Chapter 39

The Ties that Bind


In this ancient house,
Paved with a hundred stones,
Ferns grow in the eaves;
But numerous as they are,
My old memories are more.

-Emperor Juntoku




The bhavana is mental culture in the full sense of the term. It aims at cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, ill-will, indolence, worries and restlessness, skeptical doubts, and cultivating such qualities as concentration, awareness, intelligence, will, energy, the analytical faculty, confidence, joy, tranquility, leading finally to the attainment of highest wisdom which sees the nature of things as they are, and realizes the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana.


I lowered the pamphlet to my lap, unable to stop the small twitch of an ironic smile forming on my lips as the words continued to scream within my mind. In the past, the holier-than-thou version of me would have been wringing his hands in consternation at how far from grace he had fallen. My skin would be crawling with unseen filth, eager to seek the nearest temple to soak and wash away my iniquities. Ah, but how things had changed, for all I felt at this time was nothing; simply a void of emptiness deliberately kept that way to prepare me for what was ahead.


A cleansed mind free of impurities and disturbances? Hah.


Who needed a cheap pamphlet, from wandering monks at the train station, to convince me that I was bound straight for Hell anyway?


The sudden dull ‘thud’ as a head slumped against my shoulder, reminded me that I was not alone. Haku’s fast asleep beside me, a plain brown blanket wrapped around him in protection against the elements both in and outside. Some fool must have forgotten to send the memo to the train conductors or supervisors (or whoever ran this thing) that we’d need heat within the cabins. The end result? Most of us all bundled in extra jackets or wrapped in blankets to protect us from catching severe colds or pneumonia before the war even starts.


The seats across us were empty as I had neither courted nor entertained anyone to share it with us. However, I still had a good view of the other occupants in my cabin. Hinata and Karin were snuggled together in seats across the aisle - fast asleep - while Tenten seemed to be reading a book beneath the dull glow of the cabin lamps. Lee snored lightly with his mouth slightly agape, his body cocooned in a blanket as well. was hard to tell if he was asleep or awake - thanks to his (prescription) sunglasses - and with his arms folded across his chest and his head covered in that familiar black hoodie, he appeared to be on his guard at all times. Sasori – ever quiet and pensive – could be asleep, but I could not tell from here. All I saw was his familiar shock of red hair from my vantage point. Deidara was still wide awake and appeared to be sketching something – a talent I came to discover and one he seemed surprisingly bashful about. I did recall him stating that once this ‘shit’ (aka war) was over, he was going back to Art College to complete his education. Oddly enough, I found myself wishing his dream would come true despite his annoying tendencies.


I wish all their dreams will come true...if we make it out alive.


Odd. Perhaps it was a sign of weakness or this side of me that has come to empathize with humanity a little more. That I would concern myself with these people’s back stories and want them to succeed and live happier lives? I could almost laugh.


Why? whispered the tiny voice within me as I turned my gaze out the window to stare at the bleak frozen landscape that wheezed by. Why is it funny that you’ve found your humanity at last?


Because I’m returning to a place where it was lost in the first place, I replied with my fingers tightening around the pamphlet. Deep down...I fear that seeing Byaku-Shinkyou again will bring back all those dark emotions I had before.


(But you’ve changed, haven’t you? It’s been almost a year since you’ve changed...things have changed. You are going back to redeem yourself and to reclaim what is rightfully yours. It’s something you’ve thought and dreamed about for so long. Now that it’s here...why do you doubt?)


It’s like I told Naruto in the recording – that somewhere within me, there is this black mass that still pulsates with Orochimaru’s influence. That no matter how hard I try to be ‘good’ and ‘normal’ to the rest of the world, I’ll always have this part of me ready to rear its ugly head again. The last thing I want to do is go back there, but I am petrified.


My fingers dug into my flesh, and for an instant, a crushing sensation flooded my chest, as if something or someone was sitting on it. Breathing...breathing was...breathing was become a little...diff...difficult...


Even if you return, the voice (which now sounded eerily like my mother for some reason) continued, it’s going to be different. Look at all these people with you now. You must remember that you are no longer alone in this fight. Itachi has returned from the ‘dead’ and he will always be by your side. You are no longer alone, Sasuke. have people who care about you now...people who genuinely love and appreciate you for who you are and not what you can bring to the table. Pure and good ulterior motives whatsoever. You are no longer are no longer alo -


“Are you all right?”


I gasped and sat up with a jerk, causing Haku to moan in slumber before (mercifully) twisting positions to make himself more comfortable on the other side of his seat. However, the voice had come from the figure towering over us. It was Hyūga Neji, who must have just returned to the cabin, since I hadn’t noticed him during my observations earlier.


In the relative gloom around us, I must say those pale eyes of his stood out like translucent beacons, which could be quite disconcerting (and creepy). Like me, he seemed to prefer being in traditional garb, as his black yukata contrasted sharply against his pale skin. He must not be feeling the cold either, for unlike the others, he wasn’t donning an extra jacket or shawl around his shoulders. His katana was in place within his obi, and I idly wondered if he slept with the damn thing on. He never seemed to be without it.


“I’m fine,” I finally replied with a light shrug, which I hoped he’ll take as a sign that I was not in the mood for any sort of conversation. Not that he has gone out of his way to court it. As I must have said before, we have a cordial and respectful relationship, and I hated to admit that the more time I spent with him, the more he reminded me of myself. Aloof (except when in the company of Hinata, Lee and Tenten for obvious reasons), curt and straightforward for the most part, and prone to letting his sword do the talking for him. In fact, it seemed like a running joke amongst everyone that we could be twins.


(not in this lifetime...or the next for that matter)


He nodded curtly and turned as if to head to his seat when something outside the window caught his attention.


“Hmm...snow...” I think he muttered.




He cocks his head toward the window. “It’s beginning to snow.”


I looked out to see what he was talking about, and sure enough a steady stream of snowflakes filtered down from the heavens to blanket the ground. I would consider the sight beautiful, if there wasn’t something quite ghostly about it. Besides, if my deductions were correct, there’d probably be at least two to three inches when we arrived in a couple of hours.


All things considered, the snow could be good camouflage...IF one was prepared to use it wisely. Luckily, Itachi and Shisui were able to obtain white robes we could use to disguise ourselves and blend in effortlessly with the surroundings. However, I was quick to remind them that the Watchdogs also had white camouflage uniforms. Those were rarely used and the only time I’d seen them worn was by special troops who patrolled the mountains every now and then. Who were we to think that Orochimaru wouldn’t want his army to be just as ‘hidden’ as we planned to be?


As if that wasn’t bad enough, fighting in the thick of winter was also going to be a disadvantage. It’s no fun trying to dig your way through piles of the stuff and getting wedged within frozen mounds while trying to disarm your enemy at the same time. To be honest, I’ve never fought in such conditions before, and though Shisui and Kurobachi promised to give us a crash course training at our destination, it was still going to be difficult getting adjusted to all this.


“How bad does it get?” came the quiet question that jarred me from my thoughts.


I frowned, wondering why he was suddenly insisting on talking to me. “What are you talking about?” I asked with a raised brow.


“The weather,” he explained as he folded his arms across his chest. He seemed to have an eye on the weather and the other trained on me at the same time. “You’ve lived up here most of your life, right? How bad does it get?”


I debated on whether to give him a curt response of “it depends” or to elaborate further –


(they are on your side, Sasuke. Do not forget...)


“It can get rough,” I said aloud. “Once – about five years ago or so - we got snowed in and nothing functioned around the grounds much. Must have been at least eight or ten inches by the time the storm was over.”


He whistled beneath his breath and furrowed his brows. “Let’s pray it doesn’t get that bad. Most of us here haven’t had any experience fighting in such conditions.” He eyed me thoughtfully. “You should have no problem.”


“I haven’t fought in such conditions either,” I replied before I could control myself. Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted to display was my disadvantage, and as much as I expected him to gloat at this revelation, all he did was nod as if in understanding.




“What does that mean?”


He rolled his eyes to the heavens as if exasperated. “This. All of this. None of  us have been in war before, you know. You read about it in the newspapers and watch it on T.V. or in the movies and it all seems so distant and unreal. However...we’re about to get into it, and I have to remind myself that I might not make it through...I might not get to see any of my friends again when this is all over.”


My lips curled in a sneer. “You regret being here then?”


“Far from it,” he replied with a twitch of his lips as if smirking. “This is a fight for a worthy cause. I have never believed in the absolute power and authority of the military and this Orochimaru – from all I’ve heard – sounds like a guy who really does need to get his ass kicked. I’d love to have the pleasure of doing so, but from the sound of should have the honor.”




The smirk widened. “As morbid as contemplating death seems...I really do want to make it out of here in one piece. I’ve got way too much at stake when this is all over.”


I noticed the surreptitious glance he directed in Hinata’s direction, and again I found myself wondering just how close/intimate those two were. I knew they were not brother and sister, but it was still slightly disturbing that he’d entertain being in such a relationship with –


“She deserves a peaceful and happy life,” he was saying, which forced me to pay attention. “Hinata and I come from a large family, and though she’s been touted – from the day she was born – as the next head of the Hyūga clan, as you must have noticed, she’s not exactly the kind of person eager to take on such a burden. With so much pressure to be something she isn’t, she finally ran away from home and has been running ever since.” He sighed and tugged absently at the yukata’s sash. “I was sent to bring her back to the family, but it’s been almost three years since that assignment was given.” He gave me a bitter smile. “She told me she had found a family with the Akatsuki organization; a place where she could be appreciated for her talents and not forced to be anything she wasn’t. She convinced the cynical me to live a life without rules and boundaries, and now...look at us. I have made good friends who will give up their lives for me if asked, and we have all made a vow to create a better future than the past has given to us so far.”


He stopped talking as if shocked he’s told me so much. I assumed he’ll want to excuse himself, but he shrugged and eyed me warily again. “I know you’re going back to settle an old score...but then what, Uchiha Sasuke? Is that all you’re really fighting for? Just a chance to take over as head of the military again? Is there true meaning to all of this besides it being a ‘duty’ to your clan’s history and integrity?”


I was helpless to the initial bristle at his seemingly condescending statement, but as I digested his words, the more it made sense and did leave me slightly conflicted. Yes, I was returning to get rid of Orochimaru and to, technically, purify a place so tainted with sin, it was literally covered in an unseen black cloud of filth. And yet, at the back of my mind, there was yet another unfinished business...something ten times more important than simply eliminating an unnecessary evil.


(what kind of a life will you live when this is all over, Sasuke? Simply living day to day running Byaku-Shinkyou?)


“No...” I whispered more to myself and completely forgetting Neji’s presence. “I am not simply doing this for myself or any selfish desires as  you might assume.”


“I assumed no such thing,” Neji’s voice filtered through my thoughts. “I guess to put it more bluntly, is there anyone you wish to share your future with in this new world you plan to create?” He nodded at Haku. “What about him? Will he continue to be by your side until his dying day? Will he not want to explore the world and decide what his future holds for him? Do you believe Itachi and Shisui will remain with you at Byaku-Shinkyou? Surely you don’t believe they’ll want anything to do with it considering the kind of life they live. They are more than content to let you run things while they show up whenever you need them -”


“You’ve said quite enough,” I cut in impatiently, this time making sure he saw my frown of displeasure. Who the hell gave him the right to lecture me on what plans I might have for the future? What was he? A soothsayer?


“Pardon me,” he said with his hands raised as if surrendering, though his features were anything but apologetic. If anything, he seemed satisfied that he had achieved something. What that was, I’m not quite sure. “I’ll take my leave.”


As he turned away, I was tempted to blurt out that just like him, I did have other dreams besides the obvious. This dream involved a certain blond hundreds of miles away, who might (or might not) be currently laughing himself silly over a ridiculous taped recording I had done in the heat of the moment. Well, to be honest, it had taken several  hours of inner debating – though it was Temari who had suggested I do it in the first place – before I finally conceded. It was poor compensation for actually talking to Naruto face-to-face, but it was considerably better than nothing at all. Even thinking about it now still had my face suffusing with color, and I was never more glad that Neji chose this time to leave me in peace.


Unfortunately, that was shattered quickly as the cabin door suddenly opened and Shisui poked his head in.


“You busy?” he asked, and hardly waiting for me to respond, he motioned for me to follow him. “Itachi wants you.”


“What’s wrong?” I queried as I jumped to my feet in haste. I could feel the gazes of those still awake, watching us as we left; their curiosities no doubt piqued at what this meeting could entail.


“Nothing much. He just wanted to keep up abreast of a few things,” Shisui explained as we headed down the narrow corridor and into another cabin that was much smaller and had somehow been transformed into an office of sorts. Itachi, with dark circles around his eyes (a clear sign my brother’s been putting in some extra long hours), was sitting behind a desk filled with blueprints and maps that looked confusing at first glance. Kurobachi, Touya, and two other senior officers had their heads together in a conference. They only stopped long enough to acknowledge my arrival before turning back to their tasks.


“Sorry if I woke you from sleep,” Itachi muttered with a small smile, as he motioned for me to sit across him...if I could find the damn chair in all this chaos that is.


“I wasn’t sleeping,” I replied, while pushing off some more maps off the single chair I finally found, before sitting on it. “What’s going on?”


“Just got off the phone with Temari,” he said with an expression that could be interpreted as satisfaction. “Looks like the meeting between Ōnoki and Naruto went as planned.”


I kept my features as neutral as possible, never betraying the sudden skip this damn heart of mine had given at the sound of that name. And I don’t mean Ōnoki either.


“That’s good to hear,” I replied evenly.




“Even better is that Ōnoki took our suggestions to heart and has agreed to ‘die’. We have already made plans to assist him in his departure into the ether.”


“Very poetic,” I said dryly. Itachi chuckled at this and scratched the bridge of his nose gently.


“And Danzo?” I continued warily. “When he finds out Ōnoki’s gone, you know he’ll want to put someone in his place at the DIET.”


“Already taken care of,” my brother stated and with a motion of his hand in Shisui’s direction, the older man presented a dossier that was pushed in my direction. “In there is the new face of the Democratic Party of Japan. He might be young, but he’s already creating ripples across the political world, and he’s not particularly easy to sway to the ‘dark side’, so to speak.”


I opened the dossier to this ‘wunderkind’ and I was far from impressed. For starters, the photograph revealed a man hardly older than myself with short, cropped red hair (akin to Sasori’s), facial features that looked anything but inviting – especially with that brazen tattoo etched on his forehead or temple – the heavy dark rings around his eyes and the downturn of lips that seemed to loathe the act of smiling. Further pictures revealed that he wasn’t very tall, but he did have an aura that made him stand out in images where he was in the presence of others.


Gaara ...?


“That’s it?” I asked in bemusement. “Has he no last name?”


Itachi shrugged. “He calls himself that, and everyone else seems fine with it. Besides, if his sister has no qualms about it, why should we?”


“His sister?”


My brother’s smile widened. “Temari.”


“Huh?” I looked at the photograph again and tried to compare this person to the smiling, blond woman I’d come to know. “They look nothing alike -”


“You could say the same for the man always standing one step behind him in the photographs. Noticed him yet?”


Yes, I had. An older man, slightly taller than Gaara, but with interesting markings on his face. I wasn’t sure if that was a fancy tattoo or just some family tradition that required  him to have it etched on his skin. “Who is he?”


“Kankurō,” Shisui stated. “Temari and Gaara’s older brother.”


“Lovely. A family affair,” I observed dryly, trying my hardest not to roll my eyes at this. “So now what?”


“Gaara begins actively campaigning for Ōnoki’s seat,” Itachi explained. “He will make his presence known at the ‘funeral’ and will introduce himself to the nation when he’s allowed to speak a few words. Naturally, he’ll praise Ōnoki’s contributions over the years and endear himself to those who believed in the old man. He’s already getting major endorsements from other power players in parliament, and with a final written approval from Seong-gye – you remember him, don’t you?”


I nodded. He was the former Prime Minister of South Korea, the one I had the pleasure of meeting when Jiraiya visited us at Buk-gu.


“Yes, with his approval, which would signify international cooperation, Gaara will hopefully solidify his position in the public’s consciousness. He will be the one to take over what Ōnoki has been trying to do for years. His voice will be ours in the DIET, and with this war raging on...he will expose the truth for what it is.”


“And if Danzo interferes?”


Both Itachi and Shisui exchanged a knowing look between them, before he spoke again. “Well, that’s where Naruto has to come in. He has to make sure Danzo never gets his hand on Gaara. With any luck, the old bastard would be dead by then or rotting in a dungeon somewhere.”


“Gaara will be communicating with several daimyōs to bring them up to date on what’s about to happen. Though they are more figureheads than anything, some of them do have the ability to influence their councilmen in parliament.”


“That’s foolish,” I interrupted tightly. “Have you forgotten how many of them Orochimaru has in his pockets? None of them will be on our side!”


“Not without incentives,” Shisui insisted with a grim smile. “They can be bought at the right price, and if they realize that Orochimaru is fighting a losing battle, you can be sure they’ll be the first to deflect. They are nothing but a bunch of spineless cowards, wouldn’t you agree?”


My tongue felt heavy and bitter as the memories of the many parties Orochimaru would throw just to host those greedy, fat, ugly bastards, came rushing back with a vengeance. How many whispered conversations, where money was exchanged and insidious promises made, had I been privy to? How many of those slobbering men have begged and whined Orochimaru to help them retain their pitiful seats as figureheads of a tradition long past, while willingly offering their constituents as sacrifices to Gudan? It was enough to make me want to vomit.




“What?” I snapped impatiently, before taking a deep breath as I noticed them (including the other officers) watching me warily. I realized that I was so tense, my shoulders were actually beginning to ache. I hadn’t even realized I was clutching the handles of the chair that tightly until I released them slowly (as well as the breath I must have been holding in all this time). “Sorry...just...memories...”


Itachi watched me carefully for a long minute before nodding softly. “I apologize. I’ll let you go back to your cabin. Daylight will break soon and you do need to get some rest.”


“Same goes for you,” I responded with a raised brow. “When was the last time you slept?”


My brother managed a weak laugh. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve gone without sleep for as long as four days in a row and survived. This is nothing.”


So he says, but I accepted his order and with a quick bow of farewell to the other men, I excused myself...but don’t head straight to my cabin. Instead, I pushed open one of the exit doors, where I was immediately blasted with a mixture of snow, ice, and wind, so intense it took my goddamn breath away. In no time, my bones were chilled and it was all I can do to hang on to the wrought iron railings around the carriage. However, I managed to steady myself after a few minutes of a bizarre balancing act and finally forced myself to look up.




That was the view that greeted me once I got my bearings, for though the train was moving quite fast, it was still ‘slow’ enough for one to admire the surroundings.


In sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, out here it felt like you were in the middle of literally nowhere, for there was absolutely nothing – no roads, no houses, no woodlands or trees, just a white-coated barren landscape with only  ghostly silhouettes of towering mountains in the horizon. The pre-dawn gray heavens, dotted by the falling snow, made it even more melancholy and (somewhat) depressing.


And yet, I was more than aware that I was born and raised in this frozen tundra. What a homecoming.


I wrapped the jacket around me a little tighter and took a deep breath, and as I closed my eyes and lifted my head to the heavens, I pretended that the gentle snowflake kisses on my chilling flesh were nothing more than the warm, spiritual ones I so desperately craved from a certain young man miles away from me.


Be safe, Naruto, I prayed silently. Wherever you are...please be safe...







Tuesday, 5.15pm


“...standing live in front of the DIET where – as you can see – several ambulances are going by thanks to the shocking discovery of Councilman Ōnoki’s dead body in his office. His secretary, who was just returning from running an errand at the chamber floor, was the first to discover the gruesome sight...”



“Breaking news coming to you live from the DIET where the body of revered and well-established councilmember Iwagakure Ōnoki was found dead in his office at four-fifty-five p.m. We are not quite sure what is the cause of this, but it is safe to say that this shocking incident has sent reverberations all throughout the Japanese government.”



“Councilman Inoue! Councilman Inoue! Can you tell us what happened?”

“No comment!”

“Where were you when the body was discovered?”

“Please, no comment! Get that camera away from my face!”

“Do you suspect foul play, Council Inoue?!”




“Oguma-san! Oguma-san! Can you tell us how you found him?”

“My client is distraught and will not be answering any questions at this time.”

“She is his secretary, is she not? Was he taking any medications? Did he have a heart attack?!”

“Please, step client will not be speaking to any media at this time. We’ll have the lawyers and investigators handle this. Thank you.”



“...we are just as shocked as you are. Councilman Ōnoki was a staunch and well-respected member of the parliament and his loss is...stunning to all of us to say the least.”

“President Yamamoto! Do you suspect foul play?!”

“Not at this time. Our able police force is working hard to investigate what has taken place today. We all know Councilman Ōnoki was not as young as he used to be, so it is likely something related to a pre-existing medical condition.”

“Are you saying it was a heart attack, President Yamamoto?!”

“I am just speculating. As I said, I will leave this all to the police to investigate. Thank you. That is all for now!”

“Who will be replacing Councilman Ōnoki’s seat?!”

“That is something that we cannot speculate on at this time. The man has hardly been dead for a whole day and you’re already asking about his council seat? Good God.”



“...we are expecting the Prime Minister to give a public address any moment now. What’s that? He’s live right now...all right, we are receiving the feed from the Prime Minister’s office. Let’s go to him now...”




“People of our beloved nation, I come to you tonight with a heavy heart that still grieves at the loss of one of the finest men our country has ever produced. Earlier today, Councilman Iwagakure Ōnoki of the Democratic National Party was found dead in his office of an apparent heart attack. Many of us remember the early days, when Councilman Ōnoki solidified his position in government as a champion of the people. He was always determined to work for equal and civil rights for all, and was a staunch defender of our constitution. No matter what obstacles he faced, he was always determined to fight through it all with guts and glory. He was not a quitter, and I believe that he left us on his own terms. Our hearts go out to his family and closest friends, and we promise to continue the legacy he has left behind.”




Wednesday, 10.34am


Yoimiuri Shimbun


Councilman Iwagakure Ōnoki Found Dead in Office


The shocking discovery of the respected member of parliament, by his secretary, was no doubt...




Okinawa Times


Rumors Swirl Around Death of Councilman


Was it simply a heart attack or the work of those who were against the outspoken councilman and his policies? Especially among those in the underworld, Councilman Ōnoki’s policies were not popular and it is well-known about his run-ins with the unruly sort. Could it be that his enemies have finally found a way to keep him silent for good? If so, who could be responsible for it...




Sankei Shimbun


Councilman Ōnoki Suffers Heart Attack


He was no longer young and at eighty-eight years old, it is likely that the Councilman’s heart simply couldn’t continue with the grueling schedule it’s been put through all these years. He was a ...




Iwate Nippo


A New Face Brings Possible Hope and Change to the Parliament


He’s young. He’s brilliant, and he’s already being touted as the next man capable of filling the enormous shoes Iwagakure Ōnoki left behind. His name? Simply Gaara. Already popular in his local district, Gaara hopes to take his message of hope and change to a parliament stale with the same old politics that has plagued it for years. In a press statement released...






Gaara Makes His Debut a statement released today, the up-and-coming politician states: “I was a big follower and believer of Ōnoki-sama’s doctrines, and believe that most of his policies and ideals for a better Japan can still be achieved. I hope to continue his positive works in any way I can, and look forward to meeting his constituents in the future.”

A promise of things to come? You be the judge. It is believed that Gaara will be making an appearance at the funeral at the family’s request. It seems he has already received their blessings.






Shikamaru rolled up the newspaper and tucked it beneath his armpit. To say that the last two days had been nothing but a blur of activity and ‘excitement’ was probably the understatement of the century. With Ōnoki’s ‘death’ the wheels were finally set in motion. Nothing was to hold them back now.


(chilly morning)


He rubbed his gloved hands together and stuck them into the pockets of his jacket, dark eyes scrutinizing the couple engaged in conversation inside the warm and crowded café across the street. He envied their position, but knew it was just another sacrifice he had to make. Every now and then, tendrils of vapor would escape his pursed lips and he wondered just how long he’d have to wait here until he could grab a smoke.


Come on...hurry...hurry...


Finally, the two men rose to their feet and shook hands. Shikamaru pushed himself away from the wall and slid on his sunglasses, nodding as the blond made a barely perceivable sign with his fingers.


Show time.


“Let’s go #5. We’ve got work to do,” he said curtly as he spun on his heels to lead the way with his silent companion trotting after him.


Things were definitely getting interesting indeed, for it was time for the Pied Piper – called Shimura Danzo - to finally pay his dues.




Hokkaido Prefecture



“Where is he?! I demand to speak to him this instant! Get those bloody weapons away from my face! Do you have any idea who I am?!”


Kimimaro sighed and lowered his quill. Great. Just what he didn’t want to have to deal with this early in the morning. An irate daimyō probably pissed at not having enough money for his next greed-infested vacation.


“OROCHIMARU! Show your face!”


“Good morning, Hirano-dono,” Kimimaro greeted as he stepped into the courtyard with what he hoped was a pleasant enough smile on his features.


As expected, it was indeed the daimyō of the North; a short, stocky man in his mid-fifties who preferred to be draped in gold embroidered robes that trailed after him like a bridal gown. His ceremonial headdress – something all daimyōs wore for special occasions – looked out of place since there was really nothing worth celebrating at this time. His features were flushed from exertion (and probably his fury) which was not helped by the six guards still surrounding him. Kimimaro motioned for them to step back, which they obeyed, although they still kept their spears or katanas trained on him.


“Where is that insufferable nincompoop?!” The daimyō roared as he tried to puff out his chest to look important, despite being considerably shorter than the white-haired man standing before him.


“I beg your pardon?”


“OROCHIMARU!” came the roar of frustration. “Where is he?!”


“If you have anything to say to him, please tell me and I’ll -”


“Get away from my sight, you insignificant worm,” Hirano sneered impatiently. “I will not leave until I have spoken to Orochimaru in person. Go fetch him this instant! I still wield authority over these regions in case he has forgotten!”


Kimimaro bit his inner cheek until he could feel the well of blood rising. Still, he kept the polite smile on his face and bowed in respect. “I understand, Hirano-dono. If you’ll follow me to his ante-chamber, I’ll summon him as you request.”




He stomped past Kimimaro with his nose stuck in the air and a plethora of curses escaping his lips at the same time. Once settled within Orochimaru’s chambers, and ordering himself a glass of wine to quench his thirst, he again began barking for Kimimaro to produce the elusive man.


“How dare he keep me waiting?! That man deserves to put out of office for his impudence and rudeness and -!”


“Desire to savor the moment for all its worth?” came the quiet low drawl, which had the daimyō nearly spilling the contents of his golden cup on his fine robes.


Orochimaru slipped out his hiding place behind the thick maroon curtains, a welcoming yet cold smile on his visage as he held out his arms in greeting. Dressed in a velvet black robe today, he appeared even more sinister and translucent to the shocked man before him. This was definitely not the Orochimaru he had seen several months ago. This imposter must be a messenger from the after life.


“Forgive me for keeping you waiting, my dear Lord Hirano. It was not my intention for other important matters have unfortunately, kept me quite busy -”


“I know exactly what those ‘important matters’ are,” the daimyō huffed as he rose to his feet. “How dare you decide to start a war on my land without my permission?! This is preposterous!”


Orochimaru stiffened at this, his eyes narrowing to icy slits as his lips thinned in displeasure. “Ah, I see that word has gotten out about my little rite of passage -”


“RITE OF PASSAGE?!” came the roar of disbelief. “Have you lost your mind?! You are sending over a thousand soldiers to engage in some cockamamie battle over what exactly? You are putting the lives of many innocent people in danger! I refuse to allow it!”


“Funny you should say that,” Orochimaru said quietly, a black-tipped fingernail tracing the corner of his mouth as if amused at something. “You have always been the champion of the spiritual rites of Gudan over the years...why is this suddenly so different?”


The daimyō’s already flushed features seemed to turn purple with indignation. “You fool! Gudan was the purification of CRIMINALS! The undesirables of society...!”


“And so is this!” Orochimaru interrupted with a flourish. He waved his arms above his head, eyes flashing with a brilliant madness that threw the other man off kilter at the sight. “You have hit the nail on the head, my dear one. This war is going to be the mother of all purification rites! To destroy the undesirables of society! To those who wish to oppose the will of God, we will bring justice to them as the Great Book has decreed.”


“’re a mad man,” came the whispered words of horror.


“Mad?” Orochimaru lowered his arms, the manic light now dimmed to reveal a look that was nothing short of venomenous. “You storm into my home and dare to call me a mad man after all I have done for you?”


Before the daimyō could move, he found himself nearly lifted off the floor and his air circulation cut off as cold but terribly strong hands wrapped around his meaty neck to begin squeezing.


“You truly are an ungrateful waste of space,” Orochimaru drawled, watching dispassionately as the shorter man struggled to release himself, his beady eyes widening...widening...and eventually beginning to roll to the back of his head. “You have eaten in this house, shared my bed with boys young enough to be your grandchildren, begged for money to continue your lavish lifestyle and secure your political seat, and yet you dare to tell me that I am a mad man? You all disgust me.”


He literally flung the daimyō away from him, hardly looking back as he heard the man grunt and wheeze in an effort to breathe again.


“!” Hirano wheezed as he struggled to his feet. How embarrassing to be treated in such a manner. “Mee...meeting with the oth...other dai...daimyō! You’!”


He gave a breathless squeak of fear as Orochimaru stopped and spun around to face him again. “Report me to the other daimyōs? Hah...hahahahahah!” His mocking laughter seemed to ricochet off the walls, seeping into the humiliated daimyō’s veins and causing him to stumble out of the chamber in haste.


“Yes, run!” Orochimaru taunted after the fleeing figure. “And I urge you to call them all! Call the Prime Minister or even the Emperor! Let the whole world see what I am about to do here! Let them know! I am waiting for them!”


Once the daimyō was nothing more than a speck in the distance, Orochimaru stopped smiling; his features now grim with irritation and simmering fury.


“Kimimaro?” he called out quietly.


“Yes, my Lord?”


“Let’s make sure our little friend never makes it to his destination. A little accident should do the trick, don’t you think?”


Kimimaro bowed in understanding. “Yes, my Lord.”


“And one more thing,” Orochimaru added as Kimimaro prepared to leave his presence.


“Yes, my Lord?”


“That  young man you have been seeing lately behind my back.”


Kimimaro felt his heart all but stop for a minute at the calmly spoken words. It took all of his acting skills to keep his features neutral, but his mouth had become incredibly dry, his head beginning to pound with an ache that was nearly knee-weakening. He watched his master’s lips curve into a cruel smile.


“You have two choices, my dear one,” came the soft words tinged with unspoken threats. “Either you eliminate him or I order his execution. I cannot have you being so careless, Kimimaro. It breaks my heart. You should know this by now.” He gave a dramatic sigh and placed a hand upon his chest. “You have twenty-four hours to carry this out, my love.”


And with that terrifying ultimatum, he left the room with only the husk of the man he once knew, frozen in place.







The heavy clash of steel against steel had me gritting my teeth as he pressed against me with everything he had. For seemingly endless minutes, we were engaged in a stalemate, neither of us wanting to back down. Finally, I dug my feet into the snow to steady myself, and with all the strength I could muster –




I shoved back and swung as hard as I could, throwing him off balance and sending his katana flying off his hand where it buried itself into the mound of snow several feet away. He tried to scramble after it, but I pinned his arm to the ground with a boot-clad foot and pointed the tip of my sword against his jugular.


“Wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I breathed thickly. My heart was still racing from adrenaline and exertion. Pitiful that I’d already feel this tired. I knew this was going to be one difficult session all around.


“Not bad,” came the approval from a voice above us. “Seems like you’re finally getting the hang of fighting in such conditions.”


Shisui was perched on the jutting chunk of the mountain, watching as several of us sparred in preparation. Around the soldier and I, were other groups of fighters engaged in sword fights or hand-to-hand combat. We couldn’t risk letting the gunfighters practice especially with such clear weather when the sound of their weapons could draw attention to our hiding place.


“Take five,” Shisui commanded as he leapt down to join us. The soldier bowed and excused himself, leaving me with the older man, who was kind enough to toss me a towel to wipe off the sweat I had accumulated. Ironic that I’d be this hot despite the below zero temperatures.


“How’s  your leg holding up?”


I tested it and shrugged. Besides a dull ache, and the fact that my limp was a little more obvious now (having been training for over two hours already), I was fine.


“Itachi was suggesting that I teach you how to use the bow and arrow again. Consider it a back up plan in case your leg doesn’t hold up after a while. Long range fighting works just as well.”


I shook my head. “Not interested.” I paused. “And what the hell do you mean by...again?”


He smirked lightly. “If memory serves me correctly, you used to have an affinity with them when you were a kid. Or have you completely forgotten all about that?”


I eyed the large bow and set of arrows draped around his back and shoulders and tried to recollect a younger version of me messing around with such weapons, but I was drawing a painful blank.


“...did I like using them?” I asked with a raised brow.


Shisui pursed his lips in thought. “Like? We couldn’t get them off you. At least the times you and Itachi used to visit, you were always carrying the damn things about. Besides, while we trained, you kept shooting at things...not that you were very good at it.”


He gave a wry smile and then shrugged off the bow. “Here...why don’t you give it a try?”


“I told you, I’m much more comfortable with my katana. I wouldn’t know what to do with that thing.”


“It’s like riding a bicycle,” the annoying bastard insisted. “You’d be surprised at how quick you pick it up again. Test it and see, eh? You might end up liking it.”


I opened my mouth to tell him to fuck off, but the next thing I knew he had thrust the damn thing in my hands. I felt like a complete fool holding this thing that was as tall as me. How anyone could shoot anything that felt so lightweight was astonishing, and yet as I studied the fine bamboo construction, I could see the wear and tear Shisui had inflicted upon it over the years. Every nick and grove etched into it told of the many battles he had fought, and I hated to sound cliché, but it really did feel slightly...powerful to have this particular weapon in my grasp.


“Now then,” Shisui began as he tossed an arrow to me. “Just like with any other weapon, be it the katana or the gun, using a bow and arrow requires the same intense hand-eye coordination. We, Uchiha, have been blessed with the gift of sight – obviously - so making use of this is like icing on the cake. Being able to see distances further than the average human gives us an advantage -”


“So how come there weren’t many of us? I’ve studied the history books and yes, there were archers, but our ancestors seemed more content being wielders of the sword.”


“True, but that doesn’t stop those of us who choose the way of the bow and arrow to continue the tradition. Now stop bitching and try to shoot at....” He surveyed the surroundings for a second before pointing in the direction of a soldier several yards away. “Try to shoot the container he’s holding.”


“Are you insane? I could hurt him!”


“Yes, you could,” came the matter-of-fact reply. “This is why you’re going to be extra careful.” He smirked and motioned for me to hold up the bow and take my stance. “Feet slightly apart like relax your shoulders...Good God, you’re so tense -”


“Just...teach...” I growled beneath my breath.


“Hmph...and you say you’ve forgotten how it’s done.”


“What are you talking about...?”


His shit-eating grin before his nod, had me looking down at the bow and arrow. It took me a second later to realize that I had actually loaded the damn arrow without even realizing it!


(it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve done never forget)


“” I whispered in confusion. “I haven’t picked this up...never even used it...”


“Doesn’t matter now,” Shisui interrupted firmly. The grin was gone, and in its place was an intensity and yet small smile of approval. “Guess your big brother was right after all. You know he’s always looking out for you and I’m glad he talked me into this. I’ve got only a few hours to teach you the basics, so let’s get to work. All right?”


“...fine,” I mumbled and raised the bow, holding onto the bowstring and arrow with three fingers. I could taste the slight saltiness of the string against my lips as I narrowed my right eye and focused on my target.


(Nii-san! Nii-san! Look at what I caught!)

( actually shot something edible today.)

(’s a rabbit.)

(I see that. Nice job. You seem to be getting better with that thing.)

(Yeah! One day I’m gonna be as good as Shisui-san! You’ll see! I’ll shoot a big boar and bring it home to mother for dinner.)

(I guess Shisui-san is going to have competition then, eh?)

(Yah! I’m gonna be the best! You’ll see! I’m gonna be...)




The arrow fell like a limp noodle to the ground, my trembling fingers and legs forcing me to my knees as that brief chunk of memory came flooding back. It was murky at best, but I could ‘see’ – I could see the young version of me running up to my brother with what looked more like a crossbow than an actual bow and arrow, but I couldn’t tell.


“I take it you remembered something?”


I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what it was, but decided against it. I settled for simply nodding and forcing myself to my feet again. I picked up the dropped arrow and re-loaded it, struggling to catch my breath as the cold was beginning to seep into my fingers. In no time, they’d get numb if I didn’t do this fast enough. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath –


(I think you should be taught how to use the bow and arrow, Sasuke.)

(Why? I want to fight with the katana like Itachi, ‘tousan!)

(Some people have better talents than others. Your brother is quite proficient with the sword, but I’m sure you’ll do well with this.)

(Aww, but I don’t want to play with a stupid bow and arrow. Why can’t I been like nii-san?)

(Because you are not Itachi, Sasuke, and you’ll never be Itachi. Now stop complaining and let’s go!)


Huh...perhaps that’s why I deliberately blocked the memory, because deep down, I never wanted to use them in the first place. I only did it to please my father.


I locked in on my target and slowed my breathing.


It was always  about pleasing my father anyway. I was always second fiddle to Itachi. Right from the beginning.


With a light grunt, I released the arrow, hardly feeling the light twang of the bowstring across my cheek and lips as I watched the trajectory seemingly skewer in mid-flight before burying itself into the water bottle the soldier had just been about to lift off the ground. Even from this distance, his cry of indignation (and confusion) at being attacked was subdued as Shisui waved his arms to let him know we were the ones responsible.


“Impressive,” Shisui praised.


“Whatever.” I flung the bow back to him. “I’m not doing it. I hate the fucking weapon, and even if I have to limp all over the goddamn battlefield, then so be it. I never want to touch that damn thing again.”


Sorry, ‘tousan.





By the third day, most of us were just about ready to go bat shit crazy with anxiety.


We had not heard from Jūgo in a while – at least since his last owl message stating that Orochimaru’s troops were beginning to head across the Tarumae Mountains. Three hundred soldiers were already on the move, and Itachi had sent out Officer Ibiki’s troops to stall them as best he could. However, with only two hundred men, his job would be to simply flank Orochimaru’s troops and stage a surprise attack that way.


“I want Kurobachi and your men to start heading for Usu,” Itachi ordered as we hovered around the makeshift desk within the many hidden caves in our mountain base. He pinpointed several locations on the map. “The good thing is that we’ve got the element of surprise on our part. Orochimaru believes we’re only a small army, but he’ll grossly underestimate our numbers when we begin to get reinforcement from the daimyō...”


His words stalled as a slight commotion occurred just outside the cove. It was one of our messengers returning, and from the frantic expression on his visage, we could already tell that something had gone horribly wrong.


“What happened?” Itachi asked.


The young man shook his head as if unable to get the words out, but after taking a deep breath, he gushed out in a hurry. “We have problems, Itachi-sama. Looks like Hirano-dono never made it.”


“What are you talking about?”


“He went to see Orochimaru two days ago and no one has seen him since then!”


“That fucking idiot!” Shisui bellowed in frustration, pretty much expressing the sentiment many of us had at this moment. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted him! Now what?!”


Gaara had done his part by approaching the daimyō and explaining the situation about the war. With the promise of more soldiers to be dispersed for our guaranteed victory, we were under the impression that the daimyō was in allegiance with us. Who knew he’d turn around to go complaining to Orochimaru? And now that Orochimaru was aware of what was going on, it was safe to say that the foolish man had finally gotten the punishment he deserved.


“What the hell are we going to do now?” Touya asked.


“Any word for the other daimyōs?” Itachi finally asked after a tense moment of silence.


“Nothing yet,” the soldier replied.


“All right...Plan B. Shisui, get in contact with Gaara and let him know the situation. Make sure he lets the other daimyōs know that Hirano-dono has probably been killed by Orochimaru and how dire we need their assistance. With any luck, we’ll have those damn troops pouring in by morning. In the meantime, we make do with what we have. Sasuke?”


I sat up at the sound of my name. “Yes?”


“What do you want to do? Start heading toward Byaku-Shinkyou with your troops or wait until reinforcements arrive? Remember, we are ready to back you up as best we can.”


I could feel the weight of their gazes on me; more than aware that my final decision could be the turning point in all of this. The pregnant silence, broken only by the crackle of the flickering lamps, was nearly my undoing, but after days of contemplation, I knew damn well what I had to do.


“Haku and I will go alone,” I finally said quietly. “Just back up until we give the signal.”


If they were surprised at this, no one gave any indication, though I noticed that Itachi’s grip around the pencil had tightened a little more.


“Orochimaru will not dare attack when he sees me,” I explained. “If I know him as well as I think I do, he might assume we are returning to make amends. I’ll have to do my best to let him assume that. If and when I decide that the coast is can send them in. Is that all right?”


“I don’t like it,” Shisui stated flatly. “But hey...if that’s the way you want to do it...”


He looked at Itachi, who had his head lowered as if unable to look at me anymore. I knew my brother was under a lot of strain and my decision was only going to make things even worse for him, but he would just have to trust me to finish what I had started all those years ago. This was now my burden to bear and not his.


“Fine,” he finally croaked thickly. “We’ll make preparations for your departure then.”


Later that night, when most of the soldiers were fast asleep and the camp was relatively quiet, I found myself sitting on a perch that gave me a frightening but awe-inspiring view of the landscape below. Like a child’s playground, ant-like hamlets or towns were broken by wide spaces of barren lands coated in white. Beyond that stood my home – Byaku-Shinkyou in all its glory despite how miniature it looked from here. If I squinted hard enough I was sure I’d be able to make out my bedroom -


“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” came the quiet question that broke my thoughts. “You’ve got a long day ahead.”


A steaming cup of weak tea was thrust in my direction and I accepted it willingly, while shifting slightly to make room for my brother. He sat beside me with a heavy sigh, and as I raised the tin cup to my lips, I stole a quick glance in his direction. His hair looked fairly unruly and not in its customary ponytail, and with the light gust of wind that passed every now and then, tendrils of his dark hair tended to whip across his face. The dark circles beneath his eyes, including the deep grooves that he inherited from father, were even more prominent than ever before. It was a sad and painful reminder of just how much he has been through and how much responsibility he took for not just me...but every one of the young men and women who came to him for protection.


I eyed the amber-colored liquid in my cup for a long minute.


(...ah hell...)


And hoping no one was around to see this, I reached out to wrap an arm around his shoulder to draw him closer to me. My cheeks flared as I felt his body stiffen at first, his breathless gasp of surprise, the weight of his stare before he finally relaxed into the semi-embrace. I couldn’t look at him, but I didn’t take my arm off either.


Besides, this tea tasted like crap.


“Shisui told me you refused to learn how to use the bow and arrow,” he finally said quietly after several minutes of companionable silence.


“I’m not good at it.”


“Liar. He said you were a natural.”


“I’m much more content with my katana. Thanks.”


“...your leg...”


“What about it?”


“The cold weather is bound to have it stiffening eventually, Sasuke. I worry -”


“Well stop being such a worry wart,” I insisted with a firm shake of my head. “I’ve fought with tougher wounds before. This is nothing.”


“I’ll still feel better if you took them with you.”


“Do you really think I should return there with that on my back? Orochimaru will pounce on me faster than you can say “rescue”.”


“ really are one stubborn son-of-a-bitch, aren’t you?” He chuckled weakly and pulled away from the embrace, but only to force me to look at him by cupping my chin gently.


“Are you really sure about this, Sasuke? Are you ready to see and face him all over again?”


I swallowed tightly, struggling to hold that intense gaze and lie to his face. “I’ll be fine,” I said out loud, though my voice suddenly sounded unsure and small. “I have to be, nii-san. This is something I have to do...the demons I have to face myself, and maybe...just maybe I’ll finally have the strength to do something I should have done years ago.”


Maybe it was my imagination, but I could swear there were tears in my brother’s eyes, but that illusion was quickly dispersed as he reached out to cup the back of my head gently. He pulled me closer enough so I was made to rest my aching forehead against his chest. I wanted to protest the intimate embrace, but the sound of his steady heartbeat against my ears seemed to synchronize with mine. As we were now simply two hearts beating as one. Maybe it was a brotherly thing, but there was something oddly soothing about this...this embrace...this moment...


(Sing me a bedtime song, nii-san)

(Aren’t you too old for that now?)

(No, I’m not. I’m only five years old)

(But you’re a big boy now, Sasuke and you really should stop climbing on my lap when I’m trying to study)

(Please...just this one time...I promise I won’t bother you again)


I squeezed my eyes shut as a heavy lump formed in my throat.


(there is so much I want to share with you, nii-san. So many things I want to tell you, so we both have to live through this. I cannot...I do not think I can bear the thought of losing you all over again. I’ll go mad. I know I will)


“And Haku? How is he feeling about returning?”


“...he...I don’t know for sure,” I confessed as I recalled the conversation I had with him when I had come to my decision. “He didn’t argue against it, and simply took it as what was expected. I’m sure he’s got  his fears as well, after all...he knows he has to take out Kimimaro. That bastard was like a father to him at one point.”


“Like Orochimaru was to you.”


I groaned. “Please don’t remind me.”


“I’m sorry...I’m so sorry.”


A gentle kiss on my head had me blushing in embarrassment, but I appreciated it more than I could ever tell him.


“If Dad and Mom could see us now,” he whispered. “I’ll probably be grounded for life for letting you take such a risk.”


“I’m no longer a child, goddamn it.”


“I’re a grown man who has a lover waiting for him many miles away...”


“Shut up!” I was literally crimson now and did finally push myself away from him as he chuckled.


“You really are adorable when you’re embarrassed. Where’s a camera when I need one?”


“I swear Itachi!”


“Stop hitting me, ouch! Damn! I haven’t even gotten to the question I’ve been dying to ask....who was top?”


“Go to hell!” I sputtered as the sudden memory of that night had every part of me aching with need and a loneliness that was stomach churning.


“All right, I’ll stop teasing,” Itachi conceded with a smile. “But at least, now I’ve given you a reason to walk into that place with your head held high, hmm?”


I lowered the hands I had raised to pummel him again as his words slowly sank in. I was still flustered and flushed, but for a whole other reason now. He was right in that the sudden change of conversation to Naruto and his influence on me, was more than a good enough reason not to fear what awaited me tomorrow. Yes, I might have to see Orochimaru’s ugly mug again and be reminded of all the horrors I witnessed while there, but there was going to be something different this time around. I wasn’t doing this all alone. I would have Itachi, Shisui and every damn soldier in this place ready to back me up when needed, but most importantly, I had Naruto’s warmth...that fiery spirit I had been attracted to from the moment I looked into those blue eyes.


He might not be there with me physically, but he sure as hell was with this beating heart. And no one, not even Orochimaru would be able to take that away from me.


“Thank you,” I finally said quietly. I rubbed my nose and lowered my gaze. “I really needed that.”


“I’m glad,” he replied with another kiss to the top of my head. “ you want me to sleep with you tonight?”




He smirked lightly. “We used to do that as child -”


“In case you’ve forgotten, I am not a goddamn kid! How many times do I have to keep telling you that?”


“ could always pretend I was Naruto -”


“Oh my God! Go to your damn cave, you sick pervert!”


“I’m just trying to help -”


“I don’t need your help!”


“I could keep you warm -”


“Fuck you!”


“Where are you going?”


“To bed...ALONE!”


“Aww -”


“God, I hate you.”


“And I love you too, my dearest little brother,” came the words that floated after me despite my best efforts to frown at the mushy sentiments. He’s such an idiot and yet, I couldn’t stop smiling like a goddamn moron.


And I love you too, nii-san. Guess I always will.






Dawn broke with the pale peek of the sun over the  horizon. It was almost too soon to herald the new day, and yet I could safely say that despite whatever trepidations I might have had, last night was the best sleep I have had so far, and I knew it was all thanks to my conversation with Itachi.


Unfortunately, I had not expected this mini-farewell party to show up this early, for Karin, Hinata, Tenten, Lee, Neji, Deidara, Sasori, Shino, and of course, Itachi and Shisui hovered around the horses Haku and I were mounting. It was difficult to gauge what most of them were thinking especially the men.


“Remember to use either Jūgo’s owl or the flare to alert us to what’s happening,” Shisui reiterated. “In the interim, we’ll send Neji, Lee, Tenten, Shino, Deidara and Sasori to tail you both starting tonight. They can be temporary back ups until the real ones arrive. All right?”


“Fine with me,” I replied with a nod of slight impatience. I was more than eager to get started on this journey already. With any luck, we would arrive at Byaku-Shinkyou by nightfall or mid-evening depending on how fast we pushed the horses.


“Take care of yourself for me,” Karin urged with a tremulous smile that betrayed how hard she was trying to keep her emotions in check. The same thing went for Hinata – even if we  hadn’t been that close. It was baffling to me. At least Tenten didn’t look too distraught. If anything, she seemed eager to join the fray and was already discussing travel plans with Neji.


“Use this,” she continued quietly, while shoving what appeared to be a small clay jar into my hands. “It’s something Hinata and I worked on, and we medical team plan to use it on any wounded soldiers out there on the battlefield.”


“What is it?”


“A healing balm. It’s not magic and your wounds won’t disappear immediately, but it will at least numb the pain once it’s applied.”


Now this could definitely come in handy, and it was probably going to be more than enough for Haku and I should we encounter any skirmishes on the way there. I tucked it away and managed a smile of gratitude.


“Thank you, Karin.” I paused for a heartbeat before adding quickly. “For know..I...uh...I really appreciate it.”


Her blush and polite bow of her head before turning away filled me with an emotion that was difficult to describe, and for a second, I briefly wondered if this would be the last time I’d get to see her again.


(Urgh. Stop thinking like that, Sasuke!)


From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Sasori was giving something to Haku, which he slid into his yukata. Was that a weapon? Whatever it was, it was enough to reveal my ex-servant’s cheeks turning slightly red even as he shook the other man’s hand and nodded to the kisses thrown his way by the girls. However, my curiosity would have to be curbed because time was a-wasting and we had to leave before the sun rose higher.


“Ready, Haku?” I called out, with a gentle nudge of my horse’s side to signal that it was time to go.


“Ready, Sasuke-sama. Goodbye everyone, and be safe!”


We waved in departure and I was careful not to stare at my brother for too long as if hoping to memorize his features for the last time. I gripped the reigns and grit my teeth, convincing myself that I would definitely see them again. I wasn’t walking into a suicide mission and they were going to be able to take care of themselves. This had to succeed, no matter how dangerous it appeared to be.


As for Haku, it was almost strange to see him dressed in the way he used to while we lived in Byaku-Shinkyou. The cold weather didn’t seem to bother him much as he was content with only a thick turtleneck sweater beneath his yukata. The bun on top of his head was wrapped in that familiar cloth, while twin ponytails fell down the side of his face, only held back by a headband wrapped around his head. He must have finally realized I was studying him in silence, for he blushed and bowed his head slightly as if acknowledging my presence.


I opened my mouth to ask him if he was all right, but the sudden BOOM to ricochet off the mountains behind us, had him gasping and the horses neighing in frightened protest.


“Whoa there...steady...” I cajoled my ride gently. “Nothing to be afraid of...”


I could feel my heart drumming loudly in my chest as I nodded and urged Haku and our horses to keep moving forward.


There were several more quick successions of this thunderous sound, and my first concern was that this could cause an avalanche especially since we were still mid-way down the mountainous terrain. I knew the explosions and rapid gunfire wasn’t coming from our camp, but the mountains further south where Kurobachi and Ibiki’s troops were to engage in combat with Orochimaru’s forces.


My feverish prayer was that the other three remaining daimyōs would see reason and send the back up we desperately needed. In the meantime, our task was to make it to Byaku-Shinkyou safely without drawing any attention to ourselves. It was highly plausible that Orochimaru had spies just waiting in the wings to attack us at a moment’s notice.


By mid-day, Haku and I finally made it to the bottom, where I suggested we take a quick break to nourish ourselves and hash out a battle plan in case of an emergency. We found a flowing brook...or it would have been if half of it wasn’t frozen solid. Still, Haku was able to prepare a quick meal of grilled fish that tasted heavenly all things considered.


As I ate – I noticed he didn’t eat much – he dug out his weapons from the leather pouch which had been draped around his neck and shoulders. In it were several throwing knives, many of them sharpened to the point that they literally shone beneath the cold sun. He withdrew a small vial, and I recognized it as the object Sasori had given him earlier.


“Poison?” I queried.


He nodded with a sheepish expression on his visage. “Sasori-san suggested I use this. He said it’s much stronger than the ones I’ve been using in the past.” Methodically, he began to coat the blades with the clear liquid, being sure not to get any on his fingers in the process.


“Why don’t you test to see just how effective it is?” I prodded, more than curious to see if this worked.


Haku looked up. “Right now?”


“Sure.” I shrugged lightly. “Why not?” I pointed to a dying tree across the brook where a squirrel sat on its highest branch nibbling on something. “Your target.”


And I swear before I was even done saying the word, the poor beast was already plummeting to earth with a dull thud. Haku and I jogged over to the dead creature, where the thick snow was already trying to suck it in. His throwing knife was embedded within its stomach, and in addition to the growing pool of bright red blood mingling with the white, there was a sickly purple bruise forming around the area of the stab wound. Haku withdrew the knife, and what we saw was enough to have us grimacing. It was effective all right, so effective that the poison was literally eroding away the animal’s intestines right before our eyes.


“Damn,” I whistled in appreciation. “What kind of poison is that? Did he tell you?”


Haku wiped his knife on the snow, his expression one that was difficult to decipher. At best, I would consider it consternation and worry, and it didn’t take a genius to understand why he was feeling this way.


“It’s inevitable, Haku,” I finally said quietly. “And I realize that you probably still harbor loyal feelings to him, but you have to remember...he tried to kill you.”


“I know that, Sasuke-sama,” he whispered. “I know that all too well.”


Not surprisingly, the heavens decided to open up and the first few flakes of snow began to trickle down to earth gently. The good news, it would be a protective cloak against possible enemies. The bad news? The journey was going to be considerably slower thanks to more snow accumulating. It was difficult enough already getting the horses to move as fast as we’d like. Either way, we had no more time to spare. If we hoped to reach Byaku-Shinkyou by nightfall, we had to be back on the road.


I looked down at the still kneeling figure, who was now burying the squirrel within the snow, and felt my heart swell with compassion for him.


(a gentle ironic)


I reached out to pat his head tenderly, biting my lower lip hard at the tear-filled yet stubbornly determined look he gave me in return.


“Come on,” I finally ordered with a small smile. “It’s time to go.”


He sniffled and took a deep breath before rising to his feet. “Yes...Sasuke-sama.”


It took us less than five minutes to clear our camp site and load up our horses again, and as we continued our journey – with both of us silent and lost in our thoughts – we could still hear the faint cacophony of battle behind us; a sharp and almost poignant contradiction to the peaceful hamlet we were trotting by.


None of these innocent people would understand just what was at stake or how many lives would be lost to maintain the freedom they so richly deserved, and it was my sworn oath and duty to make sure they never did.





There are times when we must fight from the shadows to protect the ones we love. To take the bullet or to live by the sword, it matters not what road you choose. To wear the mon of the Uchiha clan is to declare a willingness to lay down your life at a moment’s notice. There should be no doubts nor fears nor hindrances to completing one’s missions. For never forget who you are and where you come from.

-       Uchiha Madara

(The Hidden Scrolls)  





Chapter 40

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