime said. "Yeah, I bet you’d like that."


The ambassador inclined his head. "It would guarantee your village’s protection. Fortunately, the other villages are very close to coming to a similar agreement."


"Bullshit. They would never –"


"You are mistaken," the ambassador said amiably. "They would have contacted you themselves, but for their own safety we have been forced to confiscate any attempts at communication. If your unknown enemy sensed any dissention, they would have no choice but to make an example of you." He paused. "We will allow you a full week to make your final decision."


"Yeah," the Hokage growled, "okay, fine. Except I don’t believe any of the bullshit you just spouted, and I don’t for a fucking second believe that the other Kage are gonna agree to your stupid plan. Because first, you’re lying, and second, we’d never give up anyway. So go ahead. Make an example of us, if you can."


And with that, the Hokage turned and walked away, leaving the great double doors to be slammed shut in the faces of the entire delegation.


~*~*~


~*~*~


There was a funeral in Konoha that afternoon. Naruto watched it from the window of the Hokage tower, and tried not to think.


”You can’t always save everyone,” Jiraiya had told him once. It had been one of many nights camping on the road, when dark fell and they both silently pretended they weren’t staring out at the horizon towards Sound Country.


Naruto did, though. He saved people. It was a fact. He got through to people. He arrived in the nick of time, was always just powerful enough, just lucky enough.


He had brought Sasuke back, when everyone else on earth considered him dead and gone, a monster in a boy’s body. Had given him freedom but kept him near, if not as near as –


But -


Smoke from the pyre twisted merrily into the air as if mocking the hunched figures in black crowded around it, and Naruto forced himself not to turn away, forced himself to look.


Sakura and her team of healers had dissected the bodies as soon as they came in, looking for anything unusual. There were no signs at all of chakra tampering, and the medical unit had given up the corpses to their families. Normally, ninja would only bury their dead, but this time the smoke could serve more purpose than one.


The room behind Naruto was silent, the crowded Hokage office virtually covered in papers.


The sun was setting, and the heat of the day had faded. The shadows in the room were growing longer, stretching across unfinished paperwork and empty noodle cups. Books, loose parchment and copies of the Bingo Book were piled on every chair, in teetering stacks on every desk, and spread out in organized chaos on the carpet.


Sakura sat on the floor with her hair pulled back, bundles of scrolls in her lap. A frazzled-looking team of Kage Bunshin had been set to work digging up armfuls of helpful books from the library; these were handed to Sai and Shikamaru, who made an improbable but coherent research team.


Outside, Naruto had chuunin stationed on the roof with Sarutobi’s old telescopes, eyes trained on the borders of the village. The samurai contingent had surrounded the walls, fully armed and armored, and had shot down a messenger bird bearing Suna’s seal only minutes before.


Also, the chuunin reported, there was smoke on the western horizon.


There was a heaviness in the air. It was as if the clock was ticking, now. The countdown to their one-week deadline had begun. The entire world was in play here, not only Konoha. Undoubtedly, if Naruto called the samurai’s bluff and sent out everyone he had, Konoha could rid itself of the surrounding force easily.


But if it was all a bluff, the ambassador was an extremely good liar.


"Yeah, well, a slimy bastard like that would be," Naruto muttered to himself from beneath a pile of old mission reports.


It didn’t matter. He had knew in his gut that this was not an empty threat. Bluffing out a ninja village didn’t work, especially when the Hokage was well-known as the type to go down fighting before surrender even entered his mind. Meaning the samurai had a real way to stop an entire village of ninja from using their chakra.


It’s not like the idea was unprecedented. The Hyuuga could jam tenketsu points; Kakashi could paint seals; Shino’s bugs ate chakra away.


Maybe that was it. Maybe the samurai had bucketloads of kikaichu.


"There’s a slight possibility it’s a genjutsu," Kakashi said, dragging Naruto from his thoughts. "But as far as I know, there is only one person alive with the power to cast one on an entire village."


"Yeah," Naruto said, "and it’s not him.”


Sakura looked away.


Kakashi hummed. “You’d be surprised to learn how much temptation opportunity can bring.”


”He didn’t kill the people in that forest. They were good and brave and I swore I’d protect them and I didn’t and Kona was getting married and Toshiro was only fifteen-"


Naruto stopped abruptly, scrubbing his hand hard over his eyes.


Shikamaru cleared his throat. "We’re getting off track,” he said. “We have nothing but a working thesis on these guys’ motivations.”


"We don’t know much about the Samurai Nation,” Sakura said. “They dislike us prying into their lives. But if they could tie against an average ninja under normal circumstances, they could easily beat anyone restricted to taijutsu." She paused. "Except people like Lee."


There weren’t a whole lot of people like Lee. Sasuke maybe would have been able to keep up once, but those days were gone.


Kakashi said, "This new regime sounds like a throwback to their old policies, after the Great Ninja wars. The samurai were caught in the middle and used as fodder, but not treated with enough respect to be considered as a true ally. They’ve since… developed."


There was a silence.


"So basically, the Samurai Nation are planning… something, and they are going to do it… somehow." Sai was silent for a moment. "I am impressed with your reasoning."


Shikamaru looked as if he wanted to roll his eyes, but found it too much effort.


~*~


Guard duty didn’t particularly suit Sasuke.


It wasn’t that he lacked the skills. His eyes were still sharp. He’d learned patience out of necessity at age seven, and he wasn’t overly trusting, not any more.


But he wasn’t the errand-boy type usually found at this job. He was not, for example, very polite, which various politicians and visitors had come to learn over the past year. He also did not work well with partners. It took little more than a few weeks for most ninja to quit; anyone who stayed longer was by definition contemptuous of him rather than afraid.


Sasuke didn’t particularly care. He was good at ignoring people - he had grown up with Naruto on his team. Besides, Kakashi occasionally came to visit, keeping him company in comfortable silence as he read his little orange book. Sasuke didn’t know if it was a friendly gesture or an excuse to keep Sasuke under watch, but he wasn’t sure it mattered.


Sasuke’s long-term assignment at the welcome desk had surprised everyone in Konoha. Half of them had assumed he would be given S-Rank missions or captaincy of an ANBU team – stupid, since technically he was still a genin.


But then, so was Naruto. They had to be the two most powerful genin in history.


The other half of the village hadn’t even expected Sasuke to leave incarceration. And while Sasuke had felt much the same, Naruto hated the sight of Sasuke in chains with a passion. Five minutes after his inauguration, he had ordered Sasuke’s release.


Most people perceived this low-rank appointment as an insult. They thought his position by the entrance was a sign of the Hokage’s continued anger and distrust. They cited the tension that was palpable between them, and the way Naruto constantly tracked him with his eyes.


Most people, Sasuke thought, didn’t understand Naruto very well.


