October 17, Yondaime Year 5
Sunagakure was a city in a hole.
It was a big hole. If Suna had a tourist agency instead of a lot of very grumpy guards, they’d probably advertise it as a fortified valley, with sheer rock cliffs protecting the city on all sides. Buildings crouched in the deep shade like pale, armored creatures trying to outlast the sun. Entrance and egress was limited to a single cleft between two giant slabs of stone, which permitted enough space for a narrow road.
Come for the heat, stay for the rock dust.
Hauling in supplies had to be a nightmare. Kakashi guessed there were tunnels beneath the city, for cold storage and easier access, otherwise he didn’t see how things could function. Konoha had never been able to map an entrance, though.
In theory, a single ninja could scale down a cliff-face and infiltrate the village. Maybe even a small group of ninja, if they were well-coordinated. Kakashi hadn’t seen obvious defenders on his initial wide circuit, but the hair on the back of his neck had gone up a mile out from the village, and some purely animal instinct said: don’t try that.
He trusted that instinct.
He went to the main entrance.
There was a thin trickle of travellers on the road. Most seemed to be civilians. Small, sun-bronzed children chasing herds of rawboned goats, whose trail-leavings made the footing treacherous for the unwary. An old woman driving an ox-cart piled with burlap sacks of root vegetables; Kakashi stepped sharply aside to avoid the animal’s long, lethal horns. A group of weary ninja returning home, who nevertheless gave him a long, hard look.
The gate-check was commanded by a slim, older woman who stared narrowly at Kakashi for several silent moments, before she held out a hand for his paperwork.
He handed it over. It was all legitimate.
She read it. If she thought anything, it was not apparent in the fixed line of her jaw. Eventually, she grunted and said, “Wait here.”
She took the papers with her. Kakashi waited. A bead of sweat slid down his spine, which itched. Behind him, civilians grumbled. Another Suna guard stepped forward — a young man this time — who waved Kakashi to stand to one side, and beckoned the next person forward.
Kakashi eased gratefully into a patch of shade. He was wearing the summer version of Jounin blues, designed for the hottest weather: lightweight material; long sleeves to protect his skin; the most stripped-down version of a flak-vest, which was primarily mesh, straps, and armored plating, with as much of the tough canvas removed as the designer could get away with. Over everything was a thin cloak that wasn’t quite green or tan, but something in between, with the hood pulled up to shield his head. He was still too warm, but at least he wasn’t fried to a crisp.
Eventually, the woman returned. She brought more guards with her. Kakashi tensed slightly, without showing it, but she merely said, “You will be escorted to the palace.”
The guards — there were six of them, which Kakashi found a bit flattering — bowed in unison. Surprised, Kakashi only hesitated a second before bowing back.
“And you will be searched,” the first woman added.
Kakashi glanced around at the open road. “Here?”
He hadn’t actually protested, but the guards shifted in a way that led to a general highlighting of musculature and height. As a rule, Suna people tended to be taller, darker-skinned, and built on leaner lines, but the average Suna shinobi worked hard to stack muscle on top of that.
Idly, as he kept his hands still and away from his weapons, Kakashi wondered if Ryouma had any Suna ancestry in him.
“Indoors,” said the woman curtly, gesturing to the small, white, mud-brick building that served as a guard house. “You will not fight.”
Kakashi did not fight, though he did get a bit ironic when they ordered him to take his boots off. The search was mostly a comprehensive pat down and a catalogue of weapons and scrolls, which took a while. If he’d been part of an actual diplomatic envoy, with terms negotiated on and agreed between the Kazekage and the Hokage, he would have carried additional, fancier papers that precluded such an invasion, as well as a phalanx of retainers to make outraged squawks at need. But the visiting son of a diplomat, travelling alone and without political agenda, was a footnote. So he had to take his shirt off.
The ANBU tattoo drew a moment of pause. As, a beat later, did the almost complete lack of scars.
He was not asked to remove his pants, his mask, or his hitai-ate, which he thought might have been a polite concession to his mother, rather than strict protocol. In their place, he would have ordered a shinobi to strip down to their skin and brought in a Hyuuga to glare at their internal organs.
Since he hadn’t hidden a siege weapon in his armpit, or brought a scroll labeled ‘Poison, use with Kazekage only’, he was permitted to get back into his clothes, which celebrated the reunion by gluing themselves sweatily to his skin. Weaponry was a more delicate task. The commanding guard clearly wanted to confiscate every piece of the small armory that had been organized in neat lines on the table, but Kakashi had offered no threat, and Konoha and Suna were not at war. Kakashi, not envying her position but also not caring to make it any easier, stood at a relaxed sort of parade rest and regarded the wall as if it fascinated him.
Finally, she took one ceremonial kunai, making it clear that she could have taken everything, if she’d cared to, and let him have the rest back.
He put everything back in its place, tucking the Hiraishin kunai that he’d henge’d to look like an ordinary kunai into the small of his back, and was profoundly thankful she hadn’t chosen that one. He could have Sharingan’d all seven guards to effect a swap, but it would have cost him.
After that, his escort to the palace was uneventful.
Suna, observed from street level, had a dusty kind of beauty that Genma would probably appreciate. Its buildings were the color of ancient bone, worn smooth by wind and sand and time. He’d thought they were carved stone, once, before he’d learned that Suna used a method of compacting damp earth, lime, and animal blood to make solid walls thicker than the length of his arm. Most of the buildings were round, two or three stories tall, and set apart from their neighbors. The entire city was roughly circular, like someone had carved out the valley with a giant fist. The Kazekage’s palace stood at the exact center, looming above everything else. Eight thick roads fanned out from it like spokes, or sun’s rays, carving the city into eight triangular wedges. Each wedge was a district, filled with smaller neighborhoods, presided over by a founding family. The richest residents — the family members — lived at the center, closest to the palace. As you drew further out, the neighborhoods grew poorer, though nothing like Kirigakure’s haggard slums.
There wasn’t much green to draw the eye, but every now and then Kakashi saw a windowbox planted with succulents, or a doorway framed by small, gnarled trees with spiky leaves. Nothing like home, but a tiny welcome reprieve from the endless sea of beige and brown.
Not for the first time, he wondered how his mother survived here.
And then they reached the palace. His honor guard turned him over to the palace guard, a group of four expressionless men and women who regarded him with sharp eyes and the faintest lick of killing intent. A warning, he judged. He didn’t answer in kind, but he let a glance flick over them, taking in armor and weapons, stances and scars. Veterans, oh yes. He recognized Suna’s equivalent of ANBU.
In perfect unison, they bowed.
Ready for it this time, he bowed in return.
“If you would follow me,” rumbled one man. He had a thick, ropy scar across his throat that suggested a brief flirtation with decapitation.
Kakashi followed. The four guards spread out to flank him in a diamond: one to each side, one behind, the scar-throated man in front.
They didn’t ask him any questions. He hadn’t really expected them to.
Kakashi’s first impression of the palace was that the Kazekage had a lot of nice rugs. His second was that it was at least ten degrees cooler inside, which still meant it was miserably hot, but at least the sun wasn’t beating down directly on his skull.
He trailed his escort up several flights of stairs. More details presented themselves: fiddly bits of sculpture, brightly woven wall-hangings depicting scenes from history and legend, a frisson of chakra in the exterior wall that Kakashi bet his right hand was a nasty protection jutsu.
Konoha’s diplomatic office — and attached suites — were on the fourth floor. This, Kakashi understood, was something between a diplomatic concession and a pointed reminder: concession for Konoha’s preference to windows, moving air, and sunlight; reminder that the upper floors were significantly less temperature controlled than the more comfortable underground levels, where the Kazekage lived, so Konoha better remember they were guests here. Though the Kazekage supposedly had an upper level office that he preferred to work in, so there was at least some appreciation for lines of sight.
The scar-throated man paused at a heavy wooden door, which was flanked by two shinobi wearing the same uniform as Kakashi. A thin gold-plated plaque at eye-level simply said: Konohagakure. The scar-throated man knocked politely.
The Konoha guards looked at Kakashi curiously.
Kakashi thought, I am calm.
Surprisingly, this seemed to be true.
The door opened. A small, round-faced man blinked owlishly at them. “Souta-san? Is there a problem?”
The scar-throated man stepped to one side, revealing Kakashi.
Another blink. “Oh my,” said the new man. “I— Um. Hm. Yes. You’d better come in.”
Souta bowed shortly. “Ono-san. I leave him in your care.”
“Yes, yes, thank you,” said Ono, sounding flustered.
Kakashi’s escort melted silently away. Ono, who Kakashi had mentally labeled ‘bureaucrat’, stepped back and ushered Kakashi inside. The little man peered into the hallway as if he expected someone to pop up with a bomb, then hastily closed the door.
The room was something of a cross between an office and a living room. A dark wooden desk stood just inside the door, stacked with teetering piles of paperwork. Further in, someone had created a tranquil sitting area in Konoha’s traditional style. A wide tatami mat was spread in the center of the room: the thin kind that could be rolled up and easily transported. Atop it, a long, low table was surrounded by comfortable square cushions, currently unoccupied.
“Hatake-san—” Ono began, without preamble.
“Where is she?”
“Her rooms,” Ono said, gesturing at a door. “But Hatake-san, where are the rest?”
Kakashi looked at the door. “It’s just me.”
The little man’s voice was very small. “Oh.”
If there were additional questions, Kakashi didn’t hear them. He walked. Stood. Set his shoulders.
I am calm.
The door opened.
The first thing he saw was silver. Threads of it shot through dark, glossy hair, twisted back into a knot. Then lines, framing eyes and mouth. Flat mouth, tilted down at the corners. Dark eyes, below his eyeline now. Skin less pale than he remembered — not tan, she was always careful about her skin, but still a few shades darker.
The elements shimmered together, like water, and became his mother. She was staring at him, and he thought, maybe, that she was surprised. Or perhaps just deeply tired. She’d lost weight: he could see it in her cheeks.
“Kakashi,” she said.
He’d travelled six nights at a flat run and hadn’t known what he would say. Now, standing in front of her, he still didn’t. She looked at him, studying what she could see, and he heard himself say: “I got your letter.”
She reached up, a quick, sharp gesture that he managed not to flinch at. Her hand paused, hovering, and he stood still. Her fingertips settled on his jaw, on the mask, and she sighed. Still wearing this. Her hand dropped.
He’d expected that. He was distantly surprised to find that it still hurt.
You don’t want to see his face any more than I do.
Whatever she saw in him made her expression snap closed, everything folded inward and away, leaving a calm lake surface. “You’ve had a long journey,” she said. “And arrived sooner than I expected.”
Yes, he thought. There were lots of mountains. And canyons. And that valley with the snakes. Let’s not talk about that.
“I imagine you’d like a bath,” she said, and raised her voice a little. “Jun, would you show him where? And find him a room afterwards. Tsubasa’s, perhaps. She won’t be back for another month.”
Kakashi opened his mouth to say… something.
“We’ll speak at dinner,” said Hatake Sadayo.
And she closed the door in his face.
Kakashi regarded the wood grain for a long, long moment, and realized he had a pounding headache.
Ono took him down to the basement.
Halfway down, Kakashi said, “Uh?”
The little bureaucrat waved his concern away. “It’s worth it,” he said opaquely.
The air grew notably colder as they descended, to Kakashi’s private relief. Handmade construction gave way to natural stone, carved into deep steps.
It was interesting, he thought, that they didn’t pass anyone else. He could sense people flickering at the edge of his half-furled perceptions: four steady presences that were clearly his prior escort, staying politely back. A handful of others, variously well controlled.
The stairway hadn’t reached its end yet when Ono turned aside, taking Kakashi down a short hallway. More rugs. A broad wall-hanging that displayed an oasis Kakashi recognized: he’d spent one of his journey’s hottest days there, panting in the shade of a tiny grove of trees, waiting for night. A new set of wooden doors. How hard was it to get wood in Suna?
Ono pushed open the doors. The scent of water hit Kakashi in the face. A microsecond later, he registered the sound of splashing.
It was a natural cavern.
Ono led him inside, clearly proud to show it off. Flickering yellow light illuminated a wide space. The ceiling and walls had been left as natural rock, except where sconces had been carved to permit the placement of lanterns. The floor had been shaped by hand or nature, or a combination of both, into a series of pools. One was ringed in carved seals, and the air above it steamed. Most seemed shallow, but a few had water of such deep blue that Kakashi thought they’d probably go over his head.
Ryouma would have lost his mind.
“Huh,” Kakashi said at last.
Ono grinned at him. It was transformative on the little man, making his face lively and animated. “There are showers behind those curtains, to scrub up first. You’ll find soap, towels, razors, whatever you need. Do you have clean clothes?”
Kakashi nodded, eye still glancing over the surprising room. The floor was dry around each pool. “Are there more baths like this?”
“Oh yes.” Ono nodded vigorously. “The Kazekage and his family have their own, and another for this staff. This one is just for guests. You won’t be disturbed.”
And Kakashi had been ready to be pleased with just a bucket.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Ono said. “I trust you can find your own way back.”
Kakashi nodded again, and worked himself up to ask: “When—”
“The ambassador usually has dinner around eight PM,” Ono said smoothly. “I’ll have your room prepared before that, of course, if you wish to rest first. Just return to Konoha’s suites whenever you’re ready.”
On his way out, Ono paused at the doors. “I’m sure you’ve already been briefed, Hatake-san, but protocol requests that you don’t leave the palace without an escort. And of course the lower levels are strictly reserved for the Kazekage and his family.”
Not all of his family. Not right now.
Kakashi had been briefed. He acknowledged this with a short gesture. Ono didn’t quite sigh with relief, but some of the lines of his face eased. He bowed very slightly, just a dip of the head, and let himself out.
Kakashi went to get clean.
It took a while. His clothes were grimed with sweat and dust and just about ready to stand up by themselves. He tossed them onto the shower floor and sat on one of the little stools to scrub and sluice. It took a couple of tries before the suds stopped turning grey. His hair took longer, since it had been trying to smuggle a kilo of sand.
All things considered, his feet were in good shape: no black nails, no sloughing calluses. A few blisters he’d need to lance later, but not bad for over a thousand kilometers.
A jutsu pulled water out of his clothes, yanking the worst of the road-dirt with it. He sealed them — and the remaining smell — into a scroll, and considered his pool choices. Now that he was damp and chilling down, the heated option was most tempting, but a smart man iced his muscles after abusing them.
He slid into one of the deep blue pools, hissing as coldcoldcold slid up his ribs, and resolutely dunked himself.
It was deeper than he expected, blue going down into black. Smooth walls fading down into rougher stone, and finally into the shadow of a slender fissure. He broke the surface, gasping a tight breath into cold-constricted lungs, and muttered a few shivering curses before making himself duck down again. Definitely a fissure, maybe half of his own height. Too narrow to slip through, even if he were a much skinnier ninja.
He bobbed up with a convulsive shiver and floated virtuously, turning over idle thoughts.
Suna’s water sources were a closely guarded secret. Konoha’s prevailing theory was a deep aquifer beneath the village, in part because of letters from diplomats like his mother, but also because it was the only theory that made sense. A city this size needed a permanent, abundant, and above all reliable water source in order to survive the frankly insane landscape. One that couldn’t be easily poisoned or disabled by an invading force.
The more interesting question was whether Suna’s founders had stumbled across a natural miracle in the desert, or if they’d created one.
Kakashi considered the logistics of rerouting underground rivers until his toes went numb, which didn’t take long, and then pulled himself out of the pool.
He’d brought a set of formal clothes, just in case anyone wanted to parade him in front of dignitaries, but dinner with mother hardly counted. He threw on a clean jounin uniform, feeling righteously spiteful about it, and retraced his steps back to Konoha’s quarters. Ono greeted him with a smile and a clean room. Sadayo didn’t greet him at all.
The prospect of the immediate future would have made Kakashi feel tired, if the long journey hadn’t already accomplished that goal. The room had a bed. He went to get acquainted with it.
When he woke up, it was dark.
Absolute confusion cranked his heartrate for a few beats, before memory caught up and explained where he was and why it was freezing.
He shivered upright, groping for the blanket on which he’d fallen asleep. A light rap at the door made his hand pause.
“Yes?” he said, or tried to. His voice came out like a fistful of bone char. He needed to drink more water.
The door swung open. Sadayo stood on the other side, holding a covered plate and a glass. She said, “You need to drink more water.”
Kakashi said, “Good evening to you, too.”
The ghost of a wince crossed Sadayo’s face. For a fleeting second it removed the veneer of graceful calm and exposed something deeply awkward underneath. A second later there was just the calm, as if it had never been disturbed. She inclined her head at the room. “May I come in?”
Kakashi looked at her for a moment, wondering why she’d bothered to ask, and shrugged.
Besides the bed, which was a low platform designed to lift a pair of tatami mats about six inches off the floor, Tsubasa’s room boasted a short table that, judging by the ink stains, was primarily used as a writing desk. Sadayo set the plate and glass down on it, and settled on one of the scattered floor cushions. After a beat, Kakashi shifted off the bed to join her.
What followed was one of the most awkward silences of Kakashi’s life, which was already a long and distinguished list.
Sadayo drew a breath.
Kakashi cut across her. “The Ichibi’s seal is unstable.”
Sadayo’s teeth didn’t quite click together. She threw him a look that was pure smothered annoyance, confirming that he’d guessed right: she’d been about to attempt some kind of small talk. Which, in her hands, was more like vivisection.
So, world-threatening monsters. Much safer.
“So it seems,” she said.
Kakashi tapped his fingertips on the table. Her letters, by necessity, had been limited. “Explain more.”
Sadayo’s mouth thinned. The effect was something like a knife slash. “Rasa’s plan to seal the Ichibi in his unborn son was… ill-conceived from the start, not in the least because it killed his wife in the process. The boy is nearly three now and has lost control of the demon twice.”
Kakashi blinked. “He had control?”
“Of a sort. The details aren’t readily shared, of course, but the beