Synchronicity

By slexenskee

Action / Adventure

The Garden of Live Flowers

Second least favorite part in the series: Sasuke retrieval arc. No, I take that back, I think the retrieval itself is a crucial cornerstone to the story—but it just took way too long with all those fights. I never found them particularly interesting, nor necessary. Why were Gennin sent out instead of… someone more useful?

this is like a flashback

(this is like a dream)

like all the things you could fit inside a memory

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"Naruto?" Sakura leaned over him, her soft hair falling over the both of them. "Are you alright?"

Disoriented and knocked from his equilibrium, Naruto attempted a wan smile. He ran a hand through his hair and wondered how long he'd been here. Had he spent the night again? "I'm fine, Sakura—I was just lost in thought."

This seemed to placate her; the tension seeping out of her shoulders. "Oh, okay. I just… you look a little strange."

"Do I?" Naruto blinked. Come to think of it; he felt really strange. He also felt like someone had tossed him off a cliff. Everything ached. The pain seeped into his very bones; like he'd been fighting for the better part of last night. And, considering he didn't even remember what he was doing last night—or, for that matter, most of yesterday—that could very well be true.

"Have you been sleeping?" Sakura put her hands on her hips. "Because I've been read some medical texts and they all emphasize how important and effective sleep is as a vehicle of—

"Yes, yes!" He interrupted, before she could really get going. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan! I've been getting plenty of rest!"

She appraised him critically. "Well, if you're sure…"

Fortunately she did not have the opportunity to evaluate him further, as a delicate tap alerted them both to another presence.

Yugao swung into the open window, crouched on the sill and leaning against the side, framed against a bright blue sky and rapping her knuckles lightly against the wall.

"Am I interrupting something?" She drawled, bored

Sakura flushed bright red. "N—No! Not at all, ANBU-san!" She gave a captious look Naruto's way.

"I figured you might be here." Naruto blinked. "Your house appears to have been empty for some time—judging by the dust and rancid smell." She said by way of explanation.

Naruto blanched. "Ah… yeah, about that…"

She shook her head with a look of fond exasperation. "No. It's fine. I think it's best for my sanity to not know what I walked into." Naruto belatedly noticed the sliver of parchment curled in her hand.

Mission.

He sighed. "Should I get ready?"

She gave him a brief smile. "Twelve hundred," She said, before she flipped backwards out of the window, as graceful as she had come. Sakura looked a bit terrified at the acrobatics, but Naruto was sure Yugao undoubtedly landed on her feet, and probably made all the boys in a four mile radius swoon as she did so.

He turned to his pink-haired ex teammate. "I'll catch you later, huh?" He smiled, quick and rueful.

"Sure." She agreed. And then, hesitant, "Take care, Naruto."

"Always." He smiled.

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Naruto turned an appraising eye around the city's walls. Absolutely crawling with ANBU. For the most part, he knew there were more than he thought—but that being said no matter their numbers ANBU were almost impossible to find when they didn't want to be found. And yet, he could count at least a dozen just in his field of vision; and that was without trying all that hard to look. He could spot out the outline of Yamato's hair some ways above them on the wall: he appeared to be speaking avidly with another ANBU captain.

"Did something happen?" He wondered aloud, mostly to himself.

"Did something happen?" Towa heard him, and echoed him with suspended disbelief. "Are you serious?"

Naruto blinked rapidly, turning back to his teammate. "Yes?" He returned, slowly.

Towa sputtered inelegantly.

"Celebration," Koga cut in quickly, a bottle of sake in his hands. "That is what's happening. You want some?"

Naruto threw his hands up apologetically. "Oh, no, thank you—

"You're bringing sake on a mission?" Yugao cut in, sneering.

"Yes—it's a celebration!" Koga interrupted her with great cheer. "Celebrate, rookie! Ding-dong, the motherfucking witch is dead!"

"I'll take some if you don't mind, thanks." Towa grabbed the bottle out of his hands, procuring a cup seemingly out of nowhere and pouring himself a glass.

Naruto watched the proceedings with great incredulity, wondering if he'd stepped into some kind of hallucination—or, alternatively, his teammates had been possessed by pod people. Only Yugao remained staunchly unchanged, folding her arms and looking upon her fellow ANBU with resignation and irritation.

He turned to her, as Towa and Koga began to link arms and sing some sort of strange folk song, sake sloshing around. Their jovial attitude increased tenfold as another ANBU team leapt above them, greeting the sight with a lot of cheery yelling, that Towa and Koga returned. One even dropped from the air to give them some ecstatic high-fives, before returning leaping away.

"Do I even want to know?" Naruto asked at length.

"A very disliked man died." Yugao huffed by way of explanation. "Though I was no great fan of him either, I always believe it dishonorable to be rejoicing at the butchering of another human." She aimed that last part scathingly at their two teammates.

Towa and Koga only saluted their cups together, cheering.

"Disliked?" Naruto blinked.

"That's putting it mildly." Yugao seceded, somewhat begrudgingly. "Especially in our line of work."

If she was really attempting to clear this up for him, she was doing a poor job of it. Naruto wasn't anywhere close to making sense of this than he was five minutes ago.

"That better not be what I think it is," Yamato intoned mildly, dropping down from where he'd been discussing something up on the wall with another ANBU captain.

Naruto had never seen so many ANBU in one place—well, one that wasn't headquarters. But there were black speckles dotting the walls and leaping over the sprawling cityscape, and it seemed everywhere he looked there were a few out conversing. What the hell happened last night?

Both Towa and Koga looked successfully cowed, downing the rest of their cups before they attempted to covertly toss them away—attempted and missed by a mile.

Yamato looked nonplussed.

"Sorry, Taichou." Neither of the two looked all that apologetic. "Just, y'know. Big day and all."

"I'll say." Yamato snorted. He held up their mission scroll. "We're off for a brief stint around the Kumo border. The Daimyo's shitting out diamonds to get these bandits out of the way."

"Bandits?" Yugao repeated, blinking, unfurling her own scroll. "That's it? They must be incredibly skilled, if the Daimyo's willing to pay this much for it."

"Actually, I think his mistress lives in that town." Yamato returned, dry. "But, well, who are we to get in the way of that?"

Naruto, who was still feeling particularly lost and confused, scowled indecently. "That's great and all—but will someone tell me what the hell is going on in our own town?"

Yamato turned to him. "Danzo Shimura is dead." He deadpanned, as if that meant anything to Naruto.

His brows furrowed. "…Who?"

"Danzo Shimura is—or was—" At Yugao's amendment, Towa and Koga high-fived, "one of the advisors of the Hokage." She took a breath. "He was also responsible for the inauguration of the ANBU segment, ROOT—or, Ne. I'd wager that most of Konoha has no real opinion on him; but here in ANBU he's very… very unpopular. He disrupted a lot of policies the Hokage put in place and often undermined Hokage-sama's position. It was… incredibly vexing for some time."

"Long story short," Towa added. "Everyone here is pretty happy to see him gone."

Yamato nodded. "An emergency meeting has been called at Hokage tower—well, it's in intermission right now, which is why so many of the black ops are out."

"The hunter-nin found his body floating in the Nakano river this morning," Koga elaborated, with a truly alarming amount of enthusiasm. "Completely butchered."

"I heard they had to identify him by his dental records." Towa quipped.

"No way." Koga marveled.

"Oh, enough!" Yugao huffed. "We've got a mission. Let's get on that, huh?"

"Couldn't have said it better myself." Yamato smiled. "It shouldn't take us more than a few days, but I'd like to wrap this up quick. I may not be celebrating at the thought of his death," He shot a narrowed look to his two subordinates. "But I do want to see how the proceedings play out."

