“You look well… imouto-chan.”
Sasuke’s brain came to a screeching halt. Little sister? Saeka had a brother? Who was that guy? His eyes were wide as he observed from several feet behind the newcomer, wondering faintly if he was going to have to defend himself from the guy. Saeka looked frightened. There was hate in her eyes, but her body language spoke of fear. If Saeka was scared of this guy, he had to be extremely powerful. He had to be strong enough that the pink-eyed girl couldn’t beat him.
Which meant, in short, that anyone that guy targeted was dead.
And the man had been aiming for Sasuke’s opponent, Gaara. Why he had been targeting the redhead, Sasuke didn’t know. He didn’t know what would’ve happened if Saeka hadn’t stepped in. He didn’t know what would happen when the guy defeated Saeka and went after Gaara again. He had no idea what was going on.
“What are you doing here, Teara?” Saeka asked, her voice unsteady. Sasuke held very, very still, not wanting to be noticed quite yet. If he needed to assist Saeka, he would, but he would be much happier if he could avoid engaging this Teara guy in battle. He wasn’t really interested in getting himself killed.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” Teara drawled in reply. “Orochimaru-sama wanted me to nab him a lil’ pet so we could break this shit hole into a few pieces.”
Saeka was working her jaw, and Sasuke could see her pink eyes darting around the area. She didn’t look like she was happy with the terrain she was going to be fighting on. Or perhaps she was just worried about Gaara and Sasuke. He didn’t know. Orochimaru was in town, apparently, and he was going to make a ruckus in the village, probably kill a bunch of people, and naturally there was nothing Sasuke could do about any of it.
He gritted his teeth, but didn’t move. He knew better than to try and jump into a battle against a powerful foe without any information. That was a stupid mistake to make. That would get him killed. The last time he’d tried to fight someone like that, it’d resulted in…
Still don’t actually know what that guy did to me.
“Pet?” Saeka replied flatly, looking ever more tense. “You mean Gaara.”
Teara snorted, “That is the only animal hanging around the stadium, after all.”
Sasuke had no idea what they were talking about. He looked past Saeka to see how his opponent was faring. Gaara looked rather insulted and very confused. His sand was sifting around on the ground restlessly, betraying how tense he was. The redhead glanced past Saeka and Teara, and Sasuke met his gaze.
It was evident that there was some piece of information that he was missing. Gaara, an animal? That was quite the insult, but Sasuke had no idea where it had come from. Did Gaara know this Teara person? He looked pretty confused, so that didn’t really explain away the situation. Sasuke swallowed hard, his mouth dry. This was pretty stressful.
He felt four presences appear around him, and glanced to the side. Kakashi-sensei was standing there, and he could see the tension in his eyes. No one knew who this guy was. All Sasuke knew was that Teara was one of Orochimaru’s men. That wasn’t really much to go on, in all honesty.
There was a weight that fell on his shoulders all of a sudden, a bone-deep chill that settled in his chest. He looked back over at Teara, his heart rate staring to go up and his lungs refusing to take in a full breath. Something was wrong. Something was wrong. Something was wrong. He wanted to say something to Kakashi-sensei, but he couldn’t speak. He was frozen solid.
It’s like that night.
His stomach lurched and he swallowed compulsively, a tremor settling in his muscles. He felt sick. He couldn’t take in a deep breath. His heart was hammering away in his chest. His neck was throbbing where Orochimaru had bit him, where that mark was. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move.
Move. Move. Move. Move. Move move move move move move please please move don’t freeze up on me now please please don’t freeze up…
“You’re not going to get through me.” Saeka growled, and Teara chuckled lightly. The blue-eyed man lifted a hand up, his entire demeanor showing how completely relaxed he was. He was completely unconcerned with the four jounin standing beside Sasuke. He didn’t care about the presence of Saeka or Sasuke.
Teara looked as though he knew they wouldn’t be able to keep him away from Gaara.
A few sparks came off Teara’s hand, black in color, evil in nature. He heard Kurenai-san gasp quietly, and his chest tightened tenfold. It was impossible to breathe. His shaking was getting worse and he didn’t know why. Something was off about this guy. Something wasn’t right. The air around him felt dirty and wet and the chakra swirling around Teara’s hand seemed to be getting darker and darker in visible color.
“You talk as though you think you stand a chance.” The black-haired man replied maliciously, the chakra around his hand fading to jet black.
