Chapter 17:



Like a rock at sea,
At ebb-tide hidden from view,
Is my tear-drenched sleeve:
Never for a moment dry,
And no one knows it is there.

-Lady Sanuki



“Sasuke...I think we need to talk...”


His words hung like dead weight between them; the awkward pause that ensued broken only by the gentle licks of the sea’s waves against the side of the boat as well as the faint disembodied voices of the other passengers outside the door he had gently closed behind him.


Sasuke continued to stare; all eyes and mouth slightly agape...before he seemed to realize he was close to drooling on himself and snapped it shut to form a thin and uncompromising line. Though the Itachi he had once known was tall (after all as a child, everyone else practically towered over you), this version of his brother seemed alien and foreign; an anomaly. The shadows in the cabin - coupled with how small (claustrophobic) it was - gave Itachi a somewhat intimidating presence, and even though Sasuke was sure they were almost the same height now, he still wished Itachi would sit down already. There was something rather smothering about the situation, and despite the window being open to let in some fresh air, he could still feel beads of sweat break out on his skin. Perhaps sensing this, Itachi motioned toward the lone wooden chair in the room.


“Mind if I sit down?”


He expected no answer and wasn’t disappointed. All he received was a sullen glare, which he took for a ‘yes’ as he plunked himself on it with a soft sigh. He leaned forward, hands clasped tightly between his spread thighs, while giving the illusion of staring at the grimy and worn floorboards. In actuality, he continued to study his younger brother closely; able to tell from the tense body language that Sasuke really had no intention of making things any easier for him.


(and can you blame him?)


Now up close and personal, it was even harder to reconcile the young man before him to the little boy he had left behind. Without the protection of the kamishimo, Itachi could see the strength in those pale shoulders and torso, a sign that his brother had done his best to keep in shape all these years, either with his training or doing his duties as a watchdog.


(still never could get the sun to give you a nice tan, eh, little brother?)


As a child, many had mistaken Sasuke for a girl (especially when he was still a baby), and Itachi could still remember having to explain to the embarrassed person (“oh, such a cute baby sister you have there”) that it was actually his brother. The baby cuteness would still plague Sasuke even as a precocious five-year-old; his ‘adorable’ features, a magnet to anyone who wanted to lavish all their attention on him.


Fourteen years later, the baby cuteness was gone to be replaced with strong, handsome features that were quite striking to the first-time onlooker. Those dark eyes he had thought inscrutable at the arena, now simply looked haunted and weary (or perhaps wary). Though there were no visible lines of age on his face, that still downward turn of Sasuke’s lips was troubling. It really did seem as if the notion of smiling was bound to make his face fall off if he dared try, and if he indeed did smile, it was only the kind that would be filled with cynicism or haughtiness.


With another inner sigh, Itachi rubbed his chin absently; wincing at the stubble he felt. It was a reminder that in the past two days he has barely had the time to sleep or even consider proper grooming. Considering how fast everything seemed to be happening, where the hell was the time for that anyway?


(and the problems are only getting started...)


“I’m sure you have a lot of questions to ask me,” he began in an even tone. Should he smile? Try to act like this was just going to be a casual chit chat between brothers? He dared not. Sasuke was still looking pissed at the world (at him) and Itachi figured he might as well get on with it.


“Where to begin -”


“You can begin by telling me how the fuck you’re still alive,” Sasuke suddenly blurted out; his voice harsh and slightly trembling. He bit his lower lip hard and forced himself not to give in to the sudden surge of emotion that welled within him. It was the natural instinct to burst into tears; whether of frustration or of relief or of the notion that all this time he had assumed  his brother had been murdered, he was actually still alive...somewhere on this he was stuck in that damn place with Orochimaru.


All these years, you never came back for me, the child within him wailed. I thought you loved me, nii-san. Why would you not come back for me?!


“I still ask myself that question too,” Itachi replied quietly; suffering the angry look thrown at him with a weak smile. “I should have been killed that day, but I guess God had other plans.”


Big fucking deal, was Sasuke’s initial angry thought, but he had to admit his curiosity was getting the better of him.


“You do remember I wasn’t home on that day, correct?” Itachi asked, which caused Sasuke to frown a little in thought.  Though the vivid image of his parents’ death haunted him incessantly, everything else surrounding the events of that day was like a blur. For years, he had simply assumed that Itachi had gone out to fight, but now that he thought of it -


“I was out with remember him, don’t you?”


Vaguely, Sasuke wanted to say, but his mouth remained stubbornly closed. His brother had many friends...well not that many, but considerably more than Sasuke did at the time. Itachi did not let this sullen silence deter him as he continued quietly.


“Shisui and I were fishing that day when we heard the first explosions. At first we weren’t sure of what was going on as we assumed it was probably some officers at the shooting range practicing, but when Shisui noticed the mushroom cloud of smoke coming from the residential area, he just about freaked out and began running in that direction; saying something was terribly wrong.”


Itachi’s hands clasped tighter still as the memories came flooding back. He could still remember how panicked he had felt as he watched Shisui’s dark features. If Shisui (who was older than him by two years and was definitely the coolest senpai in the whole world) could look worried, then there was definitely something not right. All he could think about was his family...wondering if they were still okay; hoping that whatever was happening hadn’t affected their humble abode. He had wondered if he’d be able to make it on time.


“The closer we got to the main grounds, the worse it became. There were dead bodies everywhere...people we had known all our lives...slaughtered like animals on the street.” His fingernails dug deep groves into the flesh of his hands, but he didn’t seem to mind the pain or notice what he was doing. His gaze was distant now; fixated on the floorboards though Sasuke was sure Itachi was seeing nothing but the events of that terrible day.


“It was like being suddenly thrust in the middle of a war. We didn’t have our weapons with us, and it was hard to tell who the enemy was at some point. Still...”


Still Shisui had just about lost his damn mind when he saw the motionless body of his mother and sister slumped against the walls of their home; their blood smeared upon the wooden panels like a grotesque paint job; a gruesome reminder of what had just transpired. He could remember his friend screaming in a voice that seemed torn from the depths of his soul, before he reached for a fallen man’s katana to join the fray in the hopes of finding his family’s murderer.


“I tried to call him back,” Itachi whispered. “Tried to tell him that it was no use...we were only children and they were going to get us as well. But he wouldn’t listen, and the last I saw was him running into the thick of the fight, slashing and thrusting at anything that looked remotely like the enemy.”


The enemy; a faceless group of men in death masks and flowing dark robes, who rode on horses as black as night and were quick to trample on anyone who got in their path. Itachi shuddered. He could literally still feel the hot, steaming breath of those magnificent beasts upon his flesh, which now broke out in tiny goose bumps.


“All I wanted to do was get back make sure nothing had happened to any of you,” Itachi recalled. “I was sure Shisui was dead, and to defend myself I had to fight as well. Father always said that in a a battle for your sometimes had to let go of your humanity when you want to survive. I think in those few moments – as I struggled to make my way home – I lost a bit of my humanity....and sanity.”


A bitter smile came to the older brother’s face. “I would get my first taste of killing another human being on that day, and I don’t need to tell you how satisfying it is to watch someone you really hate go down before you in defeat. I can’t remember how many more I did end up hurting or killing, but I did know that with every step I took, the heavier my katana became. Do you understand what I mean, Sasuke?”


Yes, came the silent response. I know exactly what you mean. For in those early years, when Orochimaru had allowed him to partake in his first series of executions; words could not describe the weight, of knowing you had taken another life, upon one’s heart. It was as if an elephant was sitting on your chest and crushing it, and there were nights when Sasuke was sure he would die in his sleep...unable to breathe.


“I didn’t see it coming,” Itachi continued. “But the pain, I definitely did feel. Someone knocked the back of my head with a really heavy and blunt object, and the last thing I’d remember before passing out was how much I had failed you all. If I was going to die, I would have at least wanted to see your faces one last time, but I wasn’t even allowed to do that.”


He gave a short bark of a laugh that was tinged with that same bitterness Sasuke had noticed earlier. “When I opened my eyes... I was in a whole other country.”




Itachi smiled; a more genuine expression this time albeit a little one. “Huh is exactly right,” he replied with a soft nod. “I had somehow ended up in China...Suzhou to be exact.”


Sasuke resisted the urge to rub his eyes or gawk stupidly at this announcement. China? China?! Was he fucking


“How did I get there?” Itachi asked with a light shrug of his shoulders. “Fishing boat apparently. Who was responsible? A young man by the name of Yahiko. He had no allegiances or alliances with the Uchiha, but he did have a strong sense of justice, and was obviously aware of just what was going on at the time. He and his small band of vigilantes had joined the fray at Byaku-Shinkyou, but when he realized that they were outnumbered and would not make much of a dent in the battle, he settled for rescuing the few he could. I was one of the lucky few...I guess.”


Itachi sighed and rubbed his chin again. “Father and I had been to China once, but it was for only a three day business trip, and I couldn’t remember most of what happened then. I couldn’t speak the language very well, so you can imagine the culture shock I received when I was fully awake and found myself in the midst of new faces in a new land. Yahiko had left me under the care of his mentor and oldest friend, Li Jialun, in the middle of nowhere and by that, I mean I had little to no access to the outside world. “For my safety”, Jialun would say whenever I’d query him. Apparently, Yahiko had given him strict instructions not to let anyone know I even existed. “If they know the heir to Byaku-Shinkyou was still alive, there would be no hope left.” I don’t think word of your survival had reached the outside world yet, Sasuke. Orochimaru kept you his secret as the illusion that everyone had perished in the ‘ambush’ until he deemed it fit to finally showcase you to the public.


“So yes...I was safe and sound in my new home, miles away from knowing if you had all survived or not, desperate to hear of some good news even something as little as knowing Byaku-Shinkyou wasn’t completely destroyed. Believe it or not, Yahiko only came by to visit me one more time, and that was almost five years later. Naturally, I wanted to return back to Japan with him, but he would have none of it. “The situation is still volatile,” he told me. “The few Uchiha left are either being recruited as Orochimaru’s watchdogs or killed if they are defiant. The smart ones go into hiding and refuse to identify themselves as members of your clan...” And my brother? I’d ask. But his expression told me everything. None of you had survived was what his downcast eyes told me. I was the only one left. “But not to worry,” he had assured me. “One day you will go back and reclaim your right. I will make sure of it. We are gathering evidence needed to take down Orochimaru and his partner in crime, Shimura Danzo. So trust us and let us do all the work.” But I wanted to fight to, I pleaded with him. This was my battle after all. Those bastards had taken away everything I had left and I would not spare them if given the chance. “It’s all well and good to go charging in there like a madman,” Yahiko said. “But what good would that do you? Do you really think Orochimaru hasn’t built himself a fortress now? Do you really think you can just walk into Byaku-Shinkyou and challenge him to a fight? You’d be dead before you even stepped upon the land. He must not know you’re still alive!


“No amount of pleading and ranting and raving on my part would make him change his mind, and he left me again under the care of an ailing Jialun.” Itachi rubbed his forehead wearily. “He was already an old man, you see, and though he had taught me the language, culture and everything else in-between, it was still hard to say goodbye to him when the time came. He died a year later, and because he had no offspring, I became the official leader of his little organization. It wasn’t as if they were villains, but they were very good and loyal fighters ready to sacrifice themselves in a heartbeat.”


“In other words,” Sasuke stated flatly. “He was the head of a Chinese syndicate.”


Itachi gave a wry smile. “Bingo.”


Sasuke sighed and lowered his head. “Great.”


It all made sense now, especially why he had received that ‘message’ from the Chinese guy Haku had killed on accident. Itachi still had his ties to them after all these years.


“I never saw Yahiko again,” Itachi stated softly. “That was because the next time I was visited, it was by Nagato and his woman, Konan, both of whom had worked with Yahiko at the time of his ‘accidental death’.




“How much of an accident is it when your car blows up in the middle of the street?” Itachi asked with a wry smile. “Danzo – now Commissioner – was touting it as the work of terrorists, when he was the one responsible for it. It was obvious Yahiko’s presence was now being known and felt, and they managed to get rid of him effectively. Nagato, who called himself Pein – because he believed he bore the pain of all the oppressed - had come with the single purpose of having me return to Japan and becoming their leader. To Danzo and his cronies, they believed they had gotten rid of the main problem by killing Yahiko, but they needed me to create a whole new organization; one that would be even more discreet. My initial jerk reaction had been to say ‘no’, that after seven years of being in China; of becoming family to so many people here, I had no intentions of returning to a country that could possibly no longer welcome me, but then he said five words that changed my life in an instant.”




Itachi looked up then to meet the curious dark eyes and felt his heart stir just as hard as it did all those years ago when in the presence of Nagato. “He said...”


(your brother is still alive)


“Your brother is still alive,” Itachi repeated as if still unable to believe it himself, and Sasuke was embarrassed to find his cheeks burning with heat at the tenderness in those words. He could see his brother visibly trembling, and he realized now just how much Itachi must have suffered during those years with the belief that he had no one left.


Just like me...we were both...


“Believe it or not, after the initial shock of the announcement, I became furious,” Itachi confessed with a weak chuckle. “I thought Nagato was only saying that to get me to return, and I did not appreciate his little joke. I threatened to have him killed, but Konan produced photographs...photographs that had been taken by someone they were working with on the inside...someone...”


Sasuke didn’t need to know who that someone is. Only one person had taken a couple of photographs with him back then (well besides the official photographer who was required to take some pictures for the public records) and that person was none other than...


“Asuma,” he whispered beneath his breath.


“Yes...Asuma,” Itachi replied with an expression of pain Sasuke missed. “Asuma was my senpai as well, and though he was not as close to me as Shisui...I still respected him and was more than surprised he had survived the ambush. Bottom line, the photographs did it for me...and I decided to come home.”


Come home indeed. But to Itachi, it was more than just looking at the photographs. How could he adequately express how seeing those candid shots of his supposed ‘dead’ brother, looking embarrassed about something...or of how that innocent expression had wrenched his heart strings? How could he tell Sasuke how he had wept himself to sleep with the pictures clasped tightly in his sweaty palms? Of how he had walked around for the next few years with the images tucked within his wallet as a reminder of what he was fighting for? No...those were things he could not reveal to Sasuke lest he be seen as too overly protective.


He settled for scratching the bridge of his nose and stretching out his legs. The flame from the oil lamp was getting a little low and Itachi wondered how long he had been talking. It would be dawn soon...


“It felt strange coming back to Japan and being back in to speak. Everything had changed, and I felt like a stranger all over again...role reversal you could say. Anyway...Yahiko’s organization was a shadow of its former self. They had lost many of their members either by assassination attempts or the weaker ones quitting while they still had a chance. Who could blame them? Danzo and Orochimaru were tightening the noose on anyone who dared oppose them and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get ahead. All the same, Yahiko had done his homework and he had amassed several key information on why the ambush had taken place and the ones responsible for it.”


“Wh...why?” Sasuke rasped through lips that felt dry. “Why did they do that? What was the reason for it?”


“Greed and power,” came the simple response that left the younger one unsatisfied yet bewildered. However, when Itachi began to explain the intricacies behind Danzo and Orochimaru’s plot to gain access to something their father had deserved, Sasuke could feel his insides getting colder by the second. That was it? Pure jealousy and a need to be in power was the reason why his family and so many others had been ruined? He couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand why innocent lives had to be destroyed (his included) just because of two men’s decision to want everything. It just didn’t make any sense...


“...broke my heart when Asuma told me what you had become...”




Sasuke looked up sharply. He had been so lost in his thoughts of fury and kindling revenge, he must have missed half of what Itachi was saying. However, the sad expression on his older brother’s face was enough to have his cheeks flaming. He could already feel his defensive shield rising up and a childish part of him wanted to scream that it was all Itachi’s fault for not being there to protect him from Orochimaru’s crazy doctrines in the first place!


“Asuma said you were so ingrained into your teachings and beliefs about what constituted for sin and refused to see reason. To think you were in charge of executions and taking the lives of others in such a manner...”


“” Sasuke took a deep breath and seemed to straighten up a little more. “I can’t help it. It’s what I grew up believing and a part of me still agrees with some of the teachings of the Great Book. There are some sins that just can’t go unpunished.”


And yet even as he said this, he realized how...insignificant it all seemed. If all sins were to go unpunished, where did that place him? Was his near-death experience enough to show that even God did not play favorites? That one day his own time would come, and while he might not go through the barbaric ritual of Gudan, his judgment would be just as swift as the executions he had performed in the past.


“How could I rescue someone who seemed content to be with Orochimaru?”


“I was not content!” Sasuke clipped back irritably.


“That was the impression I got from Asuma,” Itachi replied quietly.


“Asuma knows nothing,” came the low words and suddenly, just as quickly as the fight had appeared, Sasuke’s shoulders sagged in weariness. “He doesn’t know the half of it...everything I’ve had to deal with...he...he wouldn’t understand...”


“Perhaps because you didn’t give him a chance?” Itachi prodded gently. He knew he was going to have to break the news to Sasuke sooner or later, and would have rather had Shisui, with his bluntness, do the deed. “Asuma always felt you kept him at a distance even though he tried to be close to you.”


Sasuke raised a brow and seemed to give a cynical smile. “He was the closest to me...all things considered. doesn’t explain why it took you this fucking long to want to see me again. We’ve had public Gudan showings all these years, you could have come then -”


“You, of all people, should know how Orochimaru works, Sasuke. If it was as easy as simply shooting him down with a sniper, we would have done that a long time ago....and we did try that believe me, but it only got us so far. He has managed to escape the many attempts made on his life, which is why his public appearances are now far and few between. Last time, he was smart enough to take you with him; knowing full well we couldn’t attack without hurting you in the process. But perhaps I would have met you sooner if Ino’s plan had come to fruition.”


At the mention of the girl’s name, Sasuke visibly started and felt a combination of heat and a chill sear down his spine. Memories of his time in that room (which now seemed like an eternity ago) and the bothersome nightmares he had with her voice in his head, had him moaning a little and raising a trembling hand to his forehead. Itachi gave a weak smile of sympathy.


“She told me of your plans to meet at the temple gardens where we would have been introduced formally...after she had broken the news to you of course. But as we both know...that didn’t the time we could locate her whereabouts...”


His voice trailed off for he too remembered how distraught he had been at the sight of the barely recognizable body of the young woman with such a bright future ahead of her. In fact, he wouldn’t have minded if Sasuke settled down with a person like her (especially after Asuma had shared the story of his baby brother finally becoming a ‘man’). Ino had been a smart, funny, yet homely young woman.


“Shisui and I decided that the best way would be to fight from the outside in -”


“Wait...Shisui?” Sasuke looked up with bemusement. “Didn’t you say he was dead?”


“Ah...yes,” Itachi nodded softly. “I didn’t mention that, did I? No...he wasn’t dead after all. He was very much alive and well and had become a member of the organization about a year before I returned. He was the one who renamed the group to Akatsuki.”


“But how did he survive?”


“He was captured...tortured...and given the opportunity to either kill himself or join their organization. He chose the latter and ended up becoming Danzo’s personal hit man.”


Sasuke shook his head. “He was Danzo’s personal hit man...and yet he was with you guys? How did you know he wasn’t a spy still working with Danzo? He could have been telling them all about your secrets.”

Itachi gave a small smile. “I assumed the same thing too, though he was my best friend and I was overjoyed to see him still alive, but it was clear that he no longer had an allegiance to Danzo because his seal was gone.”




“Assassins of Danzo’s Bakufu syndicate have special seals given to them. It’s either a tattoo or a piercing on some part of the body. Shisui’s had been a tattoo on his lower back, which he had removed in the presence of Yahiko when he decided he no longer wanted to work for Danzo.”


“What made him change his mind?”


“He must have seen the light, who knows?” Itachi replied with a shrug. “Shisui still has his secrets even I can’t yank out of him. All I know is that I was glad he was still alive and a part of us. He was and is quite beneficial.”


“And Nagato...Konan...what happened to them? Are they still around?”


Itachi’s lips thinned. “No...they were both murdered as well. Their bodies were filled with bullet holes with a bloody warning note left behind. They were on to us and were not going to rest until every last one of us was destroyed. We had no other choice but to remain in the shadows again for a while until everything had settled down. I was not about to take any rash chances and get you killed in the process especially if Orochimaru realized I was still alive.”


“That didn’t do much good,” Sasuke replied with a sneer. “He still wanted to kill me in the end, didn’t he?”


“And why all of a sudden?” Itachi mused. “It can only be because Danzo is getting impatient and needs you out of the picture and -”


The sudden loud sound of something being hit had him looking up quickly. Sasuke had formed a fist and pounded it into the wall beside him; his expression dark with his anger. He had had his theories about Danzo and Orochimaru’s relationship, but now that everything was slowly falling into place, it made everything that had transpired that night and afterwards make even more sense. To think that he had been nothing but a goddamn pawn on a chess board...being moved around and maneuvered until one of them screamed ‘checkmate!’


“I’m going to kill them both,” he vowed beneath his breath. “Both of them...slowly...and with great pleasure. You have no intention of stopping me, do you?”


Itachi watched his brother with an expression that could be a mixture of amusement and sorrow, before lowering his lashes and shrugging lightly. “I couldn’t stop you even if I wanted to, however...there is no way you can fight in your condition and with the situation volatile now, it’s best that we take you away from that scene for a while until you are completely healed.”


Sasuke raised a brow in confusion. “What are you talking about?” He glanced out the window and then back to his brother. “Who is ‘we’? And where exactly are we going?” He had assumed they were only going to perhaps the next prefecture, but from the sound of things -


“’We’ include you, Haku, Shikamaru, Naruto...”


At the mention of that name, Sasuke felt something hard slam within his chest.


Na...Naru...Naruto...?! That...he...he’s still alive?!


Not given enough time to digest this troubling information, and Itachi still concerned about how to break the news to his brother, he failed to see the blood drain from his younger brother’s face as he continued quietly. “And we are going to should be safe there. I have a friend who will take care of you until you are well enough to return to Japan. By then, we assume that things would have settled down a little...”


Why is he still alive?! Why is he...?!


/...I really don’t like killing people.../


Sasuke could feel his head beginning to pound with a headache as those faintly echoed words ricocheted within his mind like a ping pong ball. Why the hell was he recalling this now? He had assumed that was all just a figment of his imagination, that the combination of smoke inhalation and the wounds he had suffered were making him hear things, that Uzumaki Naruto hadn’t sat there like a fucking idiot spilling his life story to him as if they were really going to die and...and...


(you had felt a little sorry for him, hadn’t you?)


/... And I’m sure deep probably don’t like sending people to Gudan or chopping their heads off.../


Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!




“What?!” he snapped in annoyance, more at Naruto’s voice still bugging him than at his brother’s concerned query. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. “Sor...sorry, I just...I mean...I was thinking about something else...”


Why the fuck is he still alive?! This is going to be so goddamn embarrassing –


“I know this is a lot to digest,” Itachi said softly; unaware of his brother’s chaotic inner turmoil. “And it makes what I’m going to say even harder still.”


Sasuke gave Itachi a look of bemusement. “What else could you possibly tell me now that would make this night any more surreal? Goddamn it,” he grumbled and ran his fingers through his hair; mussing it up even worse than it already was. “Where the fuck is Asuma anyway? I thought he’d be barging in here wanting to add his two cents to this.”


“He isn’” Itachi replied so quietly, Sasuke almost didn’t hear anything especially with a particularly loud crash of the waves against the boat.


“What did you say?” he asked for clarification.


Itachi took a deep breath and forced himself to meet the dark eyes before him. “Asuma...he did not make it. He stayed...he stayed behind and...and...”


It took a lot to recount the story to Sasuke and even then, Itachi could still feel his heart grow heavier and heavier with each word he uttered. Sasuke, for his part, seemed frozen in place; not even daring to breathe and unaware of how pale he was becoming.


Asuma was dead.


The one person who had made life a little more bearable all those years...dead. Gone. No longer alive.


“’s a lie,” he finally whispered even before Itachi could finish. He was shaking his head and muttering the words to himself as if hoping they would come true. “It’s a lie. Just like your death was a lie. I’m sure Asuma survived. He’ll come back. You’ll see. I know he will. Nothing can kill him. Have you seen how huge that guy is? He -”


Something was suddenly tossed onto his lap, and Sasuke could only stare at the blood-stained rag with eyes that were now burning with unshed tears. He recognized the cloth; a silk scarf with the Sarutobi insignia which Asuma loved wearing around his obi. He was never seen without it for according to the big guy, it always brought him good luck. Now, it looked like it had literally been soaked in blood and the red-knitted kanji was barely visible.


“I managed to snatch that from his clothing while we were trying to escape,” Itachi explained quietly; hating to add that he had not understood why he did so at the time, but he was sure that his subconscious had told him that it would be the last time he’d see his good friend and senpai ever again.


“I’m sorry,” Itachi was saying, though Sasuke could still see and hear nothing. There was this loud roaring in his ears; like the sound of a motor being revved up...louder and louder and louder until he felt he would go deaf with the noise. His eyes began to burn hotter still, but he could not get his hands to lift up to press against the lids to control the pain.




“Leave...” His voice sounded distant. Like it was coming from miles away...not him speaking. It was someone else in his place; a shadow of Sasuke Uchiha. Whatever though. Nothing fucking mattered right now. Not this ‘happy’ reunion. Not that annoying Naruto. Nothing. “Leave me alone...please...I be left alone...”


Itachi nodded in understanding as he rose to his feet. He had done the dirty work and now it was going to be left to Sasuke to try to come to terms with all he had laid on him today. He just sincerely hoped that Sasuke wouldn’t let this eat at him for too long, though he tried to squash down the tiny part of him that felt jealous at the reaction. Itachi had to mentally slap himself for that. It was no one’s fault, and Asuma hadn’t wished to become Itachi or take his place. It was just the circumstances that had put them all into this mess and now...


(we have to do our best to move on)




He was about to say he was sorry again, but looking at the bowed head and noticing how small and alone Sasuke looked at this moment, Itachi decided it would be bad timing and inappropriate. He settled for a soft nod and let himself out; almost sucking in gulps of fresh air once he was outside and felt he could breathe properly. He hadn’t realized just how tensed he was through it all for a sharp pain in his shoulders suggested he was just that wound up.


“You told him?” came the quiet question from his right. Without turning to look, Itachi nodded wearily. He gazed out at the horizon where the first streaks of daybreak appeared in dark purples and blues.


“I just hope we’re doing the right thing, Shisui,” he finally muttered. He turned to the older man with a look of clear plea and desperation in his eyes, as if hoping Shisui would give him the answer he was looking for. “We are doing the right thing...aren’t we?”


For a long minute, Shisui stared into the red-rimmed eyes and without saying a word, engulfed his childhood friend and partner in a crushing hug that spoke volumes.


Sometimes words were simply not needed.






“You don’t smile very much, do you?”


I looked up from the book I was reading and into the tallest human being I had ever met. To me, even a nineteen-year-old Asuma Sarutobi had looked like a giant. He hadn’t grown his famous goatee yet, and those clean-shaven features had revealed the friendly and warm countenance I’d come to know and appreciate over the years. He was dressed in his training clothes for the dojo, a clear sign he was just coming from there because there was still sweat on his skin and the shinai balanced on his left shoulder.


“Whatcha reading?” he queried, and like the sullen brat I was, I had simply shut the book and risen to my feet; not wanting to speak to this weird man. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen him before. After all, before the massacre, Asuma had come to our house once or twice to look for Sasuke since they were both in training to become watchdogs. I could still remember Father praising Asuma while looking at a list of new recruits. He was sure Asuma would end up becoming First Captain (an irony considering I ended up with the job after all).


Either way, my attitude did not stop Asuma from becoming a pain in the ass. He always seemed to know where I was whenever I wanted to be alone, and he’d sit beside me, yakking about things that were of no concern to me....though eventually I became intrigued, especially when he began to talk about his favorite T.V. shows and how he’d reenact each scene with the bad guys vs. the good guys. I thought he was annoying but still funny, and he finally ‘broke’ me when he showed up to my study session wearing the most ridiculous clown outfit and singing happy 8th birthday to me. I can tell you that my sensei had not found Asuma’s intrusion funny, but then again, Asuma had argued that who spent time studying for hours on end when they ought to be outside having fun on their gosh darn birthday?!