He clapped his hands. "So! Are we all ready?"

Nothing about this day sat well with Naruto.

He'd had a sinking feeling something was amiss since he had awoken earlier today in a pile of his own drool, once again passed out with his head pillowed in his arms, leaning against Sasuke's bed. The Uchiha continued to sleep like the dead. He hadn't even moved. The doctors said nothing physically was wrong with him—but that kind of mental trauma would take a while to heal. Naruto supposed it was best that he had this mission to occupy his thoughts. From both the Uchiha, and whatever the hell was going on with himself.

Naruto looked up to catch Yamato glances back at him. The Captain returned his gaze forward the moment Naruto lifted his eyes.

He frowned.

The mission went off without a hitch. That was to say, it made for a handful of incredibly painful hours of doing mostly nothing. Yugao and Yamato scouted for about two hours—which meant Naruto, Koga, and Towa were left to entertain themselves for the duration—and it was only after the reconnaissance was finished and plans were approved that Naruto saw anything approaching action.

For bandits, he mused they had their strengths. They were bandits, however. And they were the highest ranked ANBU team in Konoha. Suffice to say, the mission itself took a diminutive amount of time in comparison to how long it took for them to travel there to do it in the first place.

Even more surprising: Kurama didn't even attempt the pretense of being involved. Naruto attempted multiple, half-hearted attempts to wake him up, to no avail.

Though the blonde was infinitely more confident in his abilities, he wasn't anywhere near comfortable with performing at ANBU level without any input from the fox.

Fortunately his worries were in vain—most of the hard work, planning, had already been squared away by Yamato and Yugao, and all that was left was to execute. That, apparently, he was quite good at.

Naruto frowned as he rubbed absently at his elbow—the bruise already well on its way to healing back up—the only injury he'd sustained during the fight. Koga had complained viciously and intermittently about his sprained thumb, but everyone ignored that on principle. And anyway, considering those were the only two outstanding injuries for what was classified as an A-Rank, there was no real reason to complain.

Yugao had said as much to their whining comrade, but in much more politically incorrect terms.

Yamato halted them about halfway back to Konoha, with about another half-day's worth of travel, as the sun had long since set.

"We'll make camp here." He decided, surveying the blanket of trees above them.

Towa snorted, and Koga made a suspicious remark about Yamato having ulterior motives. Namely, not wanting to be roped into forever using his Mokuton Jutsu for repairs and being dragged away from more missions. Their captain studiously did not remark upon this.

He did, however, make them a tree house among the branches, which shut up Naruto's wayward teammates fairly quickly.

After Yugao had spelled up a Genjutsu around the whole thing, the team settled in for the night in their temporary lodgings. Aside from a few bugs that got unsettled around by the Jutsu, the place was… rather cozy.

Naruto was almost ready to drift off the moment they got comfortable—he'd been strangely tired the entire day—when Yamato slid in place next to him.

His captain didn't say much, though, whittling away at some sort of wooden trinket. Naruto watched curiously for a few moments; he'd noticed Yamato enjoyed making them during down time, but he'd never gotten a close look at it. This one looked like… a demented version of one of Kakashi's dogs.

The blonde lost interest soon thereafter, lulled into sleep by his aching tendons. He felt like he'd fought an army and then some—and all he'd done today was bat away at a couple of rogue bandits.

"How are you, Naruto-kun?" Tenzou murmured, just as he was about to drift off.

"Huh?" He sputtered awake, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he tried to make sense of Yamato's words. "Oh. Uh, I'm good, thanks. And you?"

"Fine." Was the response. "Not too tired?"

Naruto peered at him under his lashes, wondering what this was about. Yamato had yet to look up from his strange dog contraption, but Naruto had long since learned that where his captain's eyes were and where his attention was were two entirely separate things.

"I'm alright." He answered, evasively.

"And Kyuubi?"

Okay. Naruto blinked rapidly. This was starting to get strange. And leading. What was he going for here, with all these pointed questions? It was clear that Yamato was aware of something… that perhaps Naruto was not.

"I wouldn't know." He answered, honestly. "Haven't felt anything from him all day. I'd say he was dead, but that's clearly impossible. He must be sleeping."

Yamato finally gave up the pretense at working on his figurine—which, at this point he had ruined from strange dog into avant-garde abstract art. "Do you remember anything from last night?"

Naruto blinked again, slow. "…No?"

Yamato's eyes narrowed, and he looked up from his work to study their team. Yugao was out on the porch taking first watch, and Towa and Koga were on the roof, smoking pipes and attempting to talk quietly. For the most part, aside from attuned ears, they were incredibly alone.

Finally, his eyes slide to Naruto. "Kyuubi approached me last night."

At this, Naruto really grew confused, tensing almost involuntarily. "…Okay?" He drawled, slowly. "For what?"

"That's what I would like to know." Yamato returned, ominous. "He asked more questions… along the lines of what we had discussed earlier."

Discussed…? Oh. Oh. On Itachi? Naruto frowned. That was… strange. And rather arbitrary. What for?

"Why?" Naruto asked.

Yamato shook his head. "I was hoping you might hold some answers to that."

"I don't know anything." Naruto confessed. "I can't remember anything from last night."

Yamato's brows rose. "Nothing at all?" He leaned closer, lowering his voice.

Naruto nodded. "Nothing. I woke up in the same place though. I didn't feel any different—err, well, not really."

"How do you mean?"

Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "I don't know how to explain it—I'm just… tired. I feel like I ran a marathon… or eight."

His expression quickly turned pensive. "Do you have any injuries?"

"Uh, no?"

He shook his head, sighing. "That might not mean anything. You do heal rather fast."

"Why?" He sat up. "Why would I have any injuries? Do you know what I did last night?"

"No." He let out a breath. "Nothing concrete. But Naruto…" His gaze was piercing, austere and concerned. "Danzo Shimura was murdered last night. And there was no concrete proof, but it was rumored that he had played a large role in making decisions about… the Uchiha."

Naruto's eyes widened. "He murdered them?"

Yamato hissed, clasping a hand over Naruto's mouth. "Not so loud!" He hissed. And then, with some exasperation. "Of course not. We all know who did. But… I'm not saying he was entirely without blame."

Naruto's mouth opened; first with shock, then outrage. "What a bastard!" He scowled, keeping his voice down with a pointed look from Yamato. He blew a raspberry. No wonder everyone was celebrating at his death.

Yamato's mouth thinned. "Well, I can't fault you on that one." He shook his head. "Either way, Naruto, he was murdered last night. I'm not being accusing—I'm just pointing out the facts. Danzo surrounds himself with some of the most dangerous the Black Ops has to offer, at any given time of the day. He was an… incredibly paranoid man; rightfully so. He'd made more than a few enemies in his hayday."

Naruto's brows knit in confusion, wondering where his captain was going with this.

It came quite suddenly to him, Tenzou's eyes sliding away. "What I'm trying to say, is that whoever managed to get through all his guards—not to mention the man himself, who though old, was by no means defenseless… Well, that person had to have a few things: the element of surprise, and strength. And… an ability to combat the Sharingan."

The last one really through the blonde for a loop. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Tenzou shook his head. "Nevermind that. Naruto, do you know anyone who might have that?"

He balked. No one? That sounded impossible? Maybe like, Kakashi or something. Wait… Tsunade? She'd certainly have the motive, if what everyone's been saying about the guy was true. But he couldn't image a woman freaked out by blood brutally ripping apart a guy.

"You." Tenzou answered for him.

Naruto choked.

"Well, Kyuubi, at any rate." Tenzou amended.

The blonde sputtered. He looked around wildly. Fortunately, their team was still occupied. "What do you mean?" He bit out, hysterical. "How could I—how could Kyuubi… why?"

Tenzou shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't answer that. Naruto, I'm not saying this is concrete; I'm simply conjecturing. You don't know this, but Danzo has long since wanted you… for his own motives. I'm sure you must have some idea what Jinchuuriki's are normally used for, what with the Suna incident."

Naruto nodded, numbly.

"That would certainly give Kyuubi—hiding in your body—ample reason to walk in there; and be greeted only with benediction. He'd have the element of surprise. And he's quite powerful, as I'm sure you know."

"Sure," Naruto allowed, slowly. He searched Yamato's face, wondering how much he knew. Naruto had been very keen on keeping his Sharingan far away from prying eyes. So unless Kyuubi had been using it while he was unawares, Yamato should be none the wiser about it's manifestation.

Luckily enough, the man answered his questions before he could really start to worry. "This is even less common knowledge… but the reason for so much prejudice against the Uchiha in the first place was that it was rumored that there was some kind of connection between nine-tailed demon fox and the Sharingan—that there was some kind of connection between them and the attack. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to assume it went both ways."

His eyes widened.

Oh.

Hell.

When he put it like that…

"He might've." Naruto said, stupefied. "I mean, he totally could have. It makes sense."

Yamato shook his head. "Maybe. But, the most important part is missing from this: the motive. What motive could Kyuubi have had?"

"Does he ever need a motive to kill people?" Naruto snorted, incredulous.

Yamato's gaze turned pensive. "Perhaps." He allowed, leaning back against the wall. "I don't have much empirical evidence to refute that—but it doesn't seem like him to murder without motive."

Naruto turned to him, dubious. "…are you serious?"

Yamato made a noncommittal noise. "I'm not saying he couldn't." The man allowed. "But, without a motive, I don't think he would."

He turned to Naruto seriously. "And I'm not saying he doesn't have one—I'm simply saying if he does, I don't know of it."

"Okay." Naruto agreed, voice small. "But… do you think he did?"

Yamato sighed, shrugging. "I wouldn't know, Naruto." He settled in more comfortably next to the blonde. "No one would."

Naruto swallowed.

Except for him.

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"Was it you?" He accused, once they'd made it back to the village.

The first thing Naruto had done after he split from his team was seat himself in front of Ichiraku and order five simultaneous bowls of ramen. They bitched and moaned about having to once more attend the Hokage's emergency meetings—and Naruto was only too glad to high tail it out of there before he could be roped in too. It appeared that the only people who held Danzo Shimura's death with any significant regard—aside from blatant celebration—were the Hokage's advisors and some of the council members. The ANBU didn't seem capable of containing their imminent joy at his demise.

Afterwards, he sat there for the better part of an hour and systematically ingested their contents, waiting patiently until the fox stirred.

When he did—about half way into Naruto's third—the blonde immediately ambushed him.

The fox made a harrumphing noise. "Was it me who what?"

"Killed him!" Naruto scowled. "That—that guy! That everyone's talking about! That has the whole village holed up in meetings!" Or at least, it seemed like that. Or maybe the people Naruto associated with were staring to also be the people who would be held up in meetings like that. Naruto wasn't sure how he felt about that.

"What 'guy'?" Kurama snorted. "How am I to know who you speak of, Naruto? Furthermore; what reason would I have to murder a man I do not know?"

"What reason do you have for doing any of the shit you do?" Naruto returned, pointedly. "Don't try to play me—I know you have your own agenda, that you conveniently forget to tell me of at the most inopportune of times."

"I don't know what you're talking about." The fox replied, coolly. "Naruto, has it ever crossed your mind just why you find that once difficult tasks have become second nature to you?"

Naruto blinked. "Like what?"

"Oh, things you undoubtedly no longer pay attention to." The fox mused. "Water walking? Any form of chakra control, at all? Performing Jutsu that you don't even know? Does any of that sound familiar?"

"Well sure." Naruto allowed, and then, scoffing, "Oh. So you've just been training this whole time?" He retorted, acerbic.

"Clearly it needs to be done." The fox hissed. "Be fortunate this mortal body you own isn't nearly as susceptible as others—else nothing I do would be of any significant benefit."

Naruto glowered. The fox made a convincing point. But rarely did Kurama tell him everything. Sure, what he said made ample amount of sense—but that sure as hell wasn't going to stop Naruto from questioning his true motives.

He was just contemplating how best to connive the answer out of the fox when he involuntarily dropped his chopsticks.

The shift caught him surprise: his muscles seized, he felt his fingers turn to rust and the breath in his throat hitch. The change enveloped him with little else—and suddenly his fingers deftly caught the chopsticks before they fell, and all the tendons in his body relaxed again, without his doing.

Kyuubi stood, sniffing the air.

Naruto sputtered. "Uh." He said, eloquently. "A little warning next time, yeah?"

Kyuubi purred, and an anticipation and bloodlust that wasn't his pooled in his stomach. "I smell some snakes."

Kyuubi sniffed the air again, shoving the ramen out of the way. "And the Uchiha."

Naruto gaped. "What?"

The fox threw some coins down, before jumping into the skies, making for the Hokage tower. However, he kept his head tilted into the oncoming wind, gaze focused at the front of the city. "By the gates."

"Then why are you going in the opposite direction?" He shouted wildly.

Kyuubi didn't pay him any concern, taking off with enough speed to crack the tiles beneath him.

"Kyuubi!" Naruto shouted again.

"Do you remember what happened in that forest?" Kyuubi asked, in what seemed to be a completely different vein of thought.

Naruto balked. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"That snake." Kyuubi murmured. "He put some kind of mark on the Uchiha. Your Jounin-sensei attempted to curb its tendencies… but alas, a seal like that won't be deterred by something as simple as a redirection of chakra."

Naruto thought on this. "Could you take it off?"

"Perhaps." The fox answered, enigmatic.

Naruto changed tact. "Would you?"

The fox didn't answer for a few moments, soundless as he bounded across the city.

"I may just have to." He glowered, at length. "For it appears this Uchiha will forever be an unending hindrance towards my plans."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means that, in this, we have the same goals." Kyuubi replied. "Clearly you weren't paying much attention, as usual: in the forest, Orochimaru revealed his plans to use the Uchiha as his next body—he asked specifically for the Uchiha to seek him out for more power."

Naruto recoiled. "Yeah, exactly! He's gonna… use him. As his new body! Why the hell would he go to him?"

Kyuubi sighed. "Unfortunately, your wayward teammate does not appear to share your logic—or, for that matter, any at all."

And then, before Naruto could respond, "Above all else, what does Uchiha Sasuke value?"

Naruto paused. "Himself?"

"No." Kurama snorted. And then, "Power."

Naruto sneered in disgust. "From that snake?"

"Though it would not seem likely, he does appear to have some marginal amount of usefulness. It appears that your 'friend' finds worth in this."

"Well, there's no way in hell I'm letting him go to Orochimaru." Naruto snorted. "I'd rather beat him into the ground and drag his sorry ass back home then let that happen."

As would I. Kyuubi agreed, silently. He would not lose an Uchiha so easily. Especially when there was an obvious and simple solution in his midst.

If he wanted power: Kurama would simply have to provide.

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"Yugao."