Saeka’s eyes were huge. There was genuine fear in her eyes. Sasuke didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to do. This guy was immensely powerful – he knew just by how terrified Saeka was of him – but the energy he was pulling out of seemingly nowhere felt darker than what Sasuke had felt earlier. It was as though the chakra wrapped around his hand wasn’t his, but that didn’t make sense…
Abruptly, a stabbing pain erupted in Sasuke’s neck, and he flinched, one hand reaching up so he could dig his fingers into the mark on his neck. It didn’t help. The pain continued to build, and Sasuke’s heart was hammering and hammering and it felt like he was going to have a heart attack. He couldn’t breathe past the tension that was building in his neck and throat. He felt sick.
He groaned, sinking to his knees, one hand bracing against the ground to keep him from falling forward, the other digging into his neck as hard as it could. He choked on a breath, and he could faintly hear someone calling his name. Someone talking to him. He hunched further forward, the hand that had been holding him up abandoning its post to join in on pressing on the mark. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts oh my god oh my god it hurts stop stop stop it hurts it hurts I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I-… breath-… hurts-… please-… stop-…
He didn’t remember letting himself hunch so far forward that his forehead was pressed against the dirt. The stabbing pain in his neck was slowly turning into an awful burning sensation that was spreading down his back, up his neck, down his chest, across his shoulder and sliding along his arm. He could hear voices, and then he felt himself moving, and he had no idea what was going on. All he knew was that his whole body hurt and he couldn’t process anything that was happening as it happened.
Don’t you feel the blood on your hands?
He looked down, and sure enough, his hands were splattered with blood. More shouting. Calling his name. Calling someone else’s name. Darkness. Brightness. Darkness. Brightness. Darkness. Brightness. Darkness. Brightness. He felt hot and cold at the same time and his shoulder was killing him and he could hardly breathe past the pain and he didn’t know where the blood on his hands and shirt had come from and he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t breathe why is there blood on my hands what’s going on is someone calling me I can’t breathe I can’t breathe where am I what am I doing here what happened I can’t breathe I can’t breathe…
Calm down. We’re alright. We handled it. Don’t you remember?
He didn’t remember at all.
When Kaisuki finally opened her eyes again, it was late in the day. She didn’t know what day it was, but it was nearing twilight. Another case of severe chakra exhaustion. She needed to stop doing that. It wasn’t good for her systems to be bone dry. She needed to figure out how to better manage her chakra when using that full-body transfer technique. She needed to be able to maintain it for more than fifteen to twenty minutes. She needed to be able to maintain for at least forty-five minutes to an hour.
“Kaisuki…” Izumi’s voice reached out from somewhere farther back, and Kaisuki blinked. She sounded distressed. Kaisuki spent a moment trying to piece together the tail end of Saeka’s fight against Teara, but it was difficult. Once Saeka’s temper got the better of her, keeping track of everything amongst the mess of thoughts and emotions and reactions was nearly impossible. It was entirely overwhelming.
“What is it?” She asked, “Is something wrong?”
There was a long silence that followed that, and her stomach twisted into a knot. “Is it Saeka? Is she alright?”
“No.” Came Khrai’s voice. Her presence was welcome, but the bad news sort of ruined it. “Actually, I don’t have a clue. She’s hiding. And she’s doing a really fucking good job, because I swear I have looked everywhere, and I can’t find her.”
Kaisuki frowned. Saeka liked to hide when she was upset, but she didn’t think either Khrai or Izumi had ever been unable to find her. It wasn’t as though Saeka could readily disappear from Kaisuki’s body of her own volition, so she supposed she shouldn’t make herself crazy about it, but she was still worried. Saeka was extremely emotionally volatile, and sometimes Kaisuki wondered if the girl could become a danger to herself.
She supposed she’d just have to wait. She couldn’t force Saeka to come back. All she could do was call out to her, which was exactly what she decided to do. “Saeka, if you can hear me from wherever you are… I’m a bit worried because Khrai can’t find you. I know you’re really upset, and I don’t know why, but if there’s anything I can do for you, please tell me, okay? Be safe.”
There was no response, and Kaisuki hadn’t been expecting one, but she was still disappointed and… sad. Not because Saeka hadn’t replied, but because Saeka was hurting and there was nothing she could do about it. She felt completely useless. She was supposed to be helping them, and she wasn’t.
She didn’t know what else to do.
The door to her room opened and she looked up to see Naruto. Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of him. His eyes were puffy and red – he’d been crying. A lot. His face was pale and he was staring at the floor as he walked into the room. Kaisuki could hear many voices out in the halls, some sounding a little frantic, others crying, a few snarling. The door slid shut again and the blond crossed the room and sat down on the chair beside the bed. She sat upright so she could talk to him more easily, finding it a little difficult. Her whole body was still sore from the chakra exhaustion.