The gates were shut and barred that night, making a welcoming team superfluous, so Sasuke climbed the nearest guard tower instead. The air was cooler there, the breeze more prominent. The stars seemed closer. There were fires burning in the encampment below, groups of samurai circled around them for the night. They all had their weapons within easy reach.


There was something building in the air, like the steady thrum of an inaudible drumbeat. It swelled, like the buzz a ninja normally felt with their sixth sense but not quite.


His bones were telling him it was wrong wrong wrong, but they couldn’t pinpoint why -


Then the bubble popped, and it hit.


Something was screaming. The night erupted into a whirlwind of blue and red, the storm knocking him down like a tidal wave. Everything was black and airless and cold. Sasuke could feel something being sucked out of him, could feel suspension in gravity beneath him as if he was standing over the gaping maw of a giant –


He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear anything but the roaring in his head –


And then it was gone.


The night was still and calm. Sasuke had not moved an inch.


Except he knew that if he tried to channel his chakra, it wouldn’t be there.


He reached the Hokage Tower in twice the time it usually took. People were spilling into the streets, confused civilians blinking sleepily from the windows. Lights were coming on in every house, and the clamoring got louder. Panicked shouting rose up as nin tried to reach their chakra and failed. Somewhere across the village, dogs began howling.


On the steps of the Hokage Tower stood a handful of ninja from Naruto’s inner circle, in varying levels of confusion and distress. Kakashi spared him a cursory nod.


Sai was staring at his hands. "That’s odd. It’s as if I’m missing something."


Naruto looked pale and strained. He had one hand held against his stomach, like it felt empty. As though something had been ripped out from inside it.


On another street, someone started screaming.


"Shit," Naruto said, but any sign of discomfort was gone from him now. "Keep everyone calm. We’re not being attacked, just tell them to all stay put. Sai, go."


Sai went.


Kakashi crouched down, flashed through a quick series of hand signs and slammed his palm against the ground.


Nothing happened.


Kakashi looked unsurprised. "Apparently they weren’t bluffing."


"Oh, God," Sakura said. And without pausing to give an explanation, she was pelting down the road toward the hospital.


"Fuck." Naruto looked sick again. "What does this mean for everyone relying on chakra for life support?"


It means they’re dead, stupid, Sasuke didn’t say. Instead, he said, "Where are the Aburame?"


Naruto stared at him.


"Their bugs live in their chakra, moron. What do you think happens when the chakra is gone?"
And without another word, Naruto was running.


~*~


Naruto had seen chaos before. He had seen his teachers dead and his village a sinkhole of rubble. He has seen his best friend try to kill him, his peers treat him like something unclean, and his allies turn traitor.


None of it had been easy. It hadn’t been simple. But each time, there was one principle he always fell back on.


Never give up.


It was the basis of everything, really. If it’s not working, hit it; if it won’t yield, punch through it. Shake it up and yell at it and never back down, because if you pushed for long enough, something had to give.


There was always a way to save everybody. Always.


Except when there wasn’t.


Like when an entire clan was screaming until they got put under sedation, blood everywhere and dead bugs oozing out of open wounds on their arms. Or when the village was running at half speed because they couldn’t take to the rooftops any longer. Or when people were dying in hospitals and Sakura was trying to hide her red eyes as she and Tsunade found themselves completely powerless to help.


The sick feeling inside Naruto warred with pride, though. His men and women were tight knit and tougher than nails. They fell smoothly into the new emergency routine, reacting to the crisis as if trained for it.


But they all watched him whenever he was in the same room, following him with their eyes, wanting to know he was going to fix this, what he was going to do.


If they had been accusing or distrustful, it might have been easier. But the looks were trusting and expectant, like their faith in him was unshakable. Like they had no doubts he would lead them out of this.


The brainy stuff wasn’t what Naruto did, though. He powered through things on brute force and good will and stupidity. Now, that power was gone. It had been ripped out of him when a giant hand sank into his stomach, grabbed his insides and pulled as the world blacked out and he screamed and –


Anyway.


Naruto was called to a meeting the next morning.


Out of necessity upon his inauguration, Naruto had formed an official council of elders, both ninja and civilian; they didn’t have a fraction of the power Danzo once did, but they – in theory – had the power to overrule the Hokage with a unanimous vote.


Naruto spent two minutes staring at the summons, thinking hard, hen grabbed Rock Lee from the training grounds and went.


They met in Naruto’s office. Councilman Kyosuke was in the lead – one of the younger men on the panel despite the extensive scarring on his face, he was intelligent and loyal but always ready to err on the side of caution. Most of the time, his opinions were voted out. This time, it seemed as if the rest were willing to follow him.


He said, "We will surrender."


"No," said Naruto.


Kyosuke was unimpressed. "I respect you, Hokage-sama, but this is not the time to destroy ourselves in a blaze of glory. Surrender gives us time to strategize."


"There’s blind spots in their blockade," Naruto said mulishly. "They don’t look up enough, and I bet their night vision sucks. We could sneak right past ‘em and they’d never notice. We could sneak into their capitol city, because their pompous heads are stuck too far up their asses –“


"We do not even know where their capitol city lies." Kyosuke ran his hands through his graying hair in obvious frustration. "Even in regular times, shinobi would be foolish to challenge the Land of Iron."


"Huh," said Naruto. "So basically ambassador douchenozzle thinks chakra is what makes us who we are –"


"Unjust of him," Lee said fervently.


"-and you believe him. Yeah. Lee’s right, it’s stupid. Because I know what really makes a ninja, and it’s not our ninjutsu or something in the stupid handbook. It’s teamwork, and guts and perseverance and the way we never fucking give up."


Believe me.


Naruto could see the others shuffling uncertainly, casting one another looks. He was starting to convince them.


Take a leap of faith and trust me.


"You cannot beat the samurai at their own area of expertise," Kyosuke insisted. "We have no one - no one - skilled enough to challenge them in hand-to-hand combat alone."


There was a light cough. Then Lee raised his hand steadily into he air.


"If you’ll excuse me sir," he said earnestly, "I have to disagree."


~*~


Very few of Konoha’s inhabitants knew anything about ANBU.


The last time Sasuke had seen Konoha’s underground, he had been in a jail cell, and ANBU hoods and painted animal masks had meant pain. Just as ANBU operated below ground, so too did the village prison and the interrogation department.


Sasuke had grown to know Morino Ibiki slightly too well after his return to Konoha.


For a time, at least.


The Hokage-to-be had not been apathetic as Sasuke himself about his sentence, and it had taken several weeks to fix the damage inflicted by a Rasengan coming through the roof.


Then after he took office, Naruto had come back on an official tour. He had walked right up to Sasuke’s cell, broken the lock, grabbed Sasuke’s arm, and just started walking.


”I’m taking him with me,” he’d said. “Try to stop me if you want.”


No one had.


Sasuke kept that memory close inside him, hidden away in the back of his mind. The fresh air on his face as they walked out together, his first view of the sky in years – it helped, when the room got a little too dark or the walls pressed a little too close.


