Chapter 38

Over the Hills and Far Away


Though a swift stream is

Divided by a boulder

In its headlong flow,

Though divided, on it rushes,

And at least unites again.

-       Emperor Sutoku




Hokkaido Prefecture


A failure.


He stared at the coded printout until his vision swam and the words became nothing more than incoherent blurs that mocked him. His head pounded like a drummer run amok; his tongue heavy within a mouth that was rapidly becoming drier than a desert in summer. He just couldn’t believe it.


The utter failure.


How was that even possible? How could he have lost four of the most highly-skilled assassins within Orochimaru’s elite force? To think that Ginkaku, Kinkaku, and Sora would be eliminated so easily, and worst of all, that Sai – THAT Sai – who had never failed a mission in the past, would be found lying in a pool of his blood in a derelict alley in the middle of God knows where.


Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!


Where had he gone wrong? Where had his best-laid plans gone awry? For years he had believed himself to be the most level-headed amongst the others his master surrounded himself with. Hadn’t he done enough to prove his competency to Orochimaru so far? Hadn’t he done more to convince his cynical overlord that he could handle things even when he was not around? However, the fact that Orochimaru had not given  his ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on this plan in the first place nor had he gone out of his way to pester Kimimaro for results, was clearly a sign that Orochimaru had not trusted or believed it would have worked!


He simply watched from the sidelines...waiting for me to it to fail. He must have known the final outcome. He must have - !


“Did you not hear me summon you, Kimimaro?” came the quiet question that had the younger man spinning around quickly with his heart somewhere in the pit of his stomach. For a second, breathing was impossible as he stared at the elongated shadows of his master gliding across the room.


“ Lord...” Kimimaro began in a voice that sounded faint. He tried to hide the document behind him, but trembling fingers refused to cooperate as it floated to the floor as if eager to depart his person. However, a desperate lurch to grab it was foiled as - from seemingly out of nowhere - Orochimaru’s familiar golden cane pinned it in place with a loud stab. Odd in itself for the older man was still hidden amongst the shadows while the cane had ‘stretched’ out – as if simply an extension of its master.


Kimimaro cursed beneath his breath and straightened up, watching with growing trepidation as the paper was dragged across the floor. He watched long, lean alabaster fingers finally reach for it, causing him to give an inner sigh of resignation. With his head lowered and eyes closed, he waited for the mocking laughter at his grand miscalculation. He briefly entertained being punished severely for this; his masochistic side eager to suffer Orochimaru’s brand of sexual torture where the very idea of walking properly, for at least a week, was not an option. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself, praying that there would be less scars this time around. At least he had Jūgo now to ease the pain. Jūgo would be there to kiss and heal his wounds. And though Jūgo would have many silent questions within those brown eyes, Kimimaro knew he’d have to keep up the pretense of “everything is okay”. He had failed with earning Haku’s loyalty, there was no way he was going to make the same mistake with Jūgo now that he was back in his life.


“A shame,” Orochimaru finally commented after what seemed like an eternity. “To suffer defeat in such an unsightly way is a terrible disgrace, isn’t it, my dear Kimimaro?”


There was something deceptively calming and soothing about Orochimaru’s voice. It was a tone that Kimimaro knew he ought to ignore as best he could - for he was sure his sadistic master had absolutely no pity whatsoever for him - and yet a heavy boulder called ‘humiliation’ settled upon him so suddenly, his eyes stung with the promise of tears.


Shit! Just what I don’t nee –


“Come now,” the silky voice continued, only it was so much closer. Kimimaro would only have time to notice the bottom of the black velvet robe sweeping the floor, before the cold fingers tipped his chin upwards.


It took all of his skill not to gasp in shock at the face before him. He had not seen his master in over a week – at least not since his report back from the bombing of the yakuza leaders in Tokyo. Even then, all he had been privy to was the back of Orochimaru’s head as his master’s continued obsession with the numerous video screens, in his underground hideout, continued.


(what kind of a monster have I been living with? Who...who are you...really?)


Orochimaru had always been pale, but now...not having seen the sun in seemingly eons, Kimimaro was practically looking at a translucent figure, so much so, it was not difficult to see the ribbons of veins and arteries threading through the exposed flesh of his hands, neck and face. Said face was nothing more than a skull with a thin layer of flesh hanging on. His cheekbones stood prominent, his lips twin shades of dull blue. His eyes were sunken in, the snake-like pupils still as sharp and observant as ever, though the dark circles around them revealed a man who knew little to no sleep. His long black hair lay limp upon his head, giving the impression that even touching it was likely to have more than a few strands falling off.


In short, his master looked ghastly.


Yet any one foolish enough to be deceived by how he looks would be in for a rude awakening, Kimimaro thought uneasily as a black fingernail traced the outline of his lips gently. There was still a latent power within his master. There was no denying that. He had no doubt he would and could be crushed easily.


“It looks like you grossly underestimated your opponents,” Orochimaru rasped and dug his fingernail a little deeper into Kimimaro’s cheek. “Perhaps the lesson learned during the failed ambush at Gudan was not enough for you?”


“I apologize, my Lord,” Kimimaro whispered, barely able to contain his wince of pain as he felt the slight trickle of blood trail down his cheek.


“First it was with that pathetic waif you picked up in the snow...what was his name again?”


Kimimaro suffered the show of sharp canines as Orochimaru sneered openly at him. Of course Orochimaru knew who Haku was. It was just his way of signifying how little the younger man now meant to him. In defiance, at this blatant mockery, Kimimaro remained silent.


Orochimaru’s grin widened. “And now, it’s that insane young man you considered the best of the best. To think that the one you trusted would betray you...again. It must be a blow to your pride, isn’t it?” He tutted in disappointment. “And not only that, you managed to get three of my best officers killed thanks to your hare-brained idea. Now tell me...give me a good reason why I shouldn’t eliminate you right here and now, my dear one?”


Kimimaro’s hands formed tight fists, but he remained silent simply waiting for Orochimaru to be done with this little charade. He knew as much as the older man that he was an indispensable asset. Kimimaro was the face that Orochimaru dared not show to the world. Who else could he really trust in this place he called a kingdom? And with the departure of the one he had groomed to take his place – Sasuke – they both knew that eliminating Kimimaro was next to impossible.


(you need me as much as I think I need you)


The fingernails dug deeper until his blood coated the pale flesh and yet Kimimaro did not budge. He stared into those eyes that dared him to look away, to accept defeat, and when none was forthcoming, the pressure was eventually lessened.


“You are lucky we are at war,” Orochimaru finally grunted with a hard release of the other man’s chin, so much so Kimimaro almost lost his footing and had to steady himself against his desk. Orochimaru spun away and glided toward the window – and even at that, seemed content to remain within the shadows formed by the curtains instead of standing within the rays of the mid-afternoon sun.


Almost as if he is afraid of it, Kimimaro mused thoughtfully.


“And I unfortunately need you by my side.”




Orochimaru caressed the tip of his walking cane – as if petting the head of the golden snake with its ruby eyes that glared coldly at the other man in the room.