“N… Naruto?” She said hesitantly. He looked up at her, and she could see the shadows under his eyes. He was exhausted. “What’s wrong? What…” Her mind briefly supplied Sasuke’s face, alongside the memory of him writhing on the ground in pain. “What happened?”
Naruto sniffled, and reached up to wipe his eyes. “Th…” He choked on his words and cleared his throat, before trying again. “The old man… is dead.”
Kaisuki’s mind blanked out for a long time. The Hokage was dead? Her heart was beating harshly against her chest, stomach knotting up. Was that what that snake freak Orochimaru had been after? The life of the Hokage? She bit her lip, depression finding her as she lowered her gaze to her lap. She had never been particularly close to the Hokage. Not like Naruto had been. Not like a lot of people had been. After the incident with Saeka, she’d done her best to avoid the higher-ups, including the Hokage. He had been the only one to try and eventually succeed in convincing her to return to the path of a shinobi, though, and for that, she was endlessly thankful.
She always would be.
But at the same time, while she felt like she ought to, she couldn’t feel the same depth of pain that she was sure most everyone else felt. She couldn’t mourn the life of someone she didn’t know. It just wasn’t something she was capable of. She could comfort her friends, and try to keep them going, but she couldn’t mourn with them. She could feel the sadness of the loss, but it wasn’t the same kind of sadness. It was a generalized depression caused by the loss of the life of someone she was acquainted with. It was more of a sympathy pain than anything.
Even though she couldn’t mourn with them, she could be there for them, though.
“Do you want to sit with me?” She offered Naruto, and he looked up at her from where his gaze had fallen to the floor. She felt hollowed out more than anything. The blond stared at her for a moment, before he nodded slowly, still sniffling. He looked like he would cry again.
She scooted over to make room for him, and he clambered into the bed beside her. She pushed the button on the bed to raise up the head of it, so they’d have something to lean on, and got comfortable. Naruto rested his head on her shoulder, and she reached over and started petting his hair. After a few minutes, her teammate made a distressed sound, and then choked out a sob. Kaisuki wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him over, hugging him tightly, and letting him cry on her shoulder.
“He promised…” the blond was mumbling into the crook of her neck. Kaisuki squeezed him tighter for a second, listening carefully. “He s-said he’d watch me… b-become H-H-Hokage.” Naruto wheezed around his sobs, practically hyperventilating as he cried.
Kaisuki didn’t know what to say to him, or what she could do for him, aside from what she was already doing. Her eyes stung, but not because the Hokage was dead. Tears were welling in her eyes because her best friend was in insurmountable emotional pain, and there was so little she could do for him, she felt totally useless.
“You don’t always need to make people stop crying,” Izumi’s voice spoke up quietly. She sounded depressed, her voice a little thick. “Sometimes, you just need to listen and let them cry. Naruto doesn’t have many other people he can go to. Remember that he chose to come to you for a reason.”
Tears spilled from her eyes at the very thought of it, and she buried her face into Naruto’s blond hair, her shoulders trembling as she tried to hold herself together. Her teammate squeezed her a little tighter for a moment, sniffling as his sobs began to slowly cease. They held onto each other for a while longer before Naruto finally shifted, and Kaisuki let him go. The blond looked terrible, and Kaisuki was sure she wasn’t in much better shape.
“Naruto,” Kaisuki said quietly, picking at her fingernails. She knew it was always a bad idea to make promises like the one she was about to make, but it was a sincere statement. “I obviously can’t take the Hokage’s place in your life, but… I’ll make sure I’m around to see you become Hokage. I promise.”
And she meant it with all her heart and soul.
Naruto stared at her, stricken, before a fresh onslaught of tears spilled down his cheeks. He reached up quickly and wiped his eyes, but Kaisuki could tell he was trying to hide his face. She smiled sadly at him, wishing there was more she could offer him in terms of comfort.
Kaisuki lowered her gaze to her hands briefly before she quietly asked, “How is Sasuke? Is he alright?”
Naruto looked up at her and shrugged. “Sort of. He got beat up really bad by Gaara, but he’s alive. They’re both alive. Gaara’s in bad shape though, but they said he’d recover. Sasuke put a kunai into his chest.”