The woman blinked, shaking her head to clear her daze. This meeting was… mind numbingly boring. An absurd amount of ANBU and Jounin were packed into the Hokage's meeting room; which at best could hold about two dozen people. They'd broken that record and then some. The council took the actual seats—the rest of them were made to stand against the wall, find seats among the rafters, or out of the windows. Unfortunately, after returning from their mission to find that the talks were still in place, she'd been stuck hanging half outside a window, squashed next to a drooling Shikaku. It seemed they were here for no real reason, either, as the proceedings moved like molasses.

Half the council was as ecstatic as the ANBU. The other half, backing the Advisors, appeared stern and unmoved by the blatant jovial attitude of the room. The Hokage herself looked about as bored as Yugao, and doing a piss poor job of hiding it. She was also into her fifth cup of sake.

Yamato shifted beside her, and suddenly, a blonde tuft of hair emerged from below the window.

Yugao peered down at the young ANBU hoisting himself on the window sill.

"Naruto-kun." She whispered, surprised. "You didn't have to come."

Naruto snorted. "I'm not here for this waste of time." In the glimmer of sunlight, she caught the claret red beneath the mask, and stilled.

"Kyuubi." She breathed.

Yamato stiffened.

Kyuubi tilted his head in acknowledgement.

"Can we help you?" Yamato asked, mild.

"Yes," The demon replied, smiling. "Yes, you may."

Yugao snorted. Yamato remained staunchly indifferent. Kyuubi propped himself on his elbows jerking a thumb behind him. "I am in need of assistance."

"Really?" Yugao replied, coolly, raising a brow.

"Yes." Kyuubi agreed. "Preferably with those bumbling fools, as well. In fact, the more the merrier. Invite your friends."

Yugao scoffed, crossing her arms. "For what, fox?"

The fox turned to her, rousing his mask from his face to grin wickedly. "Why, to hunt some snakes. Doesn't that sound like fun?"

Yugao and Yamato turned to each other, clearly hearing the message underneath his words.

"Five minutes." Yamato bit out.

Kyuubi nodded amiably, lifting himself onto his hands to catapult backwards, landing on the roof of a building some distance away.

Yamato slid out of his sitting position, crouching on his knees. "Get Towa and Koga."

Yugao nodded, austere, casting a disillusion genjutsu and moving stealthily through the room.

Yamato hopped onto the roof behind Kyuubi, who had tossed off his mask to sniff into the loitering wind, stalactite-still at the bottom of a searing blue sky. He approached him cautiously—nothing in the demon's movements acknowledging that he recognized Yamato was there. Nothing, until he turned to face him slightly, one alarming red eye visible through the glare of the sun.

"The others?"

"On their way." Yamato responded, turning around to eye the Hokage tower. The meeting room was a dark spot full of shinobi hanging out the windows—finally, he could make out the nondescript shapes of ninja dropping out of the room, heading their way. They dropped out of the sky, Yugao at the forefront, landing gracefully in a crouch, Towa and Koga not too far away after.

"What's all this for, Yamato?" Towa called, bored.

Yamato jerked a finger in the direction of Kyuubi, who had yet to turn around.

Towa's demeanor immediately drifted into something somber. "Naruto?"

"Guess again." Kyuubi smirked, turning around.

"Ah." Towa appraised. "Kyuubi."

"Why'd you call us here?" Yugao asked, without preamble, crossing her arms against the whipping wind.

Kyuubi's eyes lowered into something endless. "Sound has invaded once more."

The reaction was instantaneous as it was predictable; the Jounin assembled immediately stiffened. Yugao swore. Yamato turned to him. "Where?"

"The front gates." Kyuubi cocked his head. "No, perhaps they've already departed."

"Hell, if they've departed, what do we care?" Koga snorted.

"With something of infinite value." Kyuubi added, silencing the ANBU.

"And that would be?" Asked Yamato, impatiently.

"The Uchiha." Kyuubi smiled viciously at the visceral reaction that elicited. "I suggest we move if we want to catch them before something… irreparable happens to him."

With that, he took off into the Konoha skies, the five Jounin in pursuit.

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.

.

"Four of them." Yamato nodded, cracking his neck and stretching out his arms, returning from his espionage. "Two miles out. They appear to be waiting. There's a signature inside the barrel; probably the Uchiha."

"Waiting? For us?" Yugao murmured.

Towa blinked rapidly. "… A barrel? Seriously?"

"What the hell." Koga shrugged. "They're outnumbered anyway. And you said they appeared young?"

"Young enough to slip in as Gennin." Yamato nodded. "Their profile fits the descriptions from the Sound nin recorded at the Chuunin exams." And they all knew just who was responsible for the invasion shortly thereafter.

Koga smiled, vindictive. "Well, revenge is a dish best served… fresh."

"Shouldn't take too long." Towa agreed. "Who's going two on one?"

Kyuubi trailed some feet behind him, still sniffing the air furtively. "No one." He replied, attention fixated on something in the distance. "This is even strength."

And then, as Yamato turned around with a curious look, "I'm going ahead."

Towa balked. "Slow down there, shorty." He manfully, or perhaps foolishly, ignored the ensuing growl. "Why are you—

"They're waiting purposefully—they must have been tipped off. It's a ploy to distract us from our actual target."

Towa scowled, irritated. "Taichou just said there was a signature inside that barrel they were carrying that matched Gennin level chakra."

"A decoy." Kyuubi sniffed. "The Uchiha's scent leads farther away."

Towa opened his mouth.

"The Uchiha is mine." Kurama interrupted, cold. "And either way, Naruto will have the highest success in retrieving the Uchiha without significantly harming him." And then, mildly, "Unless, of course, you'd rather have to drag him back dead. Something tells me your council will be even less pleased with that than they already are, no?"

Yamato waved off Towa's protest. "He makes a valid point." The captain decided. "Let him go." Towa blew a raspberry.

Kyuubi gave a nod in his direction, ignoring his teammate entirely, before taking off into the dark canopy above.

Yamato turned back to his team. "Well," He began, amiable. "Shall we?"

.

.

.

"I swear!" Sakura cried, loudly. "Shikamaru—you have to help me!" She pleaded.

The lazy Gennin—Chuunin, now—blinked at her. "Have you told anyone else?"

Sakrua shook her head wildly. "No… I just woke up—it just happened! And I can't find Kakashi-sensei, or any of the Jounin-sensei… Shikamaru, I don't know what else to do!"

That would make sense, Shikamaru mused, considering that all the high-ranking shinobi were currently cramped on the tenth floor of Hokage tower. For what, however, he was still not able to discern. It appeared to be something classified.

"You're sure he's in trouble?" Shikamaru wedged a finger in his ear. "He could just be, y'know, fucking with you."

Sakura shook her head valiantly. "He wouldn't do that!" She swore.

It was perfectly possible that Sakura was making this up. Sasuke, leaving the village? Granted, he didn't know much about the Uchiha, but why would anyone leave? Usually there was a serious motive when someone left the only place they called home, along with all their safety, security, and, well, food supply and source of income. But she looked ready to fall over in terror. Maybe she had hallucinated it.

Maybe the Uchiha was really that dim.

"Alright, alright." Shikamaru sighed. "Let me round everyone up, and we'll go search for him."

"Thanks." She nodded, rubbing warily at her head, a phantom pain still lingering from when Sasuke had knocked her out. "This means a lot, Shikamaru."

He shrugged. "Yeah, yeah." He hedged, rolling his shoulders and moving off to find some of the other Gennin to help them. Sakura was right—trying to barge their way into whatever high-ranked meeting was being held would be a terrible idea.

The ANBU and a large amount of Jounin had been holed up there for the better part of two days. Even his father wouldn't speak much of it, sloughing onto the couch with a bottle of imported beer and complaining about how shitty his life and everyone in it was. Obviously he didn't go out of his way to snoop, but just by being more observant than his peers he'd noted that there was a suspiciously large amount of ANBU in the village—in plain sight, even. He couldn't recall a time he'd seen so many; but all this just simply affirmed Sakura's position.

He plodded along sullenly as he thought, making his way to the barbeque stand in hopes of finding Chouji.

Of course, the village liked to make a big deal about Sasuke. Surely his disappearance would be some cause for concern for them. But then that brought into question just what exactly Sakura saw and how useful that would be in convincing any of the Jounin that something was actually amiss. She seemed quite convinced that he'd gone rogue—and while Shikamaru certainly thought him capable, he didn't really see the motive.

Sure, Sasuke was always broody and reclusive, but that didn't inherently mean he would turn missing-nin.

But then, Sakura quite clearly knew her teammate better than he did. Maybe she had more reason to see a rational connection between the two.

He sighed, rubbing the back of his head.

Hell.

He was thinking himself in circles—how troublesome.

"Chouji!" He called, once his teammate was in sight. He was marginally, but not entirely surprised to see Inuzuka Kiba inhaling a plate of barbeque beside him.

"Oh, Shikamaru." Chouji greeted, around a mouthful of food. "How are you?"

"Could be better." Shikamaru digressed.

Kiba slapped him on the back, leaning around Chouji and spraying a mouthful of sauce at him. "Congrats on making Chuunin, man! Sucks you're the only one."

He nodded absently. "Yeah, thanks. Hey, are you guys doing anything… for the unforeseeable future?"

They both blinked at him.

Fortunately, it didn't take much to convince them. Even less to convince the wandering Hyuuga Neji and Rock Lee they'd found on their way back to Sakura. It appeared Neji was quite enthused at the idea of fighting with Sasuke—or at least, getting the opportunity to do so. Shikamaru didn't even want to touch that with a ten foot pole, so he simply shrugged and ushered the Gennin along with them. Rock Lee only needed to hear, 'possible rematch with Uchiha Sasuke', and more importantly, Sakura, to come running. That, Shikamaru also felt he was better off not questioning.

By the time they made it back to Sakura some time had already passed, and they found the pink-haired Gennin fretting worriedly by the gates.

She rushed over to them once they were in sight. "Finally!" She breathed in relief. "I thought you'd forgotten! Or worse—fell asleep somewhere!"

Shikamaru made a noncommittal noise. He'd be more offended, but, well, that did sound like something he'd do.

Kiba cracked his knuckles, smirking. "So, we're here to hunt some Uchiha?"

Sakura looked cross at his crudeness, but nodded. "He's missing. And he's out of the village." She looked down. "The problem is; I have no idea where he went off to."

Kiba laughed. "Well, do you have anything of his?"

She blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"His smell." He gestured to Akamaru, who yipped playfully at her. "We just need his scent—and we'll be good to go!"

"Oh." She blushed scarlet. "Well, I don't have anything of his but…" She leaned down, so Akamaru could sniff her. "You… um… might be able to smell him on me."

They all blinked in unison, brows raising.

"Shut up!" She scowled. "It's not what you think!"

"Right." Kiba agreed with a lazy drawl. He turned back down to his dog, who had begun to sniff around Sakura. Akamaru looked back up, barking. "He's got it. Let's head out?"

They all looked collectively at Shikamaru.

Shikamaru sighed. "I'm leading this, then?"

"You are Chuunin." Chouji noted mirthfully, around a bag of chips.

Shikamaru looked skyward, pinching the bridge of his nose. Of course.

He ushered them to follow him, before leaping off into the forests outside of Konoha.

They could have been making better time, Shikamaru mused, but the fact of the matter was: they were a group of Gennin. Not only that—they weren't even trained for search and destroy. Or hell, any kind of searching at all—with the exception of Kiba. He almost wanted to hope that Sakura was wrong; if Sasuke truly was leaving the village… well, Shikamaru doubted he would be doing it alone. And he doubted even more so that they'd get out of his unscathed.

The four Gennin and their Chuunin lead spent some time running through the forest at Akamaru's behest. True to Shikamaru's ominous hypothesis, Sasuke was not traveling alone. Kiba reported that Akamaru had picked up four other foreign smells along with the Uchiha, all headed in the same direction. He must have met up with them out of the gates.

"Did he say anything about where he was going?" Shikamaru slowed to ask Sakura, when it became clear that this situation may turn dangerous. He'd need all the information he could get. It was always so troublesome to be taken unawares.

She bit her lip. "No." She admitted at last. "But… during the Chuunin exams, in the Forest of Death… there was this guy."

Shikamaru raised a brow. "…And?"

She swallowed, gathering breath. "He—he bit Sasuke." She grimaced. "Some kind of seal. I didn't get a good look at it—but he was different, after. It was… taking control of him."

"You think it has something to do with this?"

"I'm sure of it." She nodded, grim. "That guy, his name was Orochimaru—

Shikamaru choked.

"And he said that Sasuke should… come find him, if he wanted to be stronger."

Shikamaru cursed. Great. Orochimaru. Clearly Sakura had no idea who he was—but Shikamaru was no stranger to that name. Missing nin, and Sannin to boot. Just what the hell were they getting themselves into? He prayed that Orochimaru himself hadn't come to collect the Uchiha.

"Kiba." He barked, leaping over to the front, where Kiba and Akamaru spearheaded the group. The brunette turned to him questioningly. "Does Akamaru smell any snakes?"

Kiba looked down curious at his dog.

Akamaru paused, nose to the air, before he barked.

Kiba shook his head. "No, none. Why?"

"It's nothing." Shikamaru breathed in relief.

Kiba's brows furroed. "It doesn't sound like—

Akamaru let out a flurry of yips, and Kiba skidded to a halt, sending up a spray of dirt. Shikamaru barely had time to stop as well, nearly getting barreled over by Chouji.

The group paused as Akamaru began to bark consecutively at Kiba. Kiba ignored them all, murmuring to his dog. He looked up then, face set ominously. "Akamaru says he smells blood… and a lot of it."

The group grew silent.

Shikamaru cursed.

Akamaru continued to yip, hopping to the front of their halted procession to bark alarmingly at the trees.

Kiba swallowed. "He also says there are more scents heading our way."

"Shit." Shikamaru cursed gain, turning to Neji. "Neji, can you—

But Neji had already activated his Byakugan. "The dog is right." He said, with great finality. "There are four presences heading our direction; they appear to be quite formidable, considering their chakra signatures."

"Rank?"

"Jounin, probably."

Again, Shikamaru cursed.

They had no more time to discuss, as suddenly all of them could feel it—the killer intent permeating the air like a heavy stench.

Within moments an ANBU team leapt out of the trees, dropping silently and effortlessly to the ground in front of them. They took weary defensive positions, but lowered them when it became clear that these were Konoha ANBU. Shikamaru breathed a sigh of relief.

Yugao paused, surveying the group in front of her.

For the most part, they didn't look familiar. Well no, one was clearly a Nara, the other a Hyuga, the third an Inuzuka, and then an Akimichi—and after that, a carbon copy of Gai. She shuddered. Oh hell, she hadn't even realized one of those existed. So there was some element of familiarity to them, at least genetically, but nothing personal.

And the last, a young girl in the back with very distinctive pink hair. That, Yugao recognized. Yugao allowed herself a moment of surprise—simply at the spectacle of it all.

What the hell were they all doing out here?

Fortunately, Yamato beat her to it. "Konoha Gennin," He greeted.