“I can feel them,” came the quiet words that sent a jolt down Kimimaro’s spine. He looked up long enough to catch the tightening of his master’s jaw as those eyes continued to stare at the distant mountains in the horizon. “I can smell them of sinners. All coming home for a grand purification. Their stench is sickening, but we are ready, aren’t we?”


He closed his eyes and lifted his arms as if summoning some unseen demon.


“The preparations have begun in earnest, my dear one. The stadium rebuilt for the poor souls who know not what they are about to do. I will sacrifice them all to our benevolent god! One who hears our cry for purity and washes away our iniquities! The air has been polluted and convoluted with their erroneous ways and we must purge them as our ancestors have decreed! Japan will be clean again! It will become a nation of people eager to become children of the one true god! They will come to thank me someday, Kimimaro. I will see to it no matter how long it takes!”


He lowered his arms and took a deep breath as if the very act of his impassioned speech had taken everything out of him. At least he looked less death-like now as a flush of color filled his cheeks and his eyes now seemed to glow with a fire that had been lacking lately.


“Do you feel him?” came the sudden question that had Kimimaro slightly bemused.


“Feel...who, my Lord?”


“He is coming back to where he belongs,” Orochimaru continued cryptically. “He has seen the errors of the world and has made up his mind to come back to me. I prayed about it, you see...and it is finally coming true.”


He turned to Kimimaro then, and the younger man was stunned to see tears within the older man’s eyes.


Tears? Since when did...?!


“My Sasuke is coming back home to me,” came the hoarse words that sent a flare of unwarranted anger and jealousy down Kimimaro’s spine. A cruel part of him wanted to remind the delusional man that Sasuke didn’t give a damn about him anymore, but Kimimaro figured watching the rejection all over again would be worth it.


“We must prepare for his return!” Orochimaru announced with a flourish as he swept out of the room. “Send a message to our troops stationed at the Mount Usu. They are to begin their march towards the South as soon as possible. After would be very rude to keep our guests waiting, hmm? Oh and one more thing.”


Kimimaro, who had turned to reach for a handkerchief to wipe away the bloodstains, froze in mid-reach to look up again in bemusement. Orochimaru was at the door, and instead of the tears of ‘joy’ at the prospect of meeting Sasuke again, there was that familiar cold sneer of derision on his visage.


“Try not to fuck this up, Kimimaro,” came the low warning tinged with a venom that spoke volumes. “I can only be patient with you for so long.”


And with that, he was gone, leaving in his wake a man now filled with more questions than answers and a fear that the ticking clock of his life really could be winding down to a swift and unknown end.




“Do you fear death?”


Jūgo dragged himself out of the stupors of his sexual haze to look at the man beside him. Kimimaro’s back was to him; a broad strong back etched with scars of his years with the sadistic one he called a master. Jūgo had kissed and traced every inch of them with a reverence that had brought tears to his eyes and tonight had been no different. The gentle night breeze, coupled with the air permeated with the heavy musk of their coupling, caused Jūgo to shiver in pleasurable delight. He would have reached out to touch his lover again, but with the glance thrown over the other man’s shoulder, Jūgo felt his heart stop for a second.




Those pale green eyes were filled with a sadness so deeply etched within them; it was all he could do not to...


(ah fuck it)


He sat up to all but yank Kimimaro into his arms; hugging him so tight, he seemed to want to meld their bodies into one. Gone was the strong, intimidating second-in-command that inspired fear amongst the inhabitants of this place. In his arms, all Jūgo could feel was a frail, trembling lover and friend he would do anything for.


“Let’s run away,” Jūgo whispered feverishly into the thick white hair that cascaded down the older man’s back like a silk curtain. “Please, I beg you. Let’s get away from here...away from it all. We can live a happy life together, Kimimaro. I know it. You don’t need him. You just think you do, but I promise that once we get out of here, everything will be okay again.”


Kimimaro remained limp in the embrace, though his heart was a thunderous drum within his chest and his head swam with the ridiculous and almost romantic notion of eloping with this man. If he closed his eyes and let it be, he could almost believe that he could do what Jūgo requested of him. He could grab his yukata right now, take his hand and flee into the mountains and leave this all behind...


(like a coward...nothing but a pathetic you’ve always been)


He winced at the sneering comment that filled his mind. It was Orochimaru reminding him yet again of how weak he really was in spirit and of how Jūgo’s dream for them could never become a reality. He had committed himself to this life, and Jūgo – dear precious Jūgo – would never know just how dark, filthy and decayed this heart had become over the years. He was not fit to be with one as good as Jūgo. People like him deserved to be thrown into a pit of lions and ripped limb from limb. He was used goods after all.


“You never answered my question,” Kimimaro whispered against the beating heart. His lips pursed to place a tender kiss on the salty flesh. “Do you fear death?”


“No,” Jūgo replied without hesitation. “If you are the one responsible for it...then I will not fear death.”


Kimimaro closed his eyes and bit into the bronzed chest tenderly. “You are so naïve.”


“I don’t care -”


“I could kill you if I wanted to -”


“Then I’ll die for you, my love.”


With a light grunt, Kimimaro pushed himself away to look up into those eyes that appeared determined, stubborn and downright beautiful to him. He blushed as Jūgo leaned closer to place tender kisses on the twin red birthmarks upon his forehead – a silly gesture he had always done even when they were children and one that Kimimaro appreciated more than words could ever convey.


(thank you, Jūgo...for everything)


“Then you will have your chance sooner than you think,” Kimimaro whispered as he placed a hand against the broad chest to push him back onto the futon. He straddled the prone man, eyes remained locked on the questioning but warm ones beneath him, and with a sigh of pleasure he impaled himself upon his lover again and began to move in a steady rhythm.


“The tides of war are coming ashore,” came the cryptic words breathed into Jugo’s ear. “Then you will have to prove yourself to me, my love. For if our time on this earth is to come to an dying wish is to spend my very last moments with you.”





Suigetsu’s lashes flew open at the lone but faint bark that filtered through his window.


He swung his legs off the bed and dressed quickly, his feet soundless around the room for he knew there were two guards stationed in the hallway outside the bedroom door. With his katana secure, he peered out the window carefully.


No one in the courtyard. Perfect.


With the ease of a feline, he leapt out the window and darted across the expanse of land before he could garner the attention of the night guards on duty. Not that those guys were even that alert these days. With Orochimaru hardly showing his face around here lately, most of the guards had adopted a laissez-faire attitude to their jobs. All the better, in Suigetsu’s humble opinion. This whole place was going down in flames eventually anyway.


He found Kiba at their planned rendezvous point beside an abandoned shackle next to the river. At night, there was something haunting and almost beautiful about the way the water sparkled beneath the moon and stars (and boy was it a clear night too!). The soothing sounds created could almost lull one to sleep...except that was the furthest thing from their minds tonight.


The source of the bark trotted up to him, a small white dog that Kiba had adopted since their arrival here. Though the keeping of pets was not really frowned upon, it was rare for anyone to take to animals that quickly – well besides the big guy (Jūgo). Between them, Suigetsu was sure they could run a zoo efficiently.