Kaisuki’s eyes widened in shock, “Last I saw him, he was…”
The blond nodded, “Yea, I know. He was like that for a while, too, but then, after that Teara guy left, he just got up and went after Gaara like a bloodthirsty maniac.” Naruto shuddered at the memory. “It was kind of scary. He kept taking really heavy hits and he just wouldn’t stop. Now he’s in pretty bad shape… idiot that he is.”
She nodded slowly, genuinely concerned. Sasuke had been blacking out and otherwise acting strange since he’d received that mark from Orochimaru. It seemed like it was affecting his chakra somehow, but she didn’t know why or how. There had to be something they could do to counteract it. There had to be. She’d talk to Kakashi-sensei about it later. Maybe he’d have some insight into what they could do.
“Are you going to be leaving here today?” Naruto asked, his voice quieter. Kaisuki looked up at him briefly, noting the hope in his blue eyes, and nodded. He managed to smile, and it was a truly pathetic look that made her heart hurt. She wished she could do more for him.
“I feel fine now, so there’s no reason for me to stay.” She replied. Then, wondering if there was a specific point to his question, she asked, “Do you want to do something after I’m out of here?”
The blond nodded vigorously. “I was thinking we could go get dinner at Ichiraku’s, and then maybe… we could have a slumber party, like we used to.”
Kaisuki blinked, a little surprised by the suggestion of a slumber party, but she nodded and smiled at him. They hadn’t spent the night together since they were about eight, and she did rather miss the simpler things of childhood.
“Sure, that sounds nice.” Was the answer she gave, and he smiled again, this time more genuinely. The expression was a sight for sore eyes, that was for sure. She was sure he’d cry more, and she was sure he was still in a lot of pain, but if she could pull him out of his reverie of depression every now and then, she would. She didn’t want him to be consumed by it.
There wasn’t a whole lot she could do for him, or anyone, really. But sometimes it was the little things, like having dinner and a slumber party with a friend to cheer him up. Sometimes, that was enough. Maybe all it ever took was the little things like that to make people feel better. She supposed she didn’t really have to be a martyr. She could just be herself. She could just be empathetic, and honest, and compassionate, and kind.
She thought of Khrai, and Izumi, and Saeka. Maybe that really was all it took.
With Naruto and Kaisuki gone to train and travel for a while with Jiraiya of the Sannin (who had basically shown up at his front door to let him know before leaving seconds later), and Sasuke still recovering from his battle against Gaara, life was quiet. Kakashi could read his book and laze around most of the time. Sasuke had demanded that they work more on Chidori when he was back in commission, and Kakashi had promised he would. Sasuke had been instructed not to do anything more strenuous than walking for at least two weeks, and the Uchiha had one more left to go. It wasn’t a very long time, obviously, but Kakashi was still appreciative of the break from his two most difficult teammates.
He glanced up at the clock on his wall and stood up. He was supposed to be helping Sakura train today. She needed a lot of work on her taijutsu. Her ability to use ninjutsu and genjutsu was unrivaled by any of her peers, but she was terrible at close-range combat. She seemed determined not to fall behind her teammates since the fiasco in the Forest of Death, and Kakashi was actually quite proud of her for it.
She had a lot of potential. She just needed guidance. So, he left his apartment, locking the door behind him, and started his walk to the twelfth training grounds. He was late, as usual, but he couldn’t be blamed. The book he was reading was excellent, and it was easy for him to lose track of time when he was engrossed in it.
Well, he supposed he could be blamed for not setting an alarm or something.
He strolled down the streets of Konohagakure, glancing into shops as he passed them. Every single shop, house, and restaurant had a black cloth tied somewhere on the store front, a sign of mourning for the late Hokage. Kakashi tore his gaze away from them, sighing. It’d been two weeks since Sarutobi had been killed by Orochimaru. Many didn’t know that it was Orochimaru who had done the deed, but all of the higher-ups, the jounin, and most of the chuunin knew. A few of the genin had been told by their jounin instructors – including Team 7 – though most of those kids didn’t know who Orochimaru even was.
Team 7 was not in that boat. When he’d told his team about it, they had reacted as he would’ve expected them to, now that he had heard the full story about the incident in the Forest of Death. Sasuke’s face had turned the color of sour milk, Naruto had been furious, Sakura had been horrified, and Kaisuki had developed a sudden migraine and had been forced to lay down for the rest of the afternoon. Supposedly, Saeka knew Orochimaru, though no one knew her exact connection to him, and she didn’t want to tell anyone about it.