Now, things were different.


Ninja – most of them jounin, plus a handful of chuunin and the top genin from each year – stood huddled, gathered around the edge of the vast training room. Naruto stood at the front of the crowd, Sasuke leaning against the wall next to him, Sakura, Shikamaru and Kakashi on his right. ANBU, standing still in their robes and masks, were visibly twitchy at having so many people in a supposedly secret space.


Ibiki kept casting dark looks in Sasuke’s direction.


Sasuke clenched his teeth and ignored them. If he was breathing a little too thinly, or keeping his back to the wall, no one would care enough to notice.


Except for Naruto.


Naruto always noticed.


"You have six days," Sasuke said, forestalling any attempt from the idiot to ask about it. "You had better be sure this will work."


"It will. Plus we got the best guy for the job," Naruto said.


Sasuke snorted.


Naruto kicked him.


"COMRADES! Today is a glorious day!"


Gai strode into the room, a katana under one arm, planting himself squarely in the center and surveying them all with ease. The crowd quieted.


"Fighting a skilled opponent with taijutsu is very different," he began slowly. "Every one of you is adept with your kunai, your hands, your feet, your weapon of choice - but ninjutsu is your trump card. Always.


”Today it is not there for you to fall back on. If you are cornered and panic, you will react on instinct. But this absolutely cannot be a jutsu of any kind. It will not work, and the enemy will cut your hands off while you are staring at them in confusion."


He looked around at them sternly. No one made a sound.


"I know this," he said, "because my dearest pupil was born with little control over his chakra. Some consider it a weakness. Yet now, he is the one here – the only one – who has the experience all of you desperately need.


"You will be fighting some of the most skilled weapons masters you have ever come across. They will be fast. Their technique will be perfect. They will easily perform moves that some of you, in order to move on to what is bigger and better, will barely have practiced."


There was some discontented murmuring. One chuunin coughed loudly.


Gai nodded grimly. "The most common weapon used by the samurai is the sword. There are several swordsman in this crowd, but the best in the village – and the one I require for my demonstration – would be Uchiha-san."


"Ah," said Kakashi. "I thought he was going to do that."


Sasuke said nothing, standing motionless behind them, arms crossed over his chest. Around them, the crowd was shifting awkwardly. Anko appeared to be watching Sasuke very, very closely.


The village was in very bad shape, he thought, if he was their best swordsman after years of no practice.


"Sasuke," Naruto said uncertainly. "Sasuke –"


Sasuke shrugged him off, and as the crowd held its breath, walked to the center of the circle.


"Very good!" Gai boomed. "Just a quick demonstration between Lee and yourself. Sasuke-kun, attack with all your might. Lee… you know what to do."


And with that, Gai handed Sasuke the katana and walked back to the edge, leaving the floor empty except for the two figures.


The sword felt right and comfortable in Sasuke’s hand, like an old friend.


"A thousand yen Lee wins," Sasuke heard him say in an undertone to Kakashi.


"….Not done."


"Done," said Naruto.


"Not done," said Shikamaru lazily. "Lee is going to thrash his ass."


Sasuke was going to kill them both.


Lee started forward quickly and Sasuke dodged too slow, nearly taking the easy swipe full in the face. The look of shocked disappointment on Lee’s face was enough to snap Sasuke suddenly, sharply out of his lethargy, and then he was on the offensive, sword flashing out of its scabbard and cutting through the air as Lee twisted to avoid it. It had been a long time - a very long time - since Sasuke had done anything other than casual sparring.


The world narrowed and everything turned to instinct – weave, duck, slash, block, spin –


Sasuke could feel something coming back to him, the old thrill of the fight, the adrenaline, the need to win. The pride in the knowledge that he was good, better than good, better than -


Lee’s face was a picture of concentration. Slightly too much concentration, as if he was calculating each move exactly.


He was holding back, Sasuke realized. He hadn’t even taken his weights off, and he was holding back so as not to humiliate Sasuke in front of everyone who hated him.


Because Lee was nice.


Sasuke swung, Kusanagi cutting through the air just to Lee’s left – Lee turned – and Sasuke whipped the scabbard out of his belt with the other hand, swinging it towards Lee’s head. As Lee moved again to avoid it, Sasuke spun and kicked him in the stomach.


At least, he planned to, but Lee’s arm was there already, moving up into a defensive position and grabbing Sasuke’s foot, bringing them both to a dead stop.


For just one second, it was like ten years hadn’t passed and they were just two boys in a hallway tussle, waiting for the chuunin exams.


Lee had been a lot faster than Sasuke back then, too.


"That was fast," he heard Kakashi mutter.


Naruto groaned, and with a bow of thanks Gai sent them back to their respective corners.


Shikamaru opened a sleepy eye as Sasuke returned. "Congratulations."


"Shut the fuck up, Nara."


"I chose these two in order to illustrate two points," Gai boomed. He looked at the crowd sternly. The slight tittering from those who had enjoyed seeing Sasuke put in his place died down. "One." He held up a finger. "You cannot, and will not, beat a master at their own game. And two," he held up another, "Uchiha-san is not only skilled, he is innovative. He thinks quickly. He came the closest to beating Lee when he broke the standard rules of a fight. Fair combat is one of the most honorable of all ninja principles. Winning your village’s freedom is even more so."


He lectured for a small time longer, and then after checking with Naruto, dismissed the crowd with a nod.


As everyone filed out, Gai stopped and put a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder.


Sasuke forced himself not to fling it off.


”That is the most animated I have seen you in a long time, Uchiha-san.” His voice was warm. “There is nothing like a quick spar to remind a ninja of his own skill.”


Sasuke stared at him wordlessly, the held the sword out for Gai to take back.


Gai stepped away. ”Keep it. It’s yours, Uchiha-san.”


Sasuke looked down. He hadn’t recognized it, somehow. Maybe because he hadn’t seen it in years, or because he’d believed it lost in the last battle. Kusanagi was beautiful, as always, and he wasn’t sure he wanted it. Holding it felt like a breath of fresh air, or a reminder of the power he’d once had and thought he no longer cared about. But it also belonged in a different time, with a lot of other memories he’d rather ignore.


Naruto lead the way back to the surface, conversing quietly with Shikamaru and Kakashi. Sasuke followed behind at just enough distance to make it clear he wanted no part in the conversation.


"Did we find the way to the General’s palace in the Land of Iron?" Shikamaru asked suddenly.


"No." Naruto nudged at a bit of dirt with his toe.


"Huh. So Plan B, then. I’ll put a word in with the council and keep the fires burning."


He received one look of slight alarm, and one jaw-dropped expression of shock.


"You make my brain ache," Shikamaru said sleepily, "the way you think you can hide things from me." He stretched, and ambled away towards the main road. "Goodnight."


Kakashi watched him leave. "I think," he said, "he’s smarter than me." He sounded vaguely impressed.


He parted from them at the door of the Hokage Tower, leaving Sasuke and Naruto alone.


The sun was setting. From their place on the steps, the cream and terra cotta buildings around them seemed to turn red in the early sunset light.


"It’s getting dark, you know." Naruto glanced up at Sasuke. "Isn’t it about time you took those glasses off?"


Sasuke turned away. “I’m going to bed.”


"Come upstairs," Naruto blurted out. He was hovering awkwardly, one hand holding the door open, the other extended.


"I can sleep in my own bed just fine," Sasuke said without looking back.


"I wasn’t talking about sleeping," Naruto grumbled, stomping inside and slamming the door behind him.


~*~


The council called an official meeting the next morning. The councilmen looked regretful, the elders stately and poised as they talked about wartime decisions, about the greater good, and about living to fight another day.


They showed Naruto the signatures, written out neatly on the official document.


"I wish it had not come to this, Hokage-sama," they said. "But the Sandaime – he would have understood it was for the sake of peace."


Naruto thought of the Sandaime, and Sasuke, and the things that had been done for peace, and said nothing.


"I need to think," Naruto said instead, standing up and leaving the room.


Kakashi followed. He had somewhere to be.


~*~


There were weeds growing around the cenotaph, clumping scraggly and stubborn at the base of the dark granite. It was picturesque and oddly fitting, reminiscent of a tombstone shrouded in ivy.


But, Kakashi reflected, the new growth was covering the names at the very bottom of the stone, and that was not acceptable.


It wasn't anyone’s fault, he mused, grabbing a handful of the coarse grass and tugging. He had been busy with his full-time job of trying to clobber some sense into the thick skulls of his students.


Former students. They were adults now, but never too old for a clobbering.


If he didn’t, they were going to kill themselves one day.


Perhaps sooner, he allowed, than later, if he was any judge of what was coming. Sasuke could fight well enough still – he was one of the best in the village at taijutsu and swordplay, even now. Whether or not he cared to try was a different story, though Gai’s little experiment had been telling. But even if they got their chakra restored to them, Kakashi doubted Sasuke would ever use his trump card dojutsu again, even if his own life depended on it and the world was burning around him.


In any case, Kakashi had been busy, and this didn’t leave much time for sitting and talking to dead people.


"Just be happy that the world is in shambles and I’m sitting here pulling weeds for you," he said.


Obito said nothing. He was like that, usually.


"Your little cousin is a bit dim," Kakashi went on. The base of the stone was clear now; he brushed at it lightly with the back of his hand, soft leather of his fingerless gloves polishing its surface. "As if he’s the only one with eyes he loves and hates at the same time. He brings new meaning to the term ‘emotionally constipated,’ and Naruto is obliviousness personified." He paused. "Particularly with each other."


Sasuke didn’t remind Kakashi of Obito, not really. Not usually. But when it had really mattered – when Sasuke had nothing to gain and everything to lose – he showed similarities. It was, Kakashi decided, their tendency to leap unthinkingly into danger to save their friends.


If “friends” was what they were calling it nowadays.


Kakashi dusted off his gloves and stood, watching the light shift against the trees and grass as the sun set.


"Tell sensei I say hello," he said finally, waving his fingers vaguely at the stone before turning away. "Who knows, we might be with you soon enough."


~*~


On the last night before ambassador Toshihiko’s one-week deadline ended, it stormed.


It didn’t come in the normal way; dark clouds raced ahead of the rain, sweeping in as thunder rumbled overhead. There was a buzz in the air, static and heavy, warning of the oncoming storm.


Naruto slipped out of the window of the Hokage Tower, after sending everyone home. Sakura would have yelled at him if she had seen, but she was in the hospital, working extra long hours while pretending to be home sleeping.


The red, curved tiles of the roof were warm. Naruto settled down, wrapping his coat around himself and turning to face the setting sun. He could just see it through the clouds, streaking the sky with orange and pink and yellow.


It reflected against the great Hokage monument, casting the faces into contrast. Giants, in more than a literal sense; legends, all of them, and rightly so.


Hi, dad.


None of the Hokage had been perfect, Naruto knew. The first two had fought more than their share of wars. The Sandaime had been backed into corners and unable to find a third way out.


Naruto had promised himself that once he was Hokage, he’d always find the third way. But now, when it came down to the real situation, he wasn’t sure any more.


Variables, Kakashi-sensei would say. There were too many variables, too many uncertainties, too many lives on the line.


Hi, dad. Naruto shifted, picking at a spot on his sandal. I’m trying to be as good as you were. I’m trying, and it’s hard.


"You’re thinking too much."


Naruto scowled over his shoulder. He had heard Sasuke coming up behind him, but this was one time he actually didn’t want Sasuke near. He didn’t need him to see this, all the insecurities, the doubts.


"What’s wrong," Naruto grumped, "couldn’t find anyone else to terrorize at this hour?"


Sasuke just turned away to stare out at the horizon. "Like I said. You’re thinking too hard."


"Yeah, well. There’s a thing or two going on."


"Leave it to Shikamaru. For someone always going on about loyalty and faith, you don’t have much."


Naruto huffed and looked away. It was growing darker, but the air was still warm. In the far distance, against the mountains and above the trees, there was a large swathe of gray stretching from sky to earth. It was rain, drawing nearer. Feeling uncomfortably hot and itchy, Naruto shrugged out of his jacket and flopped back, arms tucked beneath his head, staring up at the sky.


Naruto glanced over. Sasuke was in black, as always. A long-sleeved shirt, thin and too long so it draped to the tips of the fingers and left the neckline gaping wide. He could see the line of Sasuke’s neck, its arch, the curve of his ear and the sharpness of his collar bones. His hair, always in need of a trim, was brushing his nape.


"….Staring at something?"


"Just your stupid duck-butt head."


A gust of warm wind hit them. Naruto closed his eyes and just breathed. "Whatever the hell this is," he said finally, "it’s sucking the chakra right out of everything. That takes… lots of fucking power, Sasuke. It ate Kyuubi like he was nothing."


"….I’ve seen it before."


Naruto opened his eyes and gaped.


Sasuke ignored him. "The tailed beasts aren’t the only demons in existence, moron. Not all of them are made of chakra. Some of them… eat it."


Naruto tried not to yell. It didn’t work. "Why the HELL didn’t you tell me?!"


"I’m telling you," Sasuke said icily, "right now."


Naruto choked. He hadn’t felt real rage at Sasuke in a very long time.


Sasuke looked away. "You actually love this place," he said finally. "This twisted jail cell of a village. You would do anything for the people here, no matter how much you hate the fact." He paused. "I can relate."


Naruto scrunched his face at him, mentally weighing the pros and cons of starting an argument before flopping back down with a sigh. "Fine. So where’d you learn that, anyway?"


Sasuke was silent.


Naruto laughed. It didn’t sound normal, even to him. "I bet ol’ Akatsuki had a lot of stuff in backup just in case one of their pets got loose, huh."


"Yeah. We did."


Naruto flinched.


Sasuke rose gracefully to his feet and walked to the edge of the roof. "I’m leaving." Then he slipped over the side and down to the window below, landing silently on the sill and disappearing inside.


Naruto lasted five seconds before following. Maybe it was because today was the last day before their time ran out, or because the tension had been getting to him, or because there was a war on their doorstep and it was threatening everything he cared about.


Or maybe it was just because, even ten years later, hearing Sasuke say goodbye still made Naruto afraid he would disappear out the gates and never come back.


He caught up with Sasuke outside, on the forested outskirts of the village near the walled Uchiha complex.


It was his home again now. The council felt he had sufficiently paid his dues.


"You’re still a bastard, you know," Naruto said, matching his stride and ducking beneath low branches as they picked their way through the sparse wood. "Going off like that. ‘I’m leaving.’ Ha. You just like to mess with my head."


Sasuke stopped, turning to face him. "Do you need something?"


"Oh, I dunno. Maybe it pisses me off that the world’s falling apart and you don’t give a shit –"


"Did I ever?"


"-And you only told me some really important information just now because – because –"


"Because you care, even if I don’t?"


Naruto felt like something was lodged painfully in his throat. He tried to talk around it. "….I’m sorry."


Sasuke stared at him. "You’re what?"


"Sorry. I wasn’t supposed to be the one who fucked up. I was going to be the best damn Hokage ever, remember? I promised. For me, and for Konoha, so there’d never be another me or another you or a Neji or a Gaara or a Haku, left out in the cold because someone fucked us over for politics and messed us all in the head."


Sasuke snorted and turned away. "It’s fine."


"It’s not fi- would you look at me?" Naruto lunged, grabbing Sasuke by the shoulder. Fabric tore and Sasuke didn’t even fight back, letting himself be slammed back into the trunk of an oak tree.


"I miss your eyes," Naruto said. He hadn’t meant to say it, it had just been building and building for too fucking long.


Sasuke went perfectly still. "Get off of me."


They’d had this conversation before, week upon week after Sasuke had re-entered the world. It felt like they were following a script, now. "I didn’t mean it like that. I just want you to look me in the damn eye for once, I want you to take those glasses off and stop being afr–"


"I hate them," Sasuke said.


Naruto recoiled. Not a script this time, then.


"I carved my brother’s eyes out and stuck them in my head and now I have to live with them so just get," Sasuke snarled, "off." He punched Naruto in the gut, hard.


Naruto grunted. “No.”


"You hate them more than I do." Sasuke’s mouth was curving into a cruel smile. It was what he did, when Naruto got too close. He hurt back. "You look at me and they remind you that I’m not yours any more, that I never was, that the stupid little boy who left never came back because he went wrong somewhere on the way. Now get your face out of my sight."


Sometimes, Naruto hated Itachi for being manipulative and Sasuke for being weak and the stupid eyes for not being worth it. He hated that Sasuke hated them, wanted to scream at him that what had been the point of it all, anyway, if the only thing he came back with was more self-loathing than when he’d left?


What Naruto wanted was to block his ears like a child, but he couldn’t.


So he just shoved Sasuke back, pinning him again before reaching up to swipe the sunglasses from his face and hurl them away.


"I’m not gonna let you be like – like Kakashi, just hiding the stupid thing you don’t want to remember." Naruto’s breathing was unsteady. He was pressed up against Sasuke, fists twisted in the soft material of his shirt.


"This isn’t the time to do this,” Sasuke said. “You said yourself. There’s a war on your doorstep."


"Our doorstep. And yeah, there is. So if we’re all gonna die, I’m not gonna do it too scared to tell you things you need to hear." And Naruto looked him in the eyes for the first time in a year, the first time since Sasuke had stopped being a pale shadow chained to the back of a cell. The first time since Naruto had become Hokage and changed all that, but Sasuke hadn’t changed at all, still locked in a prison of his own making.


The eyes were still black.


Of course they were. Itachi’s eyes had been black too. They were little harder, maybe. Flat, where as a child Sasuke’s has always been big and expressive.


Maybe that wasn’t Itachi, though. Maybe it was just Sasuke himself. A lot had happened since they were kids.


But more than anything, what stuck Naruto was that the eyes were still the same shape. His lashes were the same, and the arch of his brows and the faint line between them.


"I’ve got shit in me too that I don’t want," Naruto said. "We pick up the crap that’s left of our lives and deal with it and move. On." He leaned forward slightly, resting his head against Sasuke’s.


Sasuke’s breath was warm on his neck. It struck him, suddenly, how close they were, pressed together, hands buried in clothing. Sasuke’s shirt was still ripped, the seam at his shoulder coming undone, exposing one smooth, pale shoulder.


….This was a bad idea.


Naruto let go.


Sasuke’s head dipped, nuzzling downward for a second before biting him on the neck.


Naruto froze.


Sasuke’s lips curled, a smirk tickling the fine hairs on Naruto’s skin. "Should I stop?"


"Gnnh."


Sasuke didn’t reply, tongue licking over the side of Naruto’s neck before he bit down, lips rough and dry. He let go of Naruto’s arms, one hand threading through blond hair and yanking Naruto’s head roughly sideways to give him better access.


The other he shoved down the front of Naruto’s pants.


"Fuck."


The rain hit them. Naruto had heard it drawing closer in the back of his mind, the gentle hiss of drops hitting the leaves right above them. It started as a falling mist, filtered by the cover overhead, before the downpour became heavier and Naruto was blinking through water droplets in his eyelashes, licking them off his lips.


And Sasuke, Sasuke with his hot breath tasting trails of water running down Naruto’s collar, was doing sinful things with that right hand. It was hot and slick and wrapped around him just right, and Naruto’s head was spinning, heat flaring up between his legs until he couldn’t breathe.


It felt entirely too one-sided, and if everything was changing tomorrow, if this was his last chance ever -


He started with Sasuke’s bare shoulder, leaning forward to attack it with his mouth, the pale skin warm under his lips. Feeling like a fumbling teenager, every nerve on end, he slid his hands down, shoving Sasuke’s shirt up over his stomach and feeling the ridges of hard muscle before groping his way down and palming him through his pants.


Sasuke groaned. It was stupidly alluring. His head was tipped back into the rain, eyes half-lidded and covered by a tangle of sopping hair. He looked debauched and alien and stupidly, ridiculously pretty.


Shit, Naruto thought, brain unable to process with hands and heat and friction and water everywhere, shit shit shit I’m kissing Sasuke.


Except he wasn’t, really. Not exactly. Not yet.


Their lips met hard, teeth nipping and pulling like it was war.


It always had been, with them.


Sasuke took that moment to shove him away hard. "Lay down."


They were going to have sex, Naruto realized.


On the ground. In the mud.


And Sasuke was acting like it was no big deal.


It occurred to Naruto somewhere in a distant part of his brain that Sasuke had, just maybe, done this before.


In a forest. With a guy.


Not gonna think about who, not jealous, not thinking about it, not gonna - Suigetsu is going back on the missing nin list, that fucker.


And suddenly, Naruto didn’t want to do anything Sasuke had already done.


"River," Naruto blurted out, and then shook his head to try to remember why he had said it. "I’m not doing it in the dirt, you jerkoff, the river bank is softer –"


"Not there."


"Why?"


"My brother drowned his lover in that river. Not. There."


Naruto, spluttering incoherently, allowed himself to be dragged. Together, moving like some odd four-legged beast in the rain, they stumbled out of the trees and down back alleys to Sasuke’s apartment. They fell inside together, soaking the cheap linoleum of the landing.


They lost themselves in it, taking their time, collapsing afterward on Sasuke’s bed. Rain poured in from the open window by their heads, soaking the pillows and misting their faces with water. Neither of them particularly cared.


"You have a tan line." Naruto was sprawled lazily, one leg hanging off the side of the bed as he stared closely at Sasuke’s face. "From your sunglasses. I bet that’s why Kakashi still wears his mask. He wants to take it off, but he’s got a really dumb tan line."


"….Moron."


Naruto searched for something else to say. His brain felt happy and mushy. Like noodles.


Naruto liked noodles.


….He was still just conscious enough to realize that saying, ‘It’s about time we did this because I’ve been kind of obsessed with you for years and also I get a hard-on whenever you touch me,’ wouldn’t go down very well.


"They’re going to make me surrender," he said instead. "The stupid council bastards. If I don’t, they’ll do it for me." Naruto didn’t like being made to do things, whether or not he would have acted the same of his own accord.


Sasuke snorted silently. “I really am leaving," he said suddenly. He glanced at Naruto and then away again. "Your plans are stupid. You never think them all the way through. You need a backup."


Naruto looked at him, close and hard.


"You don’t have to trust me. I’m still going."


Naruto did, though. That was the problem. He trusted Sasuke more than he trusted anyone else.


And besides, in this case, Sasuke was right.


So he just grinned. "Hey, hey. Sasuke. How the hell did this happen to us now? Tonight, in the middle of all… this, when the damn world is ending?"


Sasuke snorted. "It’s us. When else would it happen?"


~*~


The next morning, one week to the day since the diplomat from Land of Iron had first arrived on Konoha’s doorstep with a wagon full of bodies, the Nanadaime Hokage officially surrendered Konohagakure.


It took every inch of his undeveloped self-control to stop himself from walking up to the ambassador and socking him across the jaw.


Toshihiko was obliging. "I trust it was the – recent events – that encouraged you to reconsider? My men will remain here to aid your people in the event of any… unexpected developments." He smiled. "We have, of course, the technology to remain in communication with each other at all times.


"I suspect you are feeling quite alone in the world, Hokage-sama." A delicate look was cast in the region of the other man’s stomach. "Do not worry. Your fellows will be happy to see you."


Naruto wasn’t listening. His eyes were on a figure in black, hovering just inside the village gates. As it turned and left, he turned back as well. "Let’s go."


~*~


They traveled.


When ninja ran together, the world became a blur. Everything condensed into color and air and clouds overhead. There was nothing but the pounding of feet and the smell of the forest and the wind in their hair. Tree branches were their road, not grass and packed earth.


Naruto had always thought it felt like flying.


It was different, traveling like this. It was so slow that he ached.


They had come on horses, and this carried them along faster than their feet would have. But Naruto had never ridden before – animals shied away from him, as if sensing the thing in his stomach – and so he bounced like a sack of potatoes as they left the woods and kicked up a trot across a dusty field.


The first night they camped, Naruto felt their eyes on him as ambassador Toshihiko made a point of checking in with his men by radio. He glared stubbornly back, hoping no one had done anything stupid. The forces surrounding Konoha reported no disturbances.


When they repeated the act the next morning, with no change in the report, Naruto breathed easy.


As the hours turned into days and time ticked on, Naruto found himself looking over his shoulder back the way they had come. Every hour scouts were sent out to circle the area. Each time, they reported nothing.


Time blurred. The sky changed. The air cooled.


They entered a landscape Naruto had never seen before, full of gaping tunnel entrances cut into the cliff faces.


"Our iron mining is done here," Toshihiko told him. "We take the ore from the earth ourselves. While others are forced to rely on our supplies, we are self-sustaining. And of course, the best weapons are made when the ironsmith has taken it from the earth himself."


His smile was so unbearably smug that Naruto wanted to punch it right off his face.


But the mining tunnels had been the signal that they were drawing close, and seventeen days after setting out, Naruto woke to see a walled city and arched rooftops on the horizon.


~*~


Naruto’s first glimpse of General Himuro was from a distance.


He had assumed that the ruse would fall apart as soon as the entered the Samurai Nation city, and expected to be deposited in the tower-like prison that stood at the town’s edge. It was huge and heavily guarded, windows barred.


But he was brought right into the palace, entering the great hall surrounded by guards. The General sat behind rows of his men, all in full ceremonial armor. He looked like a hard man, lines in his forehead and no laughter in his eyes.


Naruto barely heard the gracious welcoming speech, paying only enough attention to make himself refrain from explosive swearing, and to acknowledge that the General wanted to meet with him and the other Kage the next day.


Then he was taken away, down into the heart of the palace and shown his room.


"I hope your stay will be more peaceful than that of your compatriots," the guard said. "I trust you will be no trouble."


It’s early yet, Naruto didn’t say.


Out loud he said, "Did something happen?"


"There have been repeated incidents," the guard said with a tight smile. "It seems the Tsuchikage’s room is an unfortunate fire hazard. He is an old man. The room was full of teetering candle sticks. He found it hard to keep his balance.


"You will forgive us for being cautious. We would hate for anyone to be injured if another accidental giant bonfire should occur on a balcony."


The old man was pretty okay, Naruto thought. "Can I ask a question?"


”Of course.”


"If Gaara and everybody else are staying here in the palace with me, who have you got all locked up in your fancy prison?"


The guard’s face tightened. "Enjoy your stay." Then he shut and locked the door.


~*~


The meeting was held the next morning. The room was plain, clearly meant for business rather than show. In the center was a table, long and rectangular, surrounded by five chairs. On one wall, a clock ticked away.


At the head of the table and raised high above it was an ornate throne on a dais. Naruto wondered if the General was compensating for something.


The heads of the five ninja villages had met before. This time, though, the tension in the room was thick. It felt like a war conference under a white flag.


Naruto supposed that in some ways, it was.


Around the General, when he finally seated himself, was a royal bodyguard decked out in full regalia with masks firmly in place. Behind Naruto – behind all the Kage – and in front of each door, a samurai hovered, huge and iron-masked and armed.


The Raikage sat like a bull on a tether, one step from steam pouring out of his nostrils. The Mizukage was cool and expressionless, fingers twisting constantly around the arm of her chair like she imagined it was the General’s neck. But Gaara, Gaara was the one Naruto looked at the closest. He looked unusually small, without the gourd strapped to his back. He stared at General Himuro like he wanted to eat him alive.


The General began to speak, and Naruto wondered, for a split second, if he was going to continue to keep playing the game. Thank them for their cooperation, assure them of his good wishes.


Instead, he smiled. It looked satisfied and cruel.


"And so the Gods are brought down to earth." The Himuro’s voice was soft. "All your power, all the mystery that has surrounded your trickery for so many generations, is gone. I wonder how it feels, to know you will be remembered as the leaders who let your villages die?"


The Raikage looked physically pained from the effort it took to remain seated.


"You will never know how it feels, to know the five most powerful people in the world are under my thumb. To know I could destroy you and your villages on a mere whim, when so many have lived in terror of you for so long."


The Mizukage interrupted him. "I want to know why you’re doing this. We keep the world in balance. We leave your nation alone. Why the sudden need for hostilities?"


There was a silence. Then, without turning his head, the General said, "The woman will not interrupt while I am speaking."


The arm of the Mizukage’s chair cracked under her fingers.


Himuro said, "It is because you disgust me. Your lives and your legacy are based on lies. You work in the dark. You poison and backstab and are too cowardly to do battle face-to-face. Thousands die because you harness the energy of the world and use it with no integrity."


"The Samurai Nation uses chakra in their swordplay as much as we use it in ours," the Tsuchikage said. He was glaring over the top of the table, tiny and ancient and with all the rage of a taunted dragon.


Himuro spread his arms. "And yet we have not slid into dependency, while you lie crippled. The world lives on in fear of you, because you assassinate without scruple. Your power is limitless and no one could stop you, until I myself found the right tool."


Naruto remembered the prison. "Tool?"


"It is useful to me. I look for alternatives." The General’s mouth curved. "I do not like to keep unnatural monsters in my house."


Naruto thought of being stared at in revulsion on the playground. Thought of Gaara, hurting and insane and blood-crazed. Thought of Haku and a dozen others hoarded for their kills and then thrown aside like trash –


And the Raikage stood up and plowed his giant fist into the face of the nearest samurai. The startled man went down like a sack of rocks, and then all five of them were up out of their seats and moving.


It was a very little-known fact that, when the lands of Leaf and Sand met for diplomatic purposes, the Kazekage enjoyed sparring with Rock Lee. Lee had grown up wearing leg weights. Gaara had grown up wearing a gourd of sand on his back.


When Gaara took off the sand, he was over a hundred pounds lighter. And he was fast. Very, very fast. The first two guards went down easily, as he moved too quickly for them to realize what was happening.


The Mizukage drove her sharpened hair sticks into the eye socket of the man behind her, and then the General was shouting and the samurai had drawn swords and were upon them.


Naruto flew backward, mind on automatic, weaving and dodging as the sharpened steel passed just inches from his face – there was nothing but instinct, sight and sound and motion.


He wasn’t fast enough. He never had been.


He felt a sword slice against his arm and threw himself to the side, red staining his sleeve. Then he turned, ran up the wall and flipped back over the samurai’s head, landing on his shoulders and sending them both crashing to the ground.


”Not everything is chakra, dumbass.”


He turned back to the room. It was in chaos, chairs overturned, the table sliced in half. They had each gone for the samurai with the radio headsets first. Take them out, and no one could call for help.


It looked like they had succeeded.


The Mizukage had wrestled a sword from one of the downed samurai and was matching another swing for swing. She parried, feinted, and then the sword was through the other man’s shoulder.


Eight down, four to go.


Naruto tackled the door guard just as he reached for the handle, one hand clapped over his mouth so he couldn’t call for help. The man groaned, and Naruto cracked his head against the floor.


The room was silent.


The fight had been quiet, and vicious, and not a single person outside had heard.


General Himuro’s eyes were bulging.


The five Kage stood together, blocking him from the doors, each clutching makeshift weapons. The Mizukage turned, kicking aside overturned chairs with her toe as she walked back to the raised dais and seated herself, with anything but ladylike grace, on the throne.


The Tsuchikage leveled his cane at the General. "Now it is your turn to taste humiliation."


"You think you will save your people by using me as your bargaining tool? My men," Himuro whispered, eyes livid and face an ugly puce, "will rip your villages to shreds."


The Raikage leaned over him, furious and giant. "And our men," he said, "will destroy yours."


The room was silent.


"Let me explain for you," the Mizukage said finally. "And I will use small words, so your tiny, warped mind is capable of understanding. There was never any surrender. There was only a mutual agreement to destroy you in your own trap. There is an army on your doorstep, and if you don’t surrender, first they will attack, and second I will castrate you. With this." She held up her hair sticks. "You have five minutes. Your time is running out."


The General scowled, then resettled his face into an expression of calm. "Well played. However, I have no problem with delaying for five minutes. Then you will be caught out in your bluff, and eventually my army will become suspicious and break down the doors. You cannot hold me here indefinitely."


Gaara’s eyes widened disturbingly. "We aren’t bluffing."


Naruto leered. "I forgot to say thanks for you making us guests in your city, because hell, we didn’t know exactly where your headquarters were. It would have sucked to park an army on the wrong guy’s doorstep, so it’s pretty awesome that you were nice enough to lead us here yourself. Thanks. Oh," he added, “and you should tell your men to pay more attention to smoke in the sky. There are these things called smoke signals.”


"You should have listened to yourself." Gaara’s mouth curved into a smile. It was reminiscent of something older, a madness long gone from him. "Ninja deal in deception. We lied to you. Our army is almost here. They will kill all your men. And I," he licked his lips, "will kill you."


"We’re giving you a chance to surrender," Naruto said. "Give up and we’ll signal them not to attack."


"You will forgive me," said the General, "if I do not think you capable of any such strategic genius."


"Yeah, well." Naruto scratched the back of his head. "I surprise people like that."


"Our men are on their way," the Tsuchikage interrupted. He seemed to be growing tired of the negotiations. "This is your chance to surrender to us. The clock is ticking."


"You are bluffing." The General’s hand was inching slowly towards his sword. "Your men are trapped in their own walls."


"Well, they were." Naruto said. "And time’s up."


"It is pitiful," the General said, "seeing the leaders of such superpowers in our world brought to this. You forget, even as we were taking our seats, my men reported to me that there had been no attempts to escape from any of your villages."


The doors slammed open. There was a gust of wind, and a blur of vibrant green. "YOU FORGET," boomed Maito Gai, planting himself in the center of the room and striking a victorious pose. "WE NINJA ARE VERY SUBTLE."


General Himuro choked. In a flash he had drawn his sword, and Gai was on him, driving him back.


With the doors flung wide open, Naruto could hear it now. The army of ninja that had followed him all the way from Konoha – that had followed each of the Kage, slipping over the village walls under cover of night - was breaking cover and attacking.


He could hear the battle outside; the rallying cry of the samurai, the roar of the oncoming horde, the screams of the injured and dying. He walked to the window and looked. It was like a tidal wave of black, sweeping in from the cliff sides and across the flat plain, crashing on the imperial red of the samurai.


He saw Sakura suddenly, pink hair standing out amidst the crowd, plowing her fist into the ground. It buckled, rock cracking. Jounin and chuunin on either side clung to cliff sides with their fingertips, raining shuriken and kunai down on the battle below, finding the weak spots in the armor and dodging the arrows raining back at them.


Lee was at the head of an entire unit, leg weights discarded, cutting great swathes through the enemy with ease and yelling encouragement to the men behind him.


It was too early to tell who was winning.


Naruto turned to see Gaara beside him. The Kazekage tilted his head. "I think I’ll join them.”


Fighting had spilled into the palace by now; the hallways were either bloody chaos or silent, guards having abandoned their posts to join in the fight.


By now, someone would have been on the short-wave, telling the samurai to start a siege on the villages.


Naruto knew Konoha could hold out, but not for long.


Five nations were fighting one. Five nations risking everything for one all-or-nothing chance, and Naruto wasn’t going to let them waste it.


He ran out the palace doorway. It was not usual form for him to stay to the edges of the battle. This time, though, he had something to do.


The guards at the gate of the prison were down, lying in pools of their own blood.


Naruto recognized their injuries. They were sword wounds.


The building was empty except for a single cell. A man was standing in front of it. Even from the back, Naruto recognized him instantly.


"Sasuke?"


Sasuke ignored him, eyes locked on the boy in the cell. He was a teenager, sixteen at least.


Most people would have noticed the rough clothing or wild hair, or the array of tiny characters painted to form a seal around his mouth. Maybe a few others would notice the feeling of wrongness.


Naruto just noticed his eyes. They were wide and angry and sad and terrified.


Naruto recognized that look, and wanted to hit something.


The boy stared at Naruto but spoke to Sasuke. "You said you were alone."


"I am. Naruto, go away."


The boy’s tone changed to accusing. "You lied. You always lie. Are you going to kill them next?"


Right. Sasuke had known him during his time in Akatsuki. That made sense.


Naruto wasn’t always sure he wanted to know what Sasuke had been like, back then. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like it.


That didn’t matter now, though.


"Sasuke isn't going to kill anyone," Naruto said loudly. The sound of fighting was drawing closer.


"You trust him?" This, the boy directed at Naruto.


"Yeah." Naruto said. "I do. Completely."


"Stupid of you," the boy said. "He joins people and then he kills them and runs away. He’ll do it to you next."


"Nope," said Naruto.


The boy narrowed his eyes. "He sells people out. He broke me out of Orochimaru’s and then sold me out to Akatsuki. He’ll probably sell you out to these people next."


Naruto didn’t want to hear this.


"That’s not true," said Sasuke. He looked oddly intent that Naruto believe him. "He was one of Orochimaru’s experiments. I let him go free along with all the others. Akatsuki found him after and took him as an insurance policy in case an extraction went wrong."


Naruto believed him.


Sasuke said, "Taki, you can go wherever you want. It’s none of my concern. You’re free. Just put it to sleep or everyone is going to die."


Taki frowned. "Why? I know you. You don’t care about everyone."


"No," said Sasuke. "I don’t. But he does."


"I do," said Naruto. "And I need you to turn that thing inside you off, okay? Because when you turn yours off, I get mine back."


Taki stared.


"I don’t want him back. I kinda hate him. But I need him right now, yeah? Because my friends are dying and I have to help them."


After another moment of staring, Taki uncurled himself and stood.


"You have your brother’s eyes," he said to Sasuke.


Sasuke flinched.


"Was it worth it? Was he right?" He tilted his head toward Naruto. "Are you done running?"


Naruto couldn’t breathe.


"Yeah," said Sasuke. "I’m done."


Taki nodded. "Okay."


Sasuke raised his sword and slashed it across the bolted door. It hit with a clang and a shower of sparks, cracking the lock.


Taki flashed through a series of hand seals. Then he walked out and didn’t look back, slipping out the door and away from the nearing battle, towards a side exit.


And suddenly, everything changed. It was like a difference in pressure, or the time Jiraiya had taken Naruto high into the mountains and his ears had begun to pop. It was like a release, a return of life to the air.


The chakra beast had stopped devouring.


Energy flooded Naruto’s limbs.


Outside, there was a huge cry of victory from the ninja.


Then something inside Naruto’s head screamed.


His stomach was melting and everything was red and he was on the floor and he couldn’t see. Someone’s hands were on his shoulders, shaking him and yelling but he didn't care because there was red chakra everywhere, burning and bubbling out of his skin.


There was a clanging in his head, like giant bells. Kyuubi was laughing.


Somewhere, like a voice muted by rushing water, he heard Sasuke. He sounded panicked, which was odd. Sasuke never sounded panicked.


"-Shit. Listen to me, all of Kyuubi’s chakra is being thrown at your seal at once-"


The voice was dying and all Naruto could see was the bars of Kyuubi’s cell and those giant, evil eyes.


"-He’s trying to break free and you’re dy– fuck. Fuck. Just look at me. Look at me!"


Their eyes met, and then the world swirled red and black.


All of a sudden, the pressure in Naruto’s head died. Kyuubi screamed again, but in rage this time. He was being shoved back into his cell.


Naruto opened his eyes.


Sasuke was leaning over him. His eyes were black again, but the pattern of Itachi’s Sharingan was ingrained in Naruto’s mind.


"...Thanks," he said when he could breathe. He was splayed flat on his back, hair drenched with sweat. His fingernails were bloody from scratching at the floor.


There was a battle cry outside. The tide was turning, but it wasn’t enough.


And every inch of Naruto hurt, but there wasn’t time for that, not now.


"This is our fight," He said. "Let’s go."


He raced out the door, ignored the corridor and smashed through the window, freefalling to the ground below.


Naruto turned.


"You ready?" He asked Sasuke.


Sasuke’s eyes swirled once, and he nodded.


It had been ten years since they had last fought on the same side. The clock had been ticking ever since. And now, the outcome of the battle would depend on them.


It would be easy.


They ran straight into the thick of the fight where the fighting was bloodiest, hurricane winds spinning into being in Naruto’s palms. Sasuke drew his sword with one hand, Chidori coming to life in the other.


"Fuuton Rasenshurik-"


"-Ekyou Sharingan!"






And back to back, they dove in.




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