And as he dragged me outside and made us ‘escape’ from my furious instructor’s wrath, I realized that it would be my first taste of ‘freedom’; of breaking the rules and not caring what the consequences were. We ran all the way to the other end of Byaku-Shinkyou...toward the river, where Asuma had already prepared a little birthday party for me. It was nothing more than him teaching me how to fish for the first time, of me being overjoyed at having caught something (even if it was just a carp), roasting it and eating it with gusto. Nothing had ever tasted more delicious to me, and for the next few years, we’d make it a tradition to catch a fish on my birthday or a day after (if he was on assignment).


Asuma was as you saw him; unpretentious, honest to a fault, and a man who clearly loved life despite the circumstances that surrounded us. He always liked to see the good in people, though it confused me that hardened criminals were still ‘human’ in his eyes.


“We were not all born bad,” he’d tell me while tendrils of smoke from his cigarette would filter into the night air as we lay on the roof of his apartment. “I think...that even the toughest and wickedest of criminals must have had something good happen in their life. Something makes us decide to be wicked; sometimes no fault of theirs. Sometimes they have to do really bad things to survive and as watchdogs, we have to try to see their humanity or we become what we fear most in others.”


“What’s that?”






“You don’t want to grow up becoming evil, do you?”


I shook my head vigorously. “No...evil is terrible, isn’t it? It’s why we purge their Lord Orochimaru says. Gudan is a way to make them no longer evil when they get to heaven. Right?”


Asuma had sighed and shook his head. “Gudan is...” I was sure he was going to say evil, but he changed the subject instead and made us count the stars in the heavens, which I was sort of glad for. I always felt uncomfortable talking about my deeper foray into Lord Orochimaru’s teachings. I felt Asuma would never understand how important my work was; of how I was becoming a vessel for justice and the truth. It was this aspect that perhaps made our relationship not all that close as Itachi had pointed out. It was because I always knew that deep down, Asuma never approved of that side of me. I wanted him to like the ‘other’ me, the part that wasn’t so attached to Orochimaru’s coattails. It was why I welcomed his company and looked forward to spending time with him especially after a long assignment away from Byaku-Shinkyou.


Of course looking back now, I realize that perhaps half of those ‘assignments’ were nothing more than him meeting up with my brother and his cohorts.


He knew...and he never told me...always kept it a secret...he kept everything a fucking secret...


And still I realized just how precarious a position he must have been in; knowing that everyday he left Byaku-Shinkyou to be with Itachi or even being with me, was a dangerous situation. In his own way, he had been the bridge between this reunion and had worked in the shadows all these years to make it happen the best way he knew how.


I clutched the bloodied cloth to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut as that familiar booming laughter filled my ears and heart. He always did have such an infectious laugh, didn’t he? Even if you didn’t feel like cracking a smile, just listening to that damn guffaw would always have my lips twitching reluctantly. He could tell the lamest jokes and consider them the funniest things he had ever said. His singing voice was not that bad, but when he was drunk and too happy to stay in tune, he could make his listeners tone deaf with just how terrible he was.


Asuma enjoyed life and had wanted me to do the same, but...but...


(I couldn’t. I didn’t want to)


I moaned and curled into a fetal position with the blanket pulled over me; though this position only did more to make me aware of the aches and pains all over my body. I still suffered it in silence. After all...this was nothing compared to being shot by that damn bastard, Kimimaro.


Him too...I’ll kill him too...slowly...carve his fucking head and put it on a stick. Just for you, Asuma. I know you won’t approve, but fuck it...fuck it...fuck it!


Someone gave a harsh sob and seemed to drip hot water on my eyelids and they fell into my lips and I tasted the bitterness within them.


It just wasn’t fair, I thought sadly. For now I would forever live with the regret of not responding to his wave of hello on the morning of Gudan, since I was too busy being self-absorbed with my own problems. It was the last time I got to see him; my surrogate father and brother, who I now know I loved almost as much as I had loved my real brother.


I’m so sorry for everything, Asuma. So damn sorry about everything…for not listening…for being such a stubborn asshole and not learning while I had the chance. So please…give me the strength to make the right decisions from now on.  The least I can do is to make you damn proud of me...







The unfinished sandwich sat limply between us as we leaned over the gunwale and continued to watch the waves crash gently against the boat’s water-rusted sides. For the past half hour, we had said nothing to each other, simply allowing our silence to convey all that words could ever say. Shikamaru hadn’t told me to get lost when I showed up, which was good. He had only given me a quick glance before focusing his attention on the horizon again; the cigarette’s ember the only glow against the gloom of the darkness around us. I took that as a sign to join him and did so, not really exactly sure of where to begin to sympathize with the guy.


It was times like these that I wished I was more eloquent. I don’t think I have enough vocabulary in my arsenal anyway.


He wasn’t crying or anything; neither were there streaks on his face to show that he had shed a few tears, but his features were definitely the giveaway that all was not right with my friend. Those eyes looked sunken in and hollow within his pale features and there as a downward turn of his lips which hadn’t been that noticeable before. There was a light stubble on his chin; a clear sign that he had not bothered to shave since the incident happened. At least he had changed into a new yukata since it was definitely different from the familiar drab gray ones all sinners had to wear in that damn place.


“It will be dawn soon,” he stated in a voice that was devoid of emotion. He nodded toward the horizon where I could see streaks of purple and dark blue begin to break out against the sky. It was hauntingly beautiful and again, I felt the sting of tears fill my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen anything so...wonderful I guess. I just wish Asuma was here to see it with us. He’d probably crack some joke about it and make us laugh and...


“...probably crack some joke about it and make us laugh.”


I jumped a little; at first wondering if I had spoken that out loud, but as I glanced at Shika, it was obvious he was the one who had spoken, and this time there was no mistaking the shimmer of tears within his eyes; though his gaze was still trained before him. I looked away so I wouldn’t make him uncomfortable.


“Yeah...” I muttered and swallowed the lump that had risen to my throat. “He always had the corniest jokes, didn’t he? He thought it was so damn funny and they sucked big time.”


This – at least- brought a small smile to Shika’s face, and I was glad for it. I really didn’t like seeing him look so depressed. I know he had more history with Asuma and how close their relationship was, but still...


“Remember how he’d blow smoke rings with his pipe?” Shikamaru suddenly asked, and for the next few minutes, we reminisced on the things Asuma had done while we were together, and some things he had done while I wasn’t with him. I guess Shika had to let it all out because he kept talking and talking and just wouldn’t stop. Even when the tears did finally break free, he would only hitch in a soft breath and continue with some story about Asuma; of how the big guy had chosen to befriend him out of the many others he could have picked.


“He said...he said we were a...a...alike,” Shikamaru stuttered. His hands were now gripping the edge of the gunwale so hard, they literally made his knuckles white against the gloom. “He said he...he...saw himself in me as a kid and...and...he couldn’t even win one stupid lousy game of Shogi with me!”


I really had no idea how one related to the other, but I chucked it up to the grief talking and before I could stop myself, wrapped my good arm around his shoulder to pull him closer to me. I fully expected him to push me aside, but was a little surprised (and pleased) he didn’t. His sobs were quiet against my chest and though I wasn’t aware I was doing this, I was caressing his head gently perhaps hoping my actions would show just how sorry I was and just how much I understood his grief.


It was soothing comforting him like this. So soothing in fact, that it took a sudden shake of my shoulder from someone to have me starting and looking around in mild panic before looking up to meet the dark eyes studying me warily.


“You were nodding off,” the chick...Karin, right? That was what Itachi had called her. “You need to go back to bed. You are in no condition to be moving about so much.”


Shikamaru must have heard her as well, because he pulled away from me and turned his face away as if embarrassed to show his tear-streaked face to a woman. Not that she seemed to give a shit, she was already motioning towards the section of my room with a wave of her hand.


“I’ll be back in about five minutes to give you some pain killers, all right?”


“Eh...sure...” but I was talking to thin air as she was already stalking away without a look back. I snorted a little. “Why do I get the feeling she doesn’t like me?”


“No one likes you,” Shikamaru teased; his voice a little stronger and less sniffle-filled. He wiped his face with the sleeves of his yukata and took a deep breath. “But she’s right do look like shit. Go get some sleep. Shisui says we should be in Busan by noon or so.”




“Bu...Busan?” I blinked in confusion. Was that a new city in Japan or...?


“South Korea,” Shikamaru explained with a small smile as he must have noticed my incredulous look. “I know...I was shocked too, but...hey...considering what’s going on...” He shrugged lightly.


“What’s going on? What’s going on?!” my voice was rising in panic. “What’s all this got to do with me?! I don’t want to go to Busan! Who the hell do I know in Busan?! At least drop me off at Nagasaki, no one is going to find me there!”


“Keep your voice down,” Shikamaru hissed, but it was no good. Two fishermen, with their weathered and definitely non-Japanese faces, had poked their heads up from the cabins beneath and were peering at me warily, and from my periphery I could make out Haku, Shisui, and Itachi approaching. I wheeled around to confront them.


“Hey now,” I began, hoping I could get through to the poker faces before me. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on with your situation and the whole hijack of that place, but it’s really got nothing to do with me, right? I’m just an innocent...technically...bystander, so you can just drop me off at Nagasaki and I’ll be out of your hair. Right? Right?”


“Not right,” Shisui said with an aggravating smile. “You are in too deep now, Naruto...considering you are the son of Namikaze Minato. It’s not surprising that Danzo would be after you if you dared step foot back into Japan.”


“What?” I was confused and getting a damn headache. “I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about. Son of Minato...that’s my father I’m guessing.”


“Don’t you even know your father’s name?” came the amazed question from Itachi.


“I told you...well maybe not, but I never knew my father,” I replied tightly. This was really beginning to annoy me. “My mother never spoke about him much, and I was only a baby...just about when she died of some disease. I was practically an orphan!”


The older men exchanged looks and Shisui nodded first before turning back to me. “Figures...if the timeline is correct. I never knew your father personally. He was only a legend around the Syndicate. All the same, word is he left around the time before you were must be eighteen...nineteen...?”




Shisui snapped his fingers. “Right. All fits in nicely now. Your father left the syndicate around the time -”


“What? What Syndicate?”


“Bakufu...surely you must have heard of them.”


I could feel the blood draining from my features and if I wasn’t already sitting down, I would have slumped back onto the wooden bench again.


Those Bakufu assholes! They were the ones responsible for this mess! If it wasn’t for them threatening to take over my surrogate father’s home, if it wasn’t for them making me pay them every other week via Kojima and Ichimura, if it wasn’t for them hunting me down after I had taken out their prized member, none of this would have happened! And then to now learn that my own father was a member of those bastards?!




I have no idea where the laughter came from, but there it was; loud and hysterical as I slapped my hand upon the bench and sent the plate of sandwich to the floor. This was just too funny. Too fucking ironic, wasn’t it? So that was what Kojima must have meant after all. He must have known my father too and figured I’d be just as good as he was. Good ol’ Dad...the Syndicate legend!


The laughter turned into tears of bitterness, but I didn’t care. I could vaguely hear Haku calling out my name in concern and perhaps I would have continued laughing like a fucking hyena if someone didn’t pull me into his arms to console me. At first I thought it was Shikamaru returning the favor, but then realized that this person was standing and he smelled pretty different.




“It’s okay to cry,” came the soft voice within my hair. “I know this is hard for you to digest and understand, but that is the way life is sometimes.”


What the fuck is he...talking about? I wanted to rail at him to leave me alone, and yet I found my hands clutching the robes tightly and sobbing as hard as I never had before. Maybe it was all the stress of the past few days finally getting to me, and this was the release I finally needed. I just didn’t think in a million years, I’d actually be using Sasuke’s brother as my pillow.


...and I don’t think he appreciated it either considering Shisui’s sudden jovial greeting.


“Ah, look who’s come to join us. Really, should you be up and out of bed, Sasuke? You look dead on your feet.”


His name was like a douse of cold water to my senses and maybe it was guilt, but even Itachi released me just as quickly as I did him. For starters, I didn’t want it to seem like I was getting too chummy with his brother, and secondly, I most definitely didn’t want him to see me crying like this. Call it a pride thing, but besides my ‘confessions’ in the dome - when I was sure he was passed out - there’s no way in hell I wanted that guy to see this side of me. It was just the thing he could use against me if given the chance. I wiped my face quickly and dared to steal a peek from behind Itachi’s back. Sasuke wasn’t moving any closer to us, and it looked like he was leaning against the wall to steady himself. He had managed to throw on a yukata over his pair of shorts, though it wasn’t tied well enough to prevent us from seeing the bandages wrapped around him especially his right thigh, and with Karin hovering in the background, I had a feeling she had tried to get him to remain in bed as well. To no avail as usual.


However, it was his expression that spoke volumes. If looks could kill, I’d be mince meat by now, but it still didn’t deter from the way his eyes looked red – as if he had been crying – or the fact that his face was still slightly swollen (my punch during the fight probably) and he looked as pale as death itself. He was slightly out of breath too. Must have taken a humongous effort to get out of bed in the first place.


“I heard shouting,” he explained with a final glare at me before turning it to his brother. “Sorry if I broke up your lovely moment there.”


“Naruto’s just as distraught as you are over Asuma’s death,” Itachi began, though it wasn’t really the reason why I was all in a tizzy, but do you think Sasuke gave a damn? Hell no.


“He has no right to be distraught,” came the icy retort that had even Shikamaru stiffening. “Why should he? Did he know Asuma like I did?!”


Oh yeah, that’s right. Of course Sasuke wouldn’t know about our secret meetings, still...he didn’t have to act like a goddamn bastard about it.


“Crocodile tears,” Sasuke spat with such venom, I felt a chill go down my spine. “What do you know about grief besides wailing over your stupid girlfriend?”


“Oh low blow there, you jerk!” I roared back before I could stop myself. I stood unsteadily to my feet, though Haku was torn between wanting to help me sit back down and wanting to help his master. “You keep my girlfriend out of this!”


“Your dead girlfriend you mean?” Sasuke sneered.


My hands formed tight fists. I was going to kill his motherfucker. I swear it! “” I growled and took a step forward, but someone put out an arm to block my way. It was Shisui, and only because Itachi had moved forward so quickly, neither of us was able to notice it until the sudden SMACK sound filled the air.


Sasuke looked shocked and held his now stinging left cheek where big brother had slapped. The deafening silence that descended on the boat was only broken by the sounds of seagulls now squawking into the early morning sky.


Whoa. Heavy.


“If you want to be upset with anyone,” Itachi said quietly. “Take it out on me and on no one else, Sasuke. I know it seems like the world is in chaos right now, and I cannot imagine the grief you’re going through, but Naruto has got his own problems to deal with, and you must try to recognize them as well. You are no longer within the walls of are no longer under Orochimaru...he...” Itachi nodded toward me and Shikamaru. “...both of them...are human beings who have feelings just like you do. So from now on, you will have to begin to see them as such.”


Sasuke, who was still looking as if he wanted to both murder his brother and burst into tears at the same time, finally settled for turning his head to the side to glare out at the sea. Perhaps if he frowned hard enough, the sea would begin boiling with his fury.


“Itachi’s right,” Shisui added. “When you get to Busan, you’ll have to live in close proximity, and I can’t...we can’t be bothered to come running every damn time you both get into an argument.” He glanced pointedly at Sasuke and I. I huffed and folded my arms across my chest before sitting down on knees that felt slightly wobbly. My heart was still racing, and I willed myself to relax lest I burst a blood vessel.


“Once we arrive in Busan, we’ll take a bus to Buk-gu,” Shisui continued when he was sure we both weren’t going to glare each other down to death. “There I will introduce you to a friend who will be taking care of you two until you are healthy enough to return to Japan. By then we can only hope that the news has died down.”


“What news?” Shikamaru asked.


Itachi sighed and buried his hands into the pockets of his robe. “It’s been on the radio already. Orochimaru and Danzo had gone about ‘denouncing’ the attack as work of a terrorist organization. Luckily, our name was not mentioned, but you can be sure they will now double the effort to arrest and kill any member of our group if noticed. We have ordered all members to cease operations for the meantime, but Shisui and I will return to Hokkaido to do a little scouting and keep up with the situation. Shikamaru, I know you have a girlfriend back in Tokyo?”


Shikamaru nodded softly. “Yes...I don’t want her to get involved with this though.”


“Understood. We will get her to safety just in case Kimimaro gets his goons to go after her in retaliation.”


“How bad was the damage to Byaku-Shinkyou?” Shikamaru asked, causing Sasuke to raise a brow in confusion.


“What happened?” he asked tightly. “What did you do?!”


“Nothing much,” Shisui replied with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Our goal was to destroy all the new additions Orochimaru built since he came into power. Mostly the dungeons and the stadium itself. Your father would not have approved of such terrible constructions, would he?”


Sasuke gave a bitter smile. “Well? Did you succeed?”


“Half and half,” Itachi replied with a light shrug. “They managed to put out the fires before it could do as much damage as we would have liked, but at least one thing’s for sure...there won’t be another Gudan happening anytime soon. That stadium is toast.’s one of the main reasons why we needed to get you out of there this time around. You know the new Byaku-Shinkyou better than I do...better than even Asuma, right?”


Sasuke seemed to roll his eyes. “There’s a fucking labyrinth beneath Byaku-Shinkyou. It would take years to find every damn secret hideaway in there.”


Itachi seemed to pause and both brothers must have understood something because Sasuke shook his head lightly. “No...he hasn’t found that place yet...I hope.”


“I see...either you think you could draw up a blueprint of what the underground labyrinth looks like while you’re recovering?”


Sasuke looked ready to argue, but I piped up before I could stop myself. “I know some parts of it.” All my days and nights of planning to burn the place anyway, I could draw the layout of the sinners’ quarters to the East and West Blocks off the top of my head.


Itachi gave me a small smile of encouragement. “That’s good, Naruto. Maybe you two could work together...” He stopped when he noticed our tangible body language and then sighed in resignation. “Or work separately and we’ll look at the maps when we see each other again next time. Deal?”


“Deal,” I replied with as much gusto as I could manage. Sasuke’s response was a sullen silence that seemed to satisfy Itachi anyhow. I guess it was that brotherly instinct or some telepathic thing...


(like the weird one you have with Sasuke?)


Telepathy with that son-of-a-bitch? Don’t think so, though a part of me was still grappling with just what had happened that moment during the battle royale. I glanced at him again while pretending to pick up my plate. He was frowning at his chest and rubbing the cheek where Itachi had slapped him, though Karin was trying to get his attention at the same time. I wasn’t fast enough, because just as I thought I would look away, he chose that moment to lift his gaze and our damn eyes met again.


The first things to hit me were the words: He knows.


I could feel my cheeks beginning to get hot.


He knows.


The bastard knows everything. He must have been awake when I was blubbering in the dome and that look in his eyes tells me that he’s definitely going to hold that against me. Why else would he bring up Sakura in our little argument? His lips quirked a little in that smug, shit-eating smirk I now knew I would hate for the rest of my life. God, what I wouldn’t do to smack it off right about now. Itachi’s slap wasn’t hard enough. With a haughty sniff, he finally allowed Karin to lead him back to his room, while Haku reached out to help me.


“It’s okay, Haku,” I reassured the poor guy when I noticed the worried look he gave to his master and the new chick doting on him. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that girl taking your place. You are one of a kind and he’d be a fucking moron to not realize that.”


“Thank you, Naruto-kun,” Haku replied shyly, though twin spots of pink rose to his cheeks that made him look darn pretty as the sun began to rise a little past the horizon.


“Hold up,” I said quickly as I made my way back to the gunwale to lean over it. “Let’s watch this for a while, is that okay?”


Haku beamed and joined me...and even Shika, who now had a more relaxed expression on his visage. The three of us watched our first real sunrise in a while, and secretly – deep within our hearts – felt a warmth that could only come from knowing that the big guy with the big laugh was probably watching us right now and patting our heads with satisfaction.


Let’s just hope he didn’t bore the angels to death with his stupid jokes.




The port city of Suyeong-gu was like a bout of nostalgia hitting me on all cylinders. It brought back memories of my days in Nagasaki, where the bustling sights and sounds of the small fishing town, made any day a memorable one. It was so good to see ‘other’ people besides the same ol’ faces I had been stuck with during my incarceration. Compared to being trapped in drab gray clothes or looking at black  uniforms, seeing the bright colorful clothing and boisterous sounds of the Korean people as they went about their daily business, was a sharp reminder of the rest of the world still in existence behind those thick walls of Byaku-Shinkyou. I was drunk on the smells of fish and fresh vegetables, gasoline and oil. Babies wailing while mothers haggled with fishmongers as husbands appraised the latest foreign goods to come ashore. Listening to the language was a bit weird at first, but it was easy to pick up on a few words here and there since I could speak Korean a little, thanks to living in a small Korean-heavy neighborhood during my travels.


I wanted to get on land ASAP, but as per Itachi and Shisui’s orders, we were to remain in the boat until they returned while they set about getting things ready for us. In the meantime, we were provided with new clothes and toiletries to clean up a little; a goddamn luxury after not enjoying the pleasures of soap and a good shave in a while. Though I wasn’t spouting a beard yet, it still felt good to get rid of the whiskers that had appeared, and I cannot even begin to tell you how fucking goooood it felt to finally wash my damn hair after so long. I swear I got a boner just from scrubbing it with the shampoo, though it was a pain in the ass considering my arm was still hurting like a bitch every time I lifted it for too long.


I was happy to be back in western clothes again, and though the jeans was a little loose – having lost some weight since I was over there – the belt held it in place and a simple black t-shirt completed my wardrobe. It was weird to see Shika in western clothes as well, and he was dressed just like me...well besides he was wearing a plaid blue dress-shirt instead. We had a good chuckle as we looked at each other and how much we had changed with just new clothes. Actually, the first time I got to see myself in a mirror, I was pretty shocked at how much my features had changed in the past six months. I did lose some weight yes, but there was something a little...hard...about my face now. I had been through hell and back after all, and though the physical scars weren’t really there (besides the obvious bruises), what I had experienced in the depths of Byaku-Shinkyou would remain with me until the day I die.


One person who was not particularly happy with the new change, however, was Haku. He had all but whined and complained about having to wear the itchy pants and shirt, but after some major cajoling from yours truly, he finally caved and came out looking even more girly in his khaki pants and white dress shirt that was a little too big for him. He couldn’t very well keep his hair (boy needed a haircut if you ask me), in that hairstyle with the bun at the top of his head, so Karin had suggested he just leave it in one big ponytail and be done with it. Haku spent the rest of the day squirming and tugging at the clothing as if wishing it would be ripped off. I wondered if they sold enough kimonos in Buk-gu, or he was going to drive me batshit crazy with what he was doing.


“Ah, Sasuke-sama is out,” Haku announced, with childish giddiness, over the card game Shikamaru and I were playing to kill time. Though I didn’t want to look (because I was sure Shika would cheat and I was holding the winning hand this time), curiosity had me turning my head all the same to see what Mr. High and Mighty looked like.




It was the first time I was seeing him out of his uniform or a yukata and Jesus fucking Christ. Did he have to make a plain ol’ pair of jeans and dress shirt look like he was modeling or something?  God, I hate guys who manage to look good in any damn thing and there was no doubt Mr. High and Mighty was pulling that off effortlessly. Karin, now his fucking shadow, was clinging on to his left arm, while he leaned on a crutch one of the fishermen had swiped offshore just for him. Hobbling along, he would have probably walked right past us without another look, if Haku hadn’t opened his big mouth.


“Would you like to join us in a card game, Sasuke-sama?”


He finally turned his head a little to acknowledge or menial existence, and I could see that he too had managed to clean up as well. The shadows were gone, but there were still dark circles beneath his eyes and the remnant of my fist was still a lovely (but fading) memento on his jaw. His damn hair seemed to shine beneath the light, and it took me a second longer to realize that I was now staring directly into his eyes again.


Hell, even he seemed confused that I was staring at him so hard.




I growled and turned back to the game, nearly snapping at Shikamaru in annoyance. “Your move.”


“Sasuke-sama? Do you want to -”


“He’s not playing with us,” I interrupted coldly. “The game’s already started anyway. No more room.”


I could feel both Shikamaru and Haku looking at me then at each other in confusion considering there was plenty of room all around us and my statement had made no sense. However, I was in no mood to make any sense, and was glad to find myself breathing a little easier when Sasuke finally hobbled away with something that sounded eerily like “stupid idiot” beneath his breath.


Well fuck him too.


“I win!” Shika announced as he slammed down his cards to show me a straight flush. I sagged my shoulders in defeat. Pfft. The story of my fucking life.


“Another round?” Haku asked, though he kept watching over his shoulder at his precious Sasuke-sama, until we all heard Sasuke’s irritated “I said I’m fine already. Don’t you have anything better to do?”


Man, what a -


“We’re back!” came the happiest sound in the world or God knows I would have had a word or two with Mr. Too-Good-For-Anyone-Else. Itachi and Shisui were coming on board with loads of stuff, which they began revealing once we were in the safety of the captain’s cabin. It was big enough to hold all of us which was good.


“Here are your new ID cards and immigration documentation,” Itachi said as he passed around the sheets of papers. I gawked at the piece of plastic that had my face on it (Shisui had taken pictures of all us earlier) with its unpronounceable name.


Kim...Jung...Junghy...Junghyun? Wha...?


“As you might have noticed,” Shisui was saying, “You now have Korean names, which you must use when in public. Our hope is that you never have to provide documentation to the authorities, which means you have to stay out of trouble while you are here.”


“We also have some pocket money for you,” Itachi added as he passed along envelopes that felt heavy with cash. “Use it to buy yourselves new clothes, food, whatever is needed. Do not worry about the rent in your new home as our friend will be taking care of it. You are welcome to get a job -”


“Wait a minute,” Sasuke chimed in. “Just how long are we staying here? You’re making it sound like we’re going to be here for...years.”


Yeah, even I’m wondering that. I’m not sure I like the idea of living close to this guy for a day, let alone having to suffer through years of being neighbors (or God forbid, roommates). I shuddered.


Shisui shrugged. “Again, it all depends on what happens over there and how fast you heal. For now, you are safe here and away from prying eyes. You both have appointments first thing tomorrow morning with a doctor who is a member of the organization, so your wounds and injuries can be taken care of properly.” He nodded toward the exit. “There’s a mini-bus waiting on shore for all of you, and you should be able to get to Buk-gu in about two or three hours. It’s not that far from here. We should...”


A sudden knock on the door had us all stiffening in wariness and panic, and I realized dully that this was the way my life was going to be from now on. Until Orochimaru and Danzo were dead (or hell even the Bakufu Syndicate was eradicated), I was always going to have to keep looking over my damn shoulder. I was beginning to wonder if being stuck behind those walls wasn’t better...


“What’s wrong?” Itachi asked as the door opened to reveal the face of one of the fishermen.


“You might want to turn on the T.V.,” the man said, with his thick accent, as he pointed towards the small 17’ television sitting at the corner of the room. Shikamaru leaned over to do as he suggested, and we all sat dumbfounded and frozen as the face...that familiar pale face I had come to loathe filled the screen and spoke to the entire world:


“...destroyed the very foundation of liberty, freedom, and justice in Japan. It pains my heart, and the hearts of the Japanese people, that so many innocent lives had to be sacrificed for the sake of one blood-thirsty organization’s need for power. But I can assure you, my fellow people, that the spirit of Byaku-Shinkyou will not be destroyed by these wicked sinners who trample all over what we stand for. We vow to continue to seek out these terrorists and to purge them from this earth in a manner fitting for such heavy and terrible sins. Byaku-Shinkyou will be rebuilt in the memory of the last heir of the Uchiha clan, a young man who was unfortunately taken away from us before his time. In your name, Uchiha Sasuke, I will continue your unquenchable thirst for justice and truth.”


And with those snake-like eyes piercing and golden with its intensity, he finished with the ominous words that sent a chill down my spine:


“And, trust me, I will not rest until I have found each and every one of you.”





Chapter 18

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