"ANBU-san." Shikamaru nodded in response. "Sorry to bother—we're following the trail of four foreign signatures moving in this direction. Have you scouted anything?"

"Four?" Yamato cocked his head. "Yes, we have. Why are you looking for them?"

"They've taken one of our friends!" Sakura interrupted, they all turned to her surprised, though Sakura looked the most shocked at her own bravery.

"Ah, the Uchiha." Yamato surmised.

Sakura nodded, demure.

Sakura's gaze flickered briefly up to Yugao, before steadfastly fixing to the ground, a blush spreading riotously over her face. "Um…" She started, haltingly, "You're—you guys are Naruto's ANBU team, right?"

Whispers spread behind her from the Gennin (and Chuunin) gathered.

"Naruto has an ANBU team?" Kiba balked.

"Naruto's on ANBU?" Chouji questioned aloud.

Shikamaru scowled lazily. "You two really didn't know?"

"Why would we know that?" Kiba hissed back.

"Nevermind that." The Nara shook his head.

Yugao tilted her head. "We are." She answered, with a brief glance to her team. "Why are you after the Uchiha?"

Sakura swallowed, summoning up her nerve. "We're going to bring Sasuke-kun home!" She explained, with conviction. "He… he left last night and we're going after him before that crazy snake guy gets a hold of him!"

Yugao snorted. Crazy snake guy. How apt.

Yamato waved them off. "There's no need, Gennin-san. The situation is being handled."

She blinked, eyes wide. "But… Sasuke-kun…"

"Is being handled." Yamato repeated, firmly.

Whatever conviction had spread from the kids began to waver; Sakura looked between the four of them, as if finally taking in their blood-soaked attire.

"Naruto?" She whispered. "Is he okay?"

Yugao sighed. Gennin. "He's fine." She replied, striding forward and ushering them in the other direction. "Now, I think it's time we all headed back." She swept a clinical eye over the group of kids assembled. "I'm pretty sure most of you should still be in the hospital." Considering most of them had just gotten out of it, that wasn't an entirely inaccurate assumption.

They all looked a bit cowed at that.

Shikamaru sighed. So fucking troublesome.

He couldn't pretend that he wasn't at least a tiny bit relieved. Two of the ANBU—one with a falcon mask and the other of a badger—escorted them back to Konoha. The other two stayed in the clearing, murmuring quietly to themselves. He thought them to look a bit familiar; or hell, they all sort of did, considering they all wore the same uniform and bone masks. But he thought he recognized the hair on the two that stayed behind—maybe friends of his dad.

"They're really Naruto's ANBU team?" Kiba was whispering fiercely to Sakura, as if the ANBU in front of them couldn't hear.

She nodded, slowly. "Yes, I'm pretty sure. I recognized the woman with the purple hair."

"Naruto's in ANBU?" Kiba repeated, still boggled by it all. "When the hell did that happen?"

Sakura shrugged evasively. "I don't know." She hedged. "Sometime before the Chuunin exams."

"Is that why he wasn't in the exams?" Chouji mused aloud.

She nodded again. "I think so."

Kiba blinked. "Is he really that strong.?"

Sakura looked down. "Naruto is…" She began, soft. "He's very strong." Naruto's scary. Is what she wanted to say.

Naruto was terrifying. She didn't know when the blond nuisance she had known from the Academy had grown into this alarming figure off in the distance, turning around to stare her down with omniscient, god-like eyes. She shivered. In a lot of ways, Naruto awoke some integral fear within her; even when he smiled benignly at her, donning the clinging skin of his youth.

Very strong indeed.

.

.

.

Anticlimactically, Sasuke stood with his back to him, contemplating the violent river that split Hi no Kuni from its bordering countries. He had expected something… more dramatic, maybe. Not the dark-haired boy, still as stone, strangely benign and almost listless as he stared at an indeterminable point in the burning sky. Naruto traced his gaze; the mountains lit up with the bitter ends of the sun. They still had a good hour or two of daylight for Naruto to whip this moron back into shape.

"Hey!" He shouted, as he dropped out of the trees. "Asshole!"

Sasuke's shoulders tensed.

"You couldn't have even said goodbye?" He asked sardonically, loud over the surging waters. "That's kind of fucked up, you know."

He walked closer. Sasuke did not move.

"What, nothing to say to that?" He began anew, derisiveness drifting into genuine anger. "You're really that much of a coward?"

"There is nothing more to say." Returned the Uchiha, somewhat lifeless. He still hadn't moved at all; aside from a slight swaying with a silent wind.

"Well that can't be true, considering you haven't said anything to me." Naruto snorted.

And then, to the Uchiha's unnerving silence. "Turn around and face me, you fuck!"

Yeah. That anger was starting to turn a little explosive. He couldn't help it, though; all his patience—or what little of it he had—always seemed to evaporate in the face of the dark-haired boy.

He did. Finally.

"I did not just chase you all the way over here to deal with this bullshit." Naruto started anew, in perhaps the most graceless way possible. He had a speech planned for this: and it had gone out the window the moment he finally got the boy in his sights.

Sasuke sneered. "No one asked you to come all the way out here, moron. Go back to your precious ANBU if it means so much to you—

"Stop being such an asshole!" He cut him off, angrily. He wanted to—to shove Sasuke's face into the dirt until he saw reason; or maybe dunk him head first into the waterfall. Maybe the cold water coupled with the fall would knock some sense into the boy's head.

Naruto took a breath.

They were both being obstinate little fucks. And losing his temper was going to accomplish absolutely nothing. Hell. When had he become the more mature of the two?

"You know you're just as important to me—no, fuck it, you're so much more important to me than… than any of them. Or anyone else I know. You're my best friend—" My only friend—"And.." The words felt raw even before they left his mouth; cutting up his insides with sharp edges, dragging through his heart. Maybe because of how genuine they were, as if he laid bare all he had to hide.

"I'd chase you to the end of the earth, okay? I mean, I might, like, punt you off the edge in anger but the point is that I would. And jesus, don't act like you don't give two fucks about anything because we both know that's not true." Naruto swallowed.

Two livid red eyes turned to him, so violent they could have seared the earth into tinder and ash just from their gaze. Naruto held them, though; unable, or perhaps unwilling, to look away.

Sasuke had long since drifted into silence, and Naruto wasn't sure what to make of it. Was this progress—or was Sasuke simply shutting himself completely from him? The thought made him a little hysterical. There had to be a way back to the boy… had to be a way to get through to him.

"Fight me."

Naruto blinked out of his reverie. "What?"

"Fight me." Sasuke repeated, dark and tenebrous.

"…Why?" Naruto balked. He opened his mouth again, but—

Sasuke didn't wait for him to finish, turning around and charging at the blonde.

Naruto withdrew his sword on instinct, parrying Sasuke's kunai and completely forgetting what kind of sword he was wielding. Sasuke's eyes widened as the metal of his kunai melted on impact and dripped searing liquid iron onto the ground, leaping away with a hiss. Naruto, for his part, was just as surprised by the events, staring incredulously at the smoking remains of Sasuke's weapon.

The Uchiha scowled, putting distance between him and the blonde.

He flew through hand seals, placing them up to his mouth and spitting a fireball in Naruto's direction. The blonde felt chakra surge through his fingertips without his will, manipulating the fireball to harmlessly catapult into the tree line.

"Oh, hell." Naruto blinked, watching it erupt the forestry into flames.

He hadn't come here for a fight. Well, okay, he'd kind of figured that might be a plausible outcome when he'd been chasing Sasuke down—but that wasn't entirely what he'd come for. At one point, he would have loved to go head to head with the Uchiha, if only to prove himself to the other boy. But his need for approval in his strength had long since come and gone… he thought—no, he knew—that he was powerful in his own right, and he didn't need a fight with his rival to prove it. He didn't want Sasuke to acknowledge his strength; he already knew he had it. He wanted Sasuke to acknowledge him.

"Fight back!" He bellowed, charging Naruto again.

The ANBU ducked under his strike, whirling around to deflect a barrage of shuriken sprayed his direction. He rolled into a crouch, holding the hilt of his sword in his mouth as he flittered through hand seals he couldn't remember memorizing.

The ground beneath Sasuke's feet erupted, and the Uchiha vaulted away before the edge of the cliff gave away completely, tumbling off into the water below.

He felt it before he saw it, chakra licking away at his skin, the smell of lightning in the air. The cry of a thousand birds taking into the air, and then Sasuke was barreling towards him from his left, Chidori awakened in his hand.

He took a page out of Itachi's book and dove beneath Sasuke's guard, clasping his wrist where the electricity ran through his skin, driving the Uchiha into the earth and grounding his strike.

Sasuke growled, enraged, jerking his hand out of the dirt and springing to strike at Naruto again.

The blonde ducked and darted around his Taijutsu, the air of his strikes just barely grazing his skin. The Uchiha sprang away, unleashing a flurry of kunai in his wake. Naruto dodged through the spray, catching Sasuke by surprise when he pitched right into him, hurtling them both into the ground.

He lowered his blade to his neck, pinning him to the ground.

"What part of, 'I'm not going to fight you' is not getting through your fucking head?" Naruto yelled at the stunned Gennin beneath him.

Sasuke opened his eyes, a livid red as heated and lethal as the inside of a volcano.

"I'm not going to fight you." He repeated, calmer, catching his breath and getting off his knees, drawing his sword away from the Uchiha's carotid artery.

"So, could you at least tell me what this is about?" He asked, beseeching. "Why are you even thinking about going to that guy? What brought this on? What did—" He swallowed, and then, searchingly, "Was it your brother?"

Almost involuntarily, Sasuke's hands curled into fists, and the Uchiha got up from the ground, visible fury trembling in his shoulders.

"Revenge?" Naruto stabbed again. "Is that what this is about?"

"Is that what this is about?" Sasuke echoed, with incredulous disbelief. "That's what it's always been about. There is nothing else I live for, but the opportunity to kill that man."

That's not true, he wanted to shout. He knew that wasn't true. There was a brief, scintillating moment in time; a hand pushing him to the side, a body hovering over his own—"My body just moved on its own"—that proved otherwise.

Naruto searched the Uchiha's face.

The utter impassivity was worrying, but he refused to give up hope just yet. He thought… he might have another angle to play; it was a gamble, but at this rate he was running out of ideas. Well, Naruto consoled himself, if he fucked it up, he could always just haul Sasuke's unconscious body back to Konoha. It might just ruin their relationship forever, but he'd rather sacrifice the most important person to him, have Sasuke hating him forever, than have him dead on an operation table. Or worse, alive, with a snake inside him.

Naruto sighed; a grand capitulation. "Well, I can't stop you if you've made up your mind." Wrong. He could grind him into the dirt and carry his sorry ass back home, but he was saving that as a last resort. "But at least hear me out."

Sasuke sneered again, but he made no move to leave, hesitating at the lip of the waterfall.

But Naruto would never get to say what he had planned, because in that moment Kyuubi derailed all of his machinations, overtaking them—along with Naruto's conscious— with his own in one fell swoop.

Kurama took a breath; and promptly ruined everything Sasuke knew about his life.

"Your brother was not the only one who had a hand in your family's death."

.

.

.

If Sasuke noticed the radical change in Naruto's demeanor, he made no show of it, but for the slight narrowing of his eyes, too caught up in the words coming out of his mouth.

"What… do you mean by that?" He asked, deceptively steady.

Kurama smiled, all teeth and sharp edges. "What, indeed? Tell me, did your brother ever give you any explanation for why he did it?"

"Power." Sasuke bit out, as if the word physically pained him. "He did it for power. He said… he said to cling to my pathetic life until I had enough power to challenge him."

"And is that what you want? Power? From Orochimaru?" Not-Naruto tilted his head, snorting. "I don't think you'll find much there."

Sasuke scowled.

"What do you care?"

"You're important to me, Sasuke." He crooned. There was no deceit to be found in his words—no, in this, Kurama and Naruto had the same goals. Sasuke was important. Though in profoundly different ways. To Naruto, Sasuke represented everything he wanted; affection, family, approval. To Kurama, Sasuke was an integral part of his machinations; and someone he would not let go of lightly.

The Uchiha faltered at the words, as if they managed to find him in a place he didn't want to be found.

"And I don't think he did it for power." Kyuubi continued. "From what I hear from ANBU who knew him"—and what he had encountered for himself—"he, contrarily, seemed more like a pacifist."

Anger burned over Sasuke's face. "You're saying I'm wrong?"

"I'm saying he lied to you."

Shock flittered over the boy's face; a broken visage of confusion and surprise that quickly shuttered into indifference. But Kyuubi could smell it—the deliberation. Could see it in his stance, in the hesitation which lingered in his eyes.

"But perhaps he was right to urge you to get stronger; for the people involved are strong indeed. And if you truly want to avenge your clan, it's going to take a lot to kill them."

Sasuke searched his face. "How do you know all of this?"

"Consider me well informed." Kyuubi brushed him off. "One of them, I have already taken care of. Danzou Shimura. He was the man who ordered your brother to kill your clan."

"…What?" Sasuke's mind raced. He'd… he'd never even heard that name. "Who is he?"

"Was." Kyuubi corrected. "He was the commander of a defunct sect of ANBU, called Root. He and the Sandaime never saw eye to eye; you could say he had a very… pragmatic approach to political issues that the Sandaime was not fond of."

"He was the one who ordered my family to die?"

Kyuubi nodded. "He was one of them. On his death bed, he said Itachi made a deal with him—to spare your life in exchange for the clan's." His eyes flickered to Sasuke's face, which had long since lost its pallor. "You see, the Uchiha clan planned to overthrow the Hokage."

"…No…" Sasuke whispered. "They wouldn't. My family—

"Felt oppressed and undermined by Konoha. This isn't all that terribly surprising; they have always had a history of opposition. The Uchiha have always felt undermined by the Senju, even though both factions joined together to create Konoha."

Kyuubi appraised him indolently. "You seem surprised by this. Did you never know your clan's… illustrious history?"

"They were honorable people." Sasuke denied. "One of the best in Konoha."

"They also mean to uproot all the progress of a hundred years and start a civil war. Of course, the Sandaime wanted to solve this diplomatically. But, as I said… the Sandaime and Danzo never saw eye to eye."

"And Danzo—" Sasuke swallowed, filling in the blanks. "He decided to kill them all."

"Yes."

His hands were shaking, involuntarily. He clenched them into fists, but now the tremors slowly overtook his body. He didn't want to show weakness in front of Naruto—and when had Naruto… gotten so strong? So, so different? There was little to remind him of the Naruto he used to know—nothing left of him in this indifferent face, inscrutable gaze giving nothing away. His feet had long since gone numb and nothing but his rapid heart reminded him he was even alive. He felt… like he did all those years ago. Like someone had upturned the contents of his life.

"Others." He bit out, shaky. "You said there were others."

"Surely there were others who added to that decision." Kurama mused. "But there was only one who aided in the actual event."