“Hey, Akamaru. How’s it going?” Suigetsu greeted with a gentle pat on the dog’s head before walking closer to Kiba who was hard at work with something. On closer inspection, Kiba – who was hunched over – appeared to be writing something on a small piece of paper while a large (and rather majestic-looking) snow owl sat patiently beside him.


“Christ. Where the fuck did that thing come from?” Suigetsu asked as he sat on a decaying tree trunk beside his companion. “Did Jūgo send it?”


Kiba nodded without looking up. In fact, he hadn’t even looked up when Suigetsu had arrived, which would have annoyed Suigetsu if it wasn’t for the knowledge that Kiba seemed to be able to tell whenever someone was coming from miles away. The guy really was like an animal himself, able to sniff out things faster than either he or Jūgo could ever do. Absently petting Akamaru, who had now made himself comfortable on Suigetsu’s lap, he took the time to study Kiba in silence.


They rarely talked to each other except to relay information or discuss plans (especially with that botched arson fiasco). Though he seemed to give the illusion of being quiet and thoughtful, Suigetsu had definitely seen the other side of Kiba a few times. Back in their training days at Akatsuki, Kiba was always the loud one, the party animal (no pun intended), who could whip their other team mates into a frenzy even if it was over a simple card game. His face alone could be the subject of conversation with those twin red marks that went down each check (said it was a family tradition or whatever), and dark eyes that could pierce right through you if you stared into them long enough. His short dark brown hair looked shaggy and unkempt most of the time, though he managed to control it with a head band so it didn’t keep falling into his face. He was just about the same height as Suigetsu, and well built as evident from the few times he had noticed Kiba training with his shirt off...


(and why the fuck would I want to notice that anyway?)


Suigetsu shook his head angrily and blamed the errant thought on having to deal with that psycho’s violation of his body; something he still couldn’t and wouldn’t live down. He was just glad that both Kiba and Jūgo hadn’t tried pestering him about it. Suigetsu would have killed them anyway.


“Finished,” Kiba announced quietly as he held out the written note to Suigetsu. “What do you think?”


For any one else, the tiny shapes and letters would be nothing but Greek to them, but thanks to their training, Suigetsu was able to understand the coded message easily. Jūgo, who was (again) spending the night with this ‘boyfriend’ had sent the message to the owl, which was to be relayed to the forming Akatsuki army in the mountains ASAP.


According to the ‘boyfriend’, Orochimaru was making the first move and was to send over five hundred soldiers toward Usu in about two days.


“Five hundred, eh?” Suigetsu whistled beneath his breath. He lifted his head to stare at said mountains which looked ominous and frightening at nighttime. A sudden chill went down his spine as he handed the note back to Kiba, who was quick to tie it to the owl’s talon. Once done, a quick whispered command sent the bird flying into the air with a grace that had both men staring at it in awe until it was nothing more than a speck in the sky.


“Think they have enough troops stationed up there for Orochimaru’s army?” Suigetsu eventually asked as Akamaru leapt off his lap to seek his master’s warmth.


“Should be,” Kiba replied absently. “The last message Jūgo received said that about three hundred of them were already stationed at Tarumae.” He picked up a stick to draw a series of triangles connected together –signifying mountains by Suigetsu’s guess. He drew two straight lines going across two of the ‘triangles’. “Usu is to the north...Tarumae to the south. If they get the message on time, they should be able to set troops here...and here...” He marked two large Xs. “And that effectively surrounds Orochimaru’s troops. Itachi and Shisui know the mountains well, so there should be no pro...”


The words died on his lips as his entire body immediately stiffened. Suigetsu, who had been engrossed with the drawing, noticed the sudden change and looked up quickly; his hand already caressing the tip of his katana.


“What is -?” he began, but was silenced as Kiba rudely slapped a hand over his mouth.


“Someone’s coming,” Kiba hissed beneath his breath.


Suigetsu couldn’t see a damn thing, but then again, hadn’t he admitted that Kiba was almost always right about these sort of things? In fact –


“Duck!” Kiba commanded harshly, forcing Suigetsu to lie flat on the cold ground (much to his chagrin) as they remained hidden behind the cluster of bushes. Suigetsu could feel his heart thundering loudly in his chest, his adrenaline beginning to pump harder and faster at the promise of a skirmish with someone...anyone. He didn’t give a fuck who. It’s been a long time since he had the opportunity to cut someone open and this time, he wouldn’t hesitate to take out the unfortunate punk deciding to eavesdrop on them –


“Come on, already!” came the faint but impatient words as hurried footsteps approached. “Goddamn it, don’t make me hit you again!”


A low sniffling accompanied this, and both Kiba and Suigetsu eyed each other with raised brows. Two people and one of them definitely didn’t sound like he wanted to be there.


“I...I don’t want to do this...” the other voice whimpered in protest, but a loud slap accompanied by a low howl of pain, had Kiba literally growling beneath his breath. A sound Akamaru all but mimicked as his hair seemed to stand on edge.


Suigetsu lifted his head a little to see what was going on, and at first couldn’t understand what he was witnessing. There were two men all right, one of them an officer he had encountered a few times around the grounds, and the other clearly a sinner as obvious from the familiar drab yukata he was wearing. There would have been nothing wrong with this picture, except for what the officer was about to do. He was all but tossing the younger, slighter man – couldn’t be older than fifteen at least – against a tree and yanking the guy’s clothing higher to reveal his pale ass cheeks to the night air. The teen clung to the tree in miserable resignation, his quiet sobs mingling with the harsh and excited breathing of the ugly bastard about to stick his dick into him.


Suigetsu felt the bile of disgust welling within him at the sight; the memories of Orochimaru’s cold fingers violating and tearing him apart overriding any and all other rational thought. Besides, he had always hated that officer anyway. The guy always had this leery look on his face and smelt like sour onions.


“Suigetsu...” Kiba began, but he was talking to thin air, for just as the officer had grabbed the sinner’s hips to begin thrusting in earnest, the sharp glint of a katana being unsheathed was immediately followed by a head flying through the air; a comical expression of ecstasy and shock on its visage before it landed on the bank of the river with a sickening thud. Suigetsu yanked the body away from the sinner and, as if adding insult to injury, sliced off the still erect penis cleanly. Like the head, it sailed into the air but landed (fortunately) into the river where some unfortunate soul was bound to wonder why there was a mutilated male organ floating in there come morning.


“Goddamn it,” Kiba hissed in irritation as he stepped out of his hiding place with Akamaru whining in tow. “You just don’t know when to hold back, do you?”


“He had it coming,” Suigetsu replied with a nonchalant shrug. He wiped his sword upon the officer’s uniform and returned it to its sheath. He flashed a grin at Kiba before turning to the stupefied sinner still frozen against the tree.


“At least pull your yukata down, goddamnit,” Suigetsu finally commanded impatiently. “I don’t need to keep seeing your ass like that, and besides you can thank me later.”