Kakashi glanced into a small eatery that sold sweets, his gaze falling on a duo wearing cloaks and straw hats that completely concealed their faces. He almost stopped in his tracks to inquire as to who they were. Something told him they weren’t there for the dango, but that was all he could get out of it. He wished he could’ve been able to see their faces, so he could identify whether or not they needed to be detained. They had an air around them that suggested they might be criminals, but he didn’t know.
He started when he heard a loud cawing, and glanced up at the source of the noise. Sitting on the fence of a balcony above the eatery was probably one of the biggest crows Kakashi had ever seen. He paused in his steps, staring at it for a long moment. It was looking right at him. He frowned at the bird, even as it abruptly took flight and flew away, cawing loudly as it went.
Kakashi glanced back into the eatery, for reasons unknown to even himself. The two sketchy-looking people were gone. Something about that crow was making him extremely uneasy. He felt like he’d seen it somewhere before, but he didn’t know where, or when, or anything along those lines.
He resumed his pace, lost in thought for only a few moments before he heard his name. He looked up, spotting Sasuke walking towards him. He looked troubled. That already seemed like bad news. Sasuke didn’t usually go to him for much of anything, especially since he’d found out about the scratching. It seemed like an invisible barrier had gone up, and the kid didn’t seem to trust him as much anymore.
“Nice to see you out and about.” He greeted, and Sasuke nodded. “What’s up?”
“Nothing…” There was a loud cawing, cutting Sasuke off and startling him enough to make him flinch violently. The crow was back. Something in Kakashi’s head was pointing fingers in a direction, and he wasn’t sure why, or what direction it was pointing in.
The Uchiha was stiff as a board, looking over his shoulder and finding the crow sitting atop a pole, staring down at the two of them. Kakashi watched the color leech out of his face, watched him take a half-step back, closer to his jounin instructor.
“Are you okay?” He asked, concerned. Was he being tailed, or something? For a moment, Kakashi thought perhaps he should look around for evidence of danger, but then he stopped. Sasuke’s reaction was specifically directed towards that crow. Something was off. Something was really off.
“I…” Sasuke mumbled, his voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t like crows.”
Kakashi could see that the kid was terrified, but he wasn’t sure where it had come from. Since when was Sasuke afraid of crows? They weren’t particularly threatening, though Kakashi supposed things like moths and spiders weren’t usually very threatening either (unless used by the Aburame clan). Phobias didn’t always make sense.
The crow tilted its head to the side, still staring at them with its small, dark eyes. It cawed and Sasuke flinched again, though he glared at the bird at the same time. “I… I have to go. I’ll see you around.” He said quickly after turning his divided attention back to his instructor. He turned and walked around Kakashi, likely heading in the direction of his apartment. The jounin turned to look over his shoulder, watching the kid as he retreated away, his arms crossed tightly and his head bowed.
His one open and visible eye widened a fraction as he realized who he’d been thinking of. When he looked back to the crow, it was gone. He knew he had seen it before. He knew his bad feeling wasn’t just paranoia. He should’ve walked into that eatery and confronted those two people.
Uchiha Itachi had always kept a crow as his messenger bird. Most other ninja used owls or hawks, because they were easier to train. But the prodigy had managed to train a wild crow that he’d found injured in his back yard when he’d been eight, and it had always been able to find whoever he needed it to since then. It had become one of the best tracking birds in Konohagakure, and it would only answer to Itachi.
Were one of those two sketchy people in that eatery the notorious Uchiha Itachi? He looked towards where Sasuke had been walking, immediately worrying about the kid. Would Itachi go after him? Why was he in town now, after having been gone for almost five years?
Forgetting what he had been originally planning to do, he turned and started walking. He’d make sure Sasuke got home safely, and then he’d prowl the village and look for two sketchy people wearing black cloaks. He’d track down Gai, Kurenai, and Asuma as well. He was a jounin, yes, and he’d been in ANBU for a number of years, yes, but Itachi had joined in ANBU’s Black Ops when he was ten, and he’d activated his Sharingan when he was eight. He was a prodigy unlike any the world had seen in a long time.
Kakashi was probably no match for him alone, in all honesty. It was possible that the four jounin instructors would be no match for him, especially if he was traveling with someone equally dangerous. He couldn’t really imagine the Uchiha traveling with anyone of much lesser standing than himself.
He hoped he was completely wrong. He hoped that those cloaked people turned out to just be some punks that he could take on with his eyes closed, though he highly doubted that would be the case.
More than anything else, though, he hoped that Sasuke would be safe.