And at this, he had Sasuke's full, unwavering attention. "…Who?"

Kyuubi grinned, though there was nothing particularly pleasant about it. "Uchiha Madara."

His eyes narrowed even more. "And who the hell is that?"

A predatory smile grew slowly over Naruto's face. "Now isn't that the question." His eyes bled, and Sasuke felt the floor drop out beneath him; a rushing vertigo as he looked into Naruto's eyes—

"The Sharingan?"

A violent pinwheel erupting from the inside of his pupils, something both incredibly disconcerting and vaguely familiar. It wasn't like his—wasn't the three ringed tomoe. It was something more.

Sasuke's breath hitched. "Naruto, how—

His eyes flew back to Naruto's—no, Kyuubi's—recognition coloring his voice, "You're not—you can't be Naruto."

"No, I'm not." Not-Naruto agreed. "But we are one and the same." Not-Naruto stepped closer, and Sasuke stepped back. He could hear the water behind him, a chaotic, continuous roar as it tumbled down the cliff.

"Who are you?"

"Is that really of consequence?" Not-Naruto mused, before shaking his head. "I suppose it is. I am the Juubi—the most powerful demon to ever exist. No, the most powerful being to ever exist."

Sasuke gaped, but Naruto—no, the Juubi—continued over his noise of shock. "Long ago, a man of great power—the first shinobi to ever walk this earth—bested me and split my energy into nine parts. You may know of them as the tailed beasts."

Sasuke swallowed. "The nine tailed beasts of legend." He acknowledged. "They're not legends, then."

"No, not at all. Often, they are weaponized for use in their village." He pointed to himself. "Weaponized through their Jinchuuriki. As I am sure you've managed to deduce by now, Naruto is my Jinchuuriki."

His eyes drifted across Naruto's face, from the whiskers, to the alarming Sharingan spinning in his eyes. He'd never seen a Sharingan like it, nine-tomoe swimming slowly along paths of rings. "So, his power…"

"Is mine." He cut in. And then, somewhat begrudgingly. "As well as his. It would be… inadvisable to underestimate him."

"That doesn't explain how you have those eyes." His voice was almost indiscernible over the raging waters.

The fox raised his brows. "But it does. You see, long before the Uchiha clan ever existed—these eyes belonged to me."

He drew closer, and Sasuke drew farther away, something intrinsic compelling him to stay far, far away from those unnatural eyes. He'd never felt more intimidated by a Sharingan before; but that was perhaps because he'd never seen one such as this—it went farther than that, though, as if something in his very blood told him to stay the hell away from this demon.

"However, I believe I've already told you more than enough. I think it's fair to say that you owe me something in return."

"What do you mean by that?"

Kyuubi smiled. "Information isn't free."

Sauske's eyes narrowed. "…And what do you want in exchange?"

"Well, Sasuke, I'm afraid I'm going to ask you for a favor." And then, tilting his head. "Two, actually." Because he knew if he didn't at least bother to extract what Naruto wanted from this boy there'd be hell to pay for it later.

"I'll hear you out." The Uchiha bit out. "But I won't agree to anything until I hear what they are."

"Perceptive." Kyuubi appraised. "The first; give up this asinine plan to join Orochimaru. If Naruto could best him so easily, he certainly isn't worth your time. I'm sure you must have heard the exalted tale of Naruto slaying his last remaining useful appendage and gouging out his eye. That being said, there are certainly people who are. Most of which… remain in the village you were so quick to leave."

Sasuke eyed him warily. When it became clear that these were the terms, he grunted, "Why does this matter so much to you? Why do you care?"

"Me?" Kyuubi blinked. "Or Naruto?"

The question struck him aback. "…Both."

"Well, it's astute of you to question my motives—but Naruto's, unfortunately, are quite genuine. You're his most important person, as I'm sure you must be aware of. He simply doesn't want you to leave him." Sasuke's eyes traveled up Naruto's face, unwillingly ensnared by the spinning tomoe. They were as hypnotic as Itachi's; Sasuke wondered if this was all a dream, just another Tsukiyomi he had tumbled into.

"Mine is simply more… practical. You want power; there is no shortage of it in Konoha. Not only does your village give you safety from your enemies—it can provide infinite knowledge, if one only knows where to look."

Sasuke scoffed. "I haven't found any place like that, not in that god forsaken village."

"But perhaps you can." Kyuubi murmured, stepping forward once more. Sasuke had nowhere else to run; he could leap over the waterfall behind him, but that would be an obvious retreat. Trapped between the savage water and the equally savage fox, he didn't know which was more intimidating.

The demon leaned in close; Sasuke flinched violently when he felt the wisp of his breath across his cheek. "What if I had what you desired?"

The words took a moment to process, Sasuke too caught up in forcibly halting his urge to jump off the side of the cliff and away from the fox. He tilted his head slightly, his vision obscured by Naruto's plume of winter wheat hair. "What do you mean?"

"Power." The fox leaned back, just enough for his eyes to be the most luminous, alarming presence Sasuke could see, swallowing the rest of the world in darkness.

"I…" It sounded like a deal with the devil.

But wasn't that what he was about to do? Make a deal with the devil? Allow Orochimaru the chance to take his body for his own and in the process learn all he could from the snake? That in and of itself was a gamble; how was he to know that, by the end of the three years, he'd be able to overcome the Sannin? Was this truly any different? Kyuubi was undoubtedly the real devil out of the two of them. The true unpredictable force. Somehow, this choice felt infinitely harder to make than running away to the Sannin.

But if he could so easily gamble his life on a man he had only met when he tried to kill him in a forest, how could he say no to this?

"Then give it to me." Sasuke challenged.

Kyuubi's brows raised.

"You said you had the power you desired." Sasuke repeated, slow and deliberate, as if that would somehow obscure his absolute terror. "Give it to me."

This seemed to please the fox; as if Sasuke had played right into his hands.

"This is going to hurt," Kyuubi warned, a nasty smile gracing his face. He accidentally took another step back, and would have fallen into the water had the demon not shot out a hand to steady him, in the process dragging him closer.

"But don't worry," Kyuubi crooned. "I'll be more gentle with you than I was with Orochimaru."

Then he struck his hand into Sasuke's eye.

And Sasuke screamed.

.

.

.

Sasuke couldn't tell if his eyesight was any different. He didn't think so—but then again, he was having a hard time focusing on anything but trying to calm his hysteria. The blue sky had long turned tumultuous: how fitting for the occasion. The earth he lay on grounded him, and he fisted his hands into the dust, if only for something to hold on to.

When he had finally stopped hyperventilating, he shifted his gaze to the demon cloaked in Naruto's skin.

He didn't look all that different from Naruto, was the thing. Though he had never seen an expression like that on Naruto's face—nor had Naruto ever descended upon him with such inhuman fervor, moving to gouge out his left eye.

Almost on instinct, his hand flew to the left side of his face. Blood had long since dried in thick rivulets against his cheek, matting his hair. But aside from a phantom pain, the intense agony of the entire ordeal had long since left. He shuddered at the absolute anguish of the entire event—something he'd have to relive in his perfect memory, for he had both Sharingan eyes opened. The burn had not yet receded completely, but Sasuke thought, perhaps, it had been worth it.

Because in it's place…

He drew up a kunai, finding himself in the world reflected in the metal.

In it's place was a slowly spinning Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan.

.. this was like way longer than I intended, but what can you do?

ALSO: There is officially a poll on my profile on what the hell to do with pairings. It's just a guideline, but I do always like knowing what preferences my readers have! I also love knowing what you think, so drop a review ;)

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