He winked and sauntered toward the head while whistling beneath his breath, leaving Kiba and the boy to look at each other in quizzical silence.


Now what?


“Go back to your quarters,” Kiba finally said quietly. “And do not mention this to anyone, do you understand?”


Like he needed to be told that twice. The boy nodded with tears of gratitude filling his eyes (though the fear was still there) and began to slink away slowly. Every now and then, he’d look back as if to make sure the officers wouldn’t turn on him, but when he noticed Kiba’s impatient wave for him to take a hike, and Suigetsu still busy admiring the head he had looped off, he ran as fast as his legs could take him. He, at least, couldn’t wait to tell his fellow sinners that there were some good officers around here.


“What do you think?” Suigetsu asked as he held up the severed head by its hair to dangle it before Kiba. Blood still gushed from the protruding muscles, ligaments, veins, arteries and goodness knew what else was in there. “I should probably -”


“Try to get rid of the goddamn body,” Kiba retorted. “He was an important high-ranking officer, you piece of shit. If he doesn’t show up tomorrow for work, what do you think is gonna happen?”


“Like I give a fuck,” Suigetsu replied as he kicked the body for good measure. “We are at war, in case you haven’t noticed, Kiba. The more folks we take down here, the better for our boys over there.”


Kiba sneered. “So what’s the plan now? Start taking down the officers one after the other? You do realize that this was probably videotaped, right?”


Suigetsu eyed the surroundings, noting nothing but the monstrous trees around them which acted as a cocoon from watchful eyes. “Cameras, eh? So what? Let them come at me. If I’m gonna die, I’m going to take at least a  hundred of them with me.”


“A hundred and one,” Kiba replied with a smirk that had Suigetsu raising a brow.


“Oh yeah?” Sharp canines flashed in the night. “Two hundred, fuck face.”


“Two hundred and one...and start digging a hole, dipshit. We need to bury this guy fast.”


Suigetsu snorted and looked like he was about to protest, but at the grim look thrown his way, he sighed and set to work. Might as well get started. Goodness knows there were going to be plenty of more shallow graves they’d have to dig soon enough.






Nishitama District, Tokyo


Watchdogs patrolled the area either on foot or on horses, the familiar yellow tape blocking off curious pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Though the bombing had taken place several days ago, tendrils of smoke still managed to snake their way into the heavens from the rubble that remained. The once grand estate belonging to the kumichō of the Hamza Syndicate was now nothing more than a relic of an era that was gradually coming to an end.


At least I hope to make it that way eventually.


I chewed my bubblegum a little faster and tried to make a bubble out of it. It was a decent enough size before it burst – much to my disappointment. My goal was to one day blow a bubble so big, it would cover my entire face. Anyway, first things first. I have a very important meeting to attend shortly and no time to fuck around here.


Why was I here in the first place? Only because Danzo had all but chewed off my head in his frustration at the news of this ambush. He was sure Orochimaru was behind it, and my personal investigation into the matter seemed to prove Danzo’s theories right. Funny how Snake Dude seemed to be onto Danzo already and was doing his part to make sure the old geezer no longer had anyone to back him up in government. Ironic as well because Akatsuki was trying to do the same thing!


I spun on my heels to leave the scene, blending effortlessly into the throng of onlookers – mostly tourists eager to see the site of the latest failure in Japanese politics.


Today, my disguise was a little more elaborate, having consulted with one of my Magnificent Seven (#4 – Yottsu), who suggested that perhaps wearing a complete ‘face mask’ would work better than simply a wig and contact lenses. This ‘mask’ was nothing more than a thin layer of a skin-like material he would apply to my face every morning. It was quick work too, all things considered, and he confessed that before he was recruited into the yakuza, he had always dreamed of becoming a make-up artist for the movies. I made a mental note to make sure his dream came true if we survived this ordeal. He was too good to remain hidden in the shadows with a sword, when he could transform someone with just a few mixtures of paste, paints and brushes in just the right way. To take off the mask, all I had to do was peel it off, and if I was in a hurry, I could apply it again just as quickly. The bad thing about them? They itched...especially when the weather became too hot, but that was a small price to pay. I just had to make sure I wasn’t outside for too long or it was likely to melt off my face. Bleh.


All that aside, I was finally in Tokyo! Yes!


Shika and I arrived yesterday morning – with some of the Magnificent Seven as back up - and I was determined to sightsee as much as possible...and would have if it wasn’t for Danzo’s phone call and subsequent whine about his well-laid plans being foiled.


That old bastard!


He successfully dampened my enthusiasm (read as search for you-know-who) and I was now sure he had his pawns stationed all over Tokyo to watch my every move. It was the reason why the mask had to come in handy. As far as Danzo (and his spies) knew, I was still stuck in the hotel at this moment. My hope was that this meeting set up by one of my targets would be effective. Thanks to Temari, she had gotten in contact with Itachi and Shisui to relay the current situation. If their plans went according to plan, I could get out of this particular job with no unnecessary blood shed.


I spotted the restaurant I was to wait in and ordering myself a bowl of steaming tempura udon, I decided to take the time to not only savor the delicious meal, but the sights and sounds around me. It was sometimes hard to reconcile the happy, smiling (or sometimes frowning) faces within the tumultuous world I had become involved in. Yet as I watched mothers with innocent children, young couples holding hands and so in love (it was almost sickening...or maybe I was just envious), or old people who had seen the world turn in so many different ways, I reminded myself of what this country really was.


(my home)


Japan was a beautiful place despite its many flaws. So yeah, maybe we were not as developed as the Western world (as per the movies and magazines seemed to detail), but we were slowly but surely getting there. Why did we need to go back to being Isolationists like Danzo suggests? Or become a nation of religious-crazed-righteous-purification psychopaths like Orochimaru wants? Why did we have to be run by factions of power-hungry bastards like Ikegami, who only seemed determined to make Japan subservient to them? I didn’t get it. What was so wrong in wanting a completely democratic nation where people were free to choose how they wanted to live without being force-fed one’s ideology? Was that what my father had wanted all this time? Was that what he was trying to explain to the yakuza before he was killed for believing in a nation that could become really ‘free’ in every sense of the word?


/Naruto...the yakuza will always exist even when this war is over/


I made a face as Shikamaru’s words came back to haunt me. His pessimistic outlook was something that still nagged at me, but damn it! One of us had to at least look at the bright side of things, right?


A shadow fell over me and I looked up casually, assuming it was the cute waitress returning to ask if I wanted my glass refilled. However, at the sight of the petite dark-haired woman (or if it was a guy – since this person was in Western clothes that didn’t reveal much in the chest area - he was quite pretty). Large dark eyes scowled and studied me for a long minute, and I briefly wondered if my mask had slipped off to reveal my real face.


“It is foolish to deal with a fool,” came the clipped words of a Japanese proverb.


“One cannot quarrel without an opponent,” I replied with a weak smile. Yep. Guess she’s my ‘date’. And it’s definitely got to be a girl now. Something in her tone gave it away.


She nodded in satisfaction at my rehearsed answer and eyed my half-finished meal. “We must hurry. We have no time to waste.”


Damn. I paid a lot for this food too...until I mentally kicked myself and remembered that with the money Danzo’s throwing at me, I could buy ten bowls of udon and still have cash to spare. I guess old habits die hard.


I followed obediently, being sure not to stare too long at the derriere before me. It was another painful reminder of my celibacy at how aware I was of every damn thing when it came to another human being, especially if said human was remotely attractive. I was still holding onto the dream that Sasuke hadn’t left town and somehow this meeting would enable me to gain access to their hideout. Just the very notion of seeing him again was beginning to churn the adrenaline within me. Unfortunately, the boner I was about to experience all but withered at the sight of our driver as I slid into the white van parked at the curb.


Holy...shit...! This guy is massive!


It was a miracle he could even fit into the damn vehicle, and yet as he turned around to reveal a friendly, smiling visage, I had a feeling all he had to do was sit on someone and he’d be dead in a heartbeat.


“Hello,” he greeted jovially. “You must be Uzumaki Naruto, eh?”


“Just drive Akatsuchi,” the girl commanded impatiently. “Ōnoki-sama’s waiting.”


“All right, all right. I was just trying to introduce myself,” Akatsuchi grumbled and turned back to face the wheel. His movement alone had the van rocking from side to side a little until he settled in and took us out to Tokyo traffic.


“Nice to meet you, Akatsuchi,” I greeted back after a minute of awkward silence. Didn’t want to give the big guy the impression that I wasn’t keen on becoming friends. I eyed the girl who was pressed against the window and staring out of it. She seemed determined not to know I existed.


“Don’t mind Kurotsuchi,” the big guy said with a chuckle that earned a glare from the girl. “She’s always like that with everyone, but she’s actually nice when you get to know her.”


“I told you to stop talking already,” Kurotsuchi huffed, though from her flushed cheeks, I could see the feminine nature seeping through. “You just don’t know when to mind your own business, do you?”


“Aww Kurot-chan,” he whined playfully. “Don’t be like that.”


“Are you two dating?” I asked with a smile and nearly got my head singed with the death ray of a look flashed my way.


Akatsuchi guffawed in delight. “Hell no. We’re just good friends almost like brother and sister. Ōnoki-sama is her grandfather though and we grew up in his household since we were babies.”


“Why must you share our life story with a man who plans to kill my grandfather?”


Ooh...guess that would explain the bitchiness.


“Listen,” I began. “I don’t want to -”


“Save your excuses for later,” she snarled. “If I wasn’t on orders to behave myself, I would have killed you on the spot in that restaurant. You yakuza make me sick. You go about terrorizing innocent people just because you’ve got the money and power. Gramps has been fighting against people like you for years, and he’ll continue to fight until his dying breath! We will never let you win! Never!”


She looked as if she was going to say something else, but the wobble of her lips and the tears shimmering in her eyes forced her to turn away again and press herself even closer to the window as if hoping to melt into it. I bit my lower lip and sagged wearily on my seat, wishing I could explain that I was completely nothing like the other yakuza she must have met in her lifetime. However, I knew I wouldn’t be telling the truth. After all, what had I been doing in the past few months besides accumulating land and fame in such a sleazy under-handed way? I was no better than the people she’s accusing me of being. My only claim to goodness was proving that I had no intention of killing her grandfather if I could help it.


I looked up to meet Akatsuchi’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. There was a hint of understanding there, but at the same time a fierce loyalty to the woman beside me.


“She is right you know,” he finally said quietly as he wove his way in and out of lanes expertly. “Gramps really has been a tough nut to crack over the years despite the threats made to him by the Syndicates. They’ve destroyed many homes and families he once looked after all in their effort to get to him, and yet day after day, he continues to fight for legislature to nullify the power of the Underworld. He knows his days are numbered, but he’s not afraid of dying for what he believes in.” The big man gave a semblance of a smile. “I don’t know why he wants to meet you, but even looking at you, I think I sense a goodness inside of you, Naruto. You don’t seem like a guy who really likes being a yakuza, eh?”


I struggled to find a suitable response, but I was saved from doing so as he turned into a much quieter section of the city where the homes were a little more widely-spaced and grand in design. Most were a mixture of modern and traditional, and I was not too surprised to find that the Councilman lived in a grand two-storey mansion; something I noticed most politicians tend to favor. The automatic gates slid open silently though there were two armed guards positioned within the grounds as we drove in.


Beautiful, well-tended lawns dotted with colorful plants and huge trees surrounded the home. There was a large water-fountain with a statue of a mermaid holding a jar, from whence the water flowed from. In the distance, one could make out a lake with two large yachts anchored by the pier. Horses grazed quietly in the backyard giving one the illusion you were in the countryside instead of looking just past the lake to notice the towering concrete buildings of industrialized Japan. The juxtaposition was almost jarring to the senses.


“Here we are,” Akatsuchi announced just as the car door on Kurotsuchi’s side opened and she leapt out as if her pants were on fire. She hardly looked back to see if I was following, but she probably needn’t have bothered as the front door to the house opened to reveal ...Gramps (I’m assuming).


He was incredibly short for one thing with a huge bulbous red nose that seemed to take up most of his face. His bald head glistened beneath the sun and his white Fu Manchu moustache was even more impressive in person. As for clothing, he seemed to favor oversized robes that dragged behind him like a bridal gown. He was leaning on an ornate walking cane, but one ought not be fooled by the hunched figure. It was his eyes that did all the talking, and boy, were they scrutinizing me like hell. I felt vulnerable, naked, and completely weak in his presence for some reason, and I could see how he would be a formidable opponent for anyone. After all, this guy had probably survived numerous attacks on his life over the years. He could probably take me down with his walking cane if he wanted.


“You look different from what I imagined,” he finally quipped in a loud, but raspy voice that left no room for argument. “Why do you look like one of those over-tanned girls from Harajuku? Itachi said you were blond and had scars on your face.”




Blushing darkly, I began to peel off the mask, wincing as some parts of it seemed determined to remain glued to my skin. It was a damn relief when the whole thing was finally off (as well as my black wig). I felt I could breathe again.


“Much better,” came the grunt as I gave a sheepish smile. Hell, even Akatsuchi (and dare I say Kurotsuchi) seemed to look at me a little differently. Must be the scars.


“Now then. Come with me, Uzumaki Naruto,” Gramps ordered as he pounded his walking cane impatiently and began to shuffle, rather quickly, toward the lake. I followed, finding myself having to trot a little to catch up to the little energizer bunny while his wards trailed after us muttering things beneath their breath I could not hear.


As for Gramps, he said nothing as he continued to lead the way; not pausing to take a breather until he got to edge of the lake where several ducks quacked on by lazily with no care in the world.


“You may sit,” came the command that had me looking around stupidly. I figured he wanted me to sit on the ground, until I noticed the hidden stone benches and carved table amongst the sakura trees. Very cozy. I sat across him while the other two seemed more content being bodyguards from a distance.


“You have a beautiful home, Ōnoki-san,” I began politely, with what I hoped was a genuine enough smile on my face.


“I know.”


Oookay. Guess I should change topics then. Except I was at a loss as to how to begin. He was still staring at me as if I were an object from another planet, and short of squirming in discomfort, I cleared my throat and tried again.




“You don’t look that threatening,” came the sharp observation that deflated whatever ‘tough-guy-image’ portrayal I had hoped to convey. “I was given the impression that that imbecile Danzo would send someone more menacing. I had no idea he would send over the son of Minato.”


My eyes widened as my heart slammed within my chest. “ knew my father?” I squeaked breathlessly.


“Briefly,” Ōnoki remarked with a snort. “He was in the company of the Bakufu Syndicate’s kumichō in a meeting a long time ago. Oddly enough, the meeting was a discussion of how the yakuza was to integrate with the government to become a more legitimate organization. Ironic, isn’t it? I always knew Tsubasa was a level-headed man. It was unfortunate that Danzo had him destroyed for his gain.”


“He killed my father too.”


“Who? Ikegami?”




Ōnoki gave another snort and tapped his cane on the ground. “Why is that not surprising? So let me are here to seek your revenge on your father’s death by working for the very enemy, weeding your way through the Syndicate and destroying it from the inside?”


I smiled bitterly. “You read me too easily.”


“Foolish young one,” Ōnoki retorted with a shake of his head. “Any fool can see that. If they looked beyond the surface. So...Danzo has no idea you are Minato’s son?”


“Oh, I think he knows. He just doesn’t know that I know he’s the one responsible for my father’s death. He still believes I’m in the dark about everything that happened in the past. To him, I’m nothing more than unfinished business. Once he’s in power, I’m sure he’ll do all he can to take me out as well.”


“How did you come to know about your father’s demise?”


“Didn’t Itachi tell you?” I raised a brow, watching him carefully. His expression gave nothing away.


“I would rather hear it from your mouth, boy. Now talk.”


Taking a deep breath, I regaled him with the tale of the dossier given to me by Itachi and Shisui while in Buk-gu. I mentioned finally getting to meet Jiraiya and everything else in-between, not sure why the hell I was pouring out the sordid details to this guy I have just met. For all I knew, he could turn around and stab me in the back, but somehow...I knew he wouldn’t. Guys like Ōnoki were a rare breed; tough nuts that stuck to their guns and wouldn’t back down no matter what. I could come to trust a man like him.


Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Kurotsuchi – who was sitting on the pier– watching me intensely. When she noticed I had caught her gaze, she gave a rather pretty blush and huffed before turning away as if annoyed.




In fact...the more I stare at her profile, the more she reminds me of Sas -


“Never did trust that Jiraiya,” came the sudden sharp retort that broke me out of my slight daydream. I focused on the old man with a light frown. Was he aware of something that I didn’t know? “He was a ‘good’ boss as far as I could tell, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t just as greedy as the others. What’s his role in all of this?”


“My mentor...for the most part. I’m going to make him in charge of everything once I take out Ikegami...or better yet, I plan to change the very concept of the yakuza into something new.”


Ōnoki looked as if he had swallowed a canary. His features contorted for a second before he burst out into the loudest laughter in the history of mankind. It was the kind of laughter that made you wish you could start digging a hole to bury yourself into.


“Haha!” Ōnoki slapped his thigh and shook his head. “That is the best thing I’ve heard in years. In fact, the best thing I’ve heard since your naïve father suggested the very same thing! You really are the son of Namikaze Minato if you believe something that imprudent.”


“What’s so foolish about it?” I retorted angrily. I wished he’d stop laughing already. It wasn’t that funny for fuck’s sake. “You’ve been fighting with them for years and yet you don’t stop because you believe something like that is possible, isn’t it?”


“You fool! I am not trying to destroy the establishment itself,” he snapped back with a wave of his hand. “The mafia is not something unique to Japan, remember? So even if we did make them legitimate, we have to deal with the Triads from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the mobs from Russia, Italy and the Americas, who will all want to grab a piece of the pie.” He suddenly sighed and his shoulders seemed to slump giving one the impression of a man who had so many burdens to bear.


“My young not think you are the only one who had such lofty goals. When I was your age, I felt the same thing too.” He gave a pained smile. “My father was so much in debt with the yakuza, I lived every day of my young life waiting for the day they’d finally get tired of our existence and kill us all. I was in a difficult position, between the need to reform and yet destroy them all by any means necessary. However, what could I do besides get myself arrested or killed if I resorted to petty gun or sword fights with them? What good would that do for my goals? How else could I make a difference in our country without resorting to unnecessary bloodshed?”




He nodded. “Politics. If I couldn’t fight them on the streets, I could at least deal with them with new laws and stricter regulations to keep them in check. And for a while it least until they began to buy off many of my fellow councilmen. You have no idea how infuriating it was to watch men I had spent years working with suddenly do a one-eighty all in their quest to become wealthier. The DIET became nothing more than a cesspool for corruption and sin, and the few who dared to stand against the desecration of our sacred system of law and order in this country...were gunned down or brutally murdered.”


He rose to his feet and paced away from me, and in that strong yet weary profile, I felt my heart ache for this man.


“Some days I want to give up and throw in the towel, Uzumaki Naruto. Some days it just becomes all too much, but then I look at my dear ones...” He turned a little to give a rare but warm smile to Akatsuchi and Kurotsuchi, who both suddenly looked as if they were about to burst into tears. “I think of Itachi, Shisui and all those young men and women who fight day after day in the shadows to restore Japan to its former glory, and I realize I cannot back down now. No way. No how.” He spun around to face me; the gritty determination back on his features.


“And now Shimura Danzo wants me dead, and though I was vehemently against Itachi and Shisui’s plan, I realize that this is something that must be done. So fine. I will let you kill me...or not kill me, so your hands remain clean. The plan is for me to be poisoned in my office tomorrow morning, where my secretary will find me unconscious. I will be rushed to the hospital where I will be pronounced dead within the hour. The media will carry this all over the news - as they should - and with any hope you will no longer be required to carry out your assassination. Councilman Sagara has left the country as we speak, something I’m sure Danzo would be updated about eventually.”


“Whoa...wait a minute now.” I rubbed my temple to make sense of this. “If you the hell will you come back again? I mean...your seat at the DIET and -”


“Consider this my retirement,” Ōnoki replied with a quirk of his lips that wasn’t quite a smile. “I have worked for this country for over fifty years and it’s time I leave it up to you young ones to lead us to the promised to speak. I am more than content moving to the countryside and raising a small farm with my family – and away from all the madness. So yes, it isn’t exactly the way I had planned my retirement party, but I might as well leave in style, don’t you agree?”


I would have replied, if there wasn’t this damn lump suddenly stuck in my throat. I settled for simply nodding and inwardly cursing out Danzo for doing this to a man who deserved so much more.


A low sniffle and softly-spoken words forced me to look up at the two people hugging each other. Kurotsuchi was the one crying and Akatsuchi (with tears in his eyes) was doing his best to comfort his best friend.


“What are two goons sniffling for?” came the loud bark that had us looking up with mild surprise. “You’re already crying, and I’m not even dead yet!”


“It’s a stupid plan, Grandpa!” Kurotsuchi snapped back, and I could definitely see how they were related. Short fuses must run in the family. “Why do you have to follow Itachi’s plan and drink that stupid potion?!”


“Oh? You’d rather I get shot by a gun and hope it doesn’t hit any vital organs? At least you have the antidote, don’t you?”


“I don’t want to go through all that!” Kurotsuchi wailed. “Why do I have to mock bury you and go through that funeral procession just so you can...!”


I tuned out their quarrel and looked out to the lake, my mind whirling with all that I had heard from Ōnoki so far. I longed to tell Shikamaru everything I had heard, but the old man wouldn’t let me leave until I had shared dinner with his family. Turned out to be a great meal, and Kurotsuchi was half-nice to me even.


“Hopefully we will meet again soon,” Akatsuchi said as I said my farewells. “And we will share a bottle of sake, eh?”


“I’d like that,” I replied with a smile and a firm handshake. “Take care of the old man and Kurotsuchi, all right? I’ll check up on you all every now and then.”


The big guy grinned. “So you do like her, eh?”


I felt my cheeks flame with embarrassment. I couldn’t tell him that it was only because she sort of reminded me of a guy, so I simply shrugged and tried to act bashful. “Well, she is cute...”


“Haha! She likes you too, I think...well without that mask on your face. Just don’t forget us or her when you have completed your revenge, Naruto. We’ll always be here for you, okay?”


Something about those words brought another hard lump to my throat, and since I didn’t want to start bawling in front of the guy, I made my escape as quickly as possible. And though it was late, I still had to make one last pit stop before heading back to the hotel. Those two were likely to start making out if I didn’t show up soon.


“You’re late,” Shikamaru greeted when I showed up at the inn nearly an hour later. He looked like he was ready for bed since he was clad in only a casual yukata.  


“The taxi driver lost his fucking way,” I replied as I shoved past him, took off my shoes and padded into the waiting private lounge room. Temari was there, looking even more beautiful than the last time I saw her, which seemed like years ago. Dressed in a pretty pastel kimono with embroidered swans, with her blond hair tied up with what looked like decorative chopsticks, she looked every bit the blushing bride. Except this was no wedding.


“You look good enough to eat,” I complimented with a wink as I knelt to place a kiss on her cheek. She swatted me away playfully and made a face.


“You look weird with that mask on,” she replied with a smile. “Take it off, so I can see that handsome mug of yours.”


“Rwwr. Keep talking like that, sweetheart, and I’m likely to steal you away from that man of yours.”


“Keep inflating his damn ego and he’s likely to puff off like a hot air balloon,” Shikamaru retorted as he sat beside his woman and tried to glare at me while I peeled off the mask for the second time today. I did manage to give him the middle finger in retaliation.


“Have you had dinner?” Temari asked after rolling her eyes at our antics. “We could order something...”


I shook my head and patted my stomach, before flinging the mask to the side and breathing again. “Just stuffed myself at the councilman’s house.”


“How did that go?” Shika asked.


Leaning against the wall and stretching out my legs, I told them everything. Temari, whose office wasn’t too far from Ōnoki’s at the DIET building, and who had already been briefed on the plan for his ‘death’, nodded at those parts in agreement. When I was through, Shikamaru gave a light grunt and mimicked my sitting position.


“Seems like he’s come to peace with himself about everything.”


“Just about,” I agreed quietly. I allowed my gaze to drift out the opened screen doors leading to a quaint koi pond and sand garden just a few steps away. “I don’t know...when he said that he was leaving everything up to us...I suddenly felt that this whole thing we’re’s even more real, you know what I mean?”


I turned to them and felt my heart lurch with an emotion I knew as unconditional love and admiration. Even though they had been forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, even now that they could only meet under difficult and dangerous times, their body language told of a completely different story. With her head upon his shoulder, their hands clasped tightly in that subtle but loving gesture most couples shared, I could honestly say I wished nothing but happiness for these two for the rest of their lives.


(I want you two as far away from what is to come)


“It’s always been real,” Temari finally said quietly; her pale blue eyes trained on me with a warmth that was borderline maternal in nature. “We’ve just been shielding ourselves from the reality for  so long while we were in Buk-gu, that’s slowly becoming as overwhelming as its always been.” She glanced up to Shikamaru with a small smile on her face. “And we know our role in all of this, Naruto. As much as I’m sure you want Shikamaru and I to leave and go as far away from this as possible...we can’t. This is a decision we’ve already made, and you’re stuck with us whether you like it or not.”


“I hate you guys,” I croaked and tried to snort in derision, but all I ended up doing was choking up like a damn kid. I really was lucky to have such awesome friends.


“ still plan on going to meet Simizutani tomorrow night?” Shika asked quietly.


“Don’t have a choice, do I?” I replied with a weary sigh. “I promised the guy I’d be there, and I have to. Besides...” I looked to Temari with a clasp of my hands as if about to pray to her, which I might as well be. She was the messenger of good or bad news after all. “Please, please, please, please tell me he’s here.”


She chuckled and I felt my heart leap into my throat in excitement.


“Weeeeeeeell....” she drawled lazily.


“You’re torturing me here!” I wailed and threw myself at her, earning helpless giggles as she tried to push me away, while Shika threatened to blow my brains off if I didn’t stop harassing his girlfriend.


“Damn! Let me talk, Naruto!” she gasped and finally pulled away with a hand upon my face to stop me from coming any closer. “He’s my purse.”




I lowered her hand to stare in bemusement. “What the fuck does that mean?”


I honestly did suddenly imagine a miniature Sasuke tucked into her purse...


However, her smile this time was all it took to let me know that I was too late. Fuck!


“They left two days ago,” she said quietly. “But...not before he left a little something for you.” She dragged the black purse closer and dug through it for a while before pulling out the small cassette tape. “A message from the man himself. He said you had better listen to every damn thing he has to say or else.”


I could feel my cheeks burn at the warning, definitely picturing Sasuke’s stern voice as he gave this order. The tape was like fire in my palm, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to my hotel room right this very second and listen to it over and over and over again until I wore it out.


“...will station ourselves at the Imperial Hotel just in case.”


“Wh...what was that?” I asked in a voice that was slightly breathless, embarrassed to realize I had spaced out again and completely missed what Shika was talking about.


Temari snickered as Shika rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Good grief, man. I know you want to go back to the hotel, but just wanted to remind you that Shichi, Yottsu and I will be stationed at the Imperial across from your rendezvous with Simizutani just in case anything happens, all right?”




“Oh for God’s sake, I’ll call you a fucking taxi,” Shika snapped as Temari laughed herself senseless and I wished I hadn’t been born.


Damn my libido.





Sneaking back into my hotel was no problem, and after a thorough survey of my room to make sure nothing had been taken or any bugs activated while I was gone, I took a quick shower and flopped onto the narrow bed in only my pjs bottoms; headphones and cassette already plugged in and ready to go.


Hah. Funny how one regresses to a lovesick moron the moment he’s ‘close’ to the person he really cares about. Although I wasn’t sure how well that could be applied to a taped recording. Either way, it was better than nothing. Hell, even a damn picture of the guy would work just about now.


At first all I heard was nothing but static and then the opening line that was so him, it had me biting my lower lip to control myself from laughing or sobbing or both.


“This is so stupid,” Uchiha Sasuke greeted me from a thousand miles away. “Why the fuck do I have to record this in the first place?”


“Because you fucking have to,” I replied to the empty room, aware that I was now smiling like a fool, and damn if my heart wasn’t doing the tango with excitement. I swear, I really am such a -


“I hope you’re alone listening to this because I swear if that other man is with I’m making threats that I can’t carry out. Fucking...hate...this...” His voice trailed off and this time there was no controlling the laughter.


(Oh God! I love you, man. I really do...)




“All right...let’s do this, seriously,” his voice returned stronger and more in control. I could hear shifting noises in the background which let me know that he had probably recorded this while lying in bed as well. Or sitting up. No matter though. Just hearing that deep voice, that was akin to being coated with something warm and syrupy, had me lowering my lashes (and trying my best to ignore the nagging little feeling at the back of my mind at just what I had thought earlier).


“First things first and let’s get this out of the way...” Deep breath. “I...uh...I...I miss you, all right? More than I thought I would. Although, to be honest, there’s been a lot going on over here with getting to meet all the members of Akatsuki and having to go through special training all over again. Do you know that there are many members of the Watchdogs who defected Orochimaru’s army? I couldn’t believe the number of officers, who were under the my watch, suddenly show up to pledge their allegiance to our new cause. And there’s no fear of them being spies because Shisui put them through rigorous interrogation procedures including some kind of truth serum that causes people to blurt out their innermost secrets. I swear that guy worries me sometimes...but Itachi must really see something in him because they’re still a couple.”


Another soft sigh. “Speaking of which, Itachi never told me he  had contacted you even when I pestered him about you several times. I mean I understand that he’s trying to protect me and keep my mind focused on what we’re about to get into, but he should have at least told me that you were alive and well. I was worried to death about you, not knowing where you were or how you were holding up being transformed into a hardened criminal – I mean faux yakuza – so you can imagine how pissed off I became when I eavesdropped on a conversation he was having with Shisui one night and heard them talking about you! Urgh. I was this close to murdering someone, but I controlled myself. Still, I must admit hearing that you’ve changed was a bit...troubling to me. I mean, I’m not expecting you to still be as goofy and moronic as you used to be...”


Moronic? The hell!


“...but I just...” His voice seemed to fade a little as he continued. “I just didn’t want you to completely lose your humanity, Naruto. That’s the one thing about you that’s made me the person I am today. If that side of you went can I ever hope to recapture him again? I am more than aware of the difficult position you’ve found yourself in and how it’s bound to be impossible to retain your ‘goodness’ in the presence of so much wickedness and sin, but...and call it my stupid naïve assumptions – I still think you have the ability to overcome all that. If you could survive the hell of Byaku-Shinkyou and still find it in your heart to give a bastard like me a chance, then I truly believe you can still remain good. You must promise me that if nothing else, Naruto. Or at least listen to this damn tape so you can hear my voice drilling it into your skull until you’re sick of it.”


I bet your annoying, snotty, but damn lovable attitude that I will listen for as long as it takes.


“We’re heading off to Hokkaido tomorrow. It’s going to be a long journey, but I’ll be thinking of you all the way there.” A low groan. “Can I tell you something? That my stomach is all in tight knots and it feels like I’m constipated and I can’t breathe just at the notion of even being close to that son of a bitch again? I swear I had to run to the bathroom to throw up a few times because it was that bad, Naruto. Perhaps it’s finally sinking in – after all those years – of just how much Orochimaru affected me psychologically. It’s not something you can just get over in a few months, no matter how ‘changed’ you think I’ve become. There are still moments I find myself thinking like him...moments where that side of me you hated so much threatens to rise to the surface especially when some of the Akatsuki members slack off during training or I watch the ex-officers. There is still this inherent need to please him in some way; that child within me that knew no better and believed that Orochimaru was everything. When I tend to think in such a way, I have to mentally slap myself and remember where I am again. I have Itachi – my brother – back from the dead. I have Shisui – a fellow Uchiha though I had once thought we were a dying breed – protecting me as best he can. I have Haku – who by the way is back to good health and can’t wait to see you again...and yes, I know you’re probably smiling right now as I say this, and no, I am not going to allow him to leave you a taped message either. I’m still in competition with him, remember?”


I blushed at the low chuckle to fill my ears, turning onto my stomach to not only hide my heated features into the pillow, but to control the growing ache between my legs. Listening to his voice has not been helping matters, I can assure you of that.


“Still...he’s doing fine all things considered and I’m more than happy to have him by my side. However...”


And though I couldn’t see him, I could still picture how this part must have been recorded for his voice sounded muffled and low, as if he too had been curled into his pillow almost ashamed to admit he had actually said this into the machine.


“...knowing I have you waiting for me, Naruto...makes everything seem so much more bearable. So please...even if you do manage to finally give in to temptation, for even I know how difficult it is to remain celibate in such a climate – Akatsuki does have its fair share of beautiful women...and some rather fine men...and you have no doubt been accosted by men and women alike either to get into your pants, please do not forget the promise you made to me in Buk-gu. Even if my body or yours is being used to satiate the pleasures of the flesh, your heart remains and belongs to me for all eternity. You know you already have mine; a measly compensation for my many sins against you.”


My heart...


“So I’ll sign off now...”


My heart...


“...and hope and pray that you will be successful in all your endeavors.”


His voice was raspy...thick...holding back...




“ safe and don’t die until I get to see  you again. I promise not to get into trouble as well, all right? Take care of yourself for me, Naruto. I...I...I...”


(my heart...)




The loud click and subsequent static was the final straw. If it was the combination of an emotional day and now having to listen to Sasuke’s words causing this to happen, then I was powerless to stop it anyway. The tough-guy-façade had been effectively been stripped away, and for now, the very human Naruto was nothing more than a sobbing mess clutching a recorder to my chest as if my very life depended on it.



For if I ever needed a reason to justify why I was going through all of this pain and heartache, all I had to listen to his voice as a reminder of just what I was truly fighting for...


...a country we could call our own with pride and the freedom it so richly deserved.


(a life where we could live in peace with the happiness we both truly desire)


I knew now what I had so obviously tried to ignore and set aside for so long; that my desperate attempts to protect my heart from suffering through the anguish of losing Sakura and never wanting to give in to that fickle emotion called ‘love’ was coming back to bite me in the ass even harder than ever before. That it would take this man to change my mind would have been laughable less than a year ago, but now...all I could wish and hope was that we’d both live long enough so I could get to tell it to his face no matter how embarrassing it was bound to be.


Besides, if he rejected me or laughed in my face, I’d probably have to kick his ass (and then join a monastery).



Chapter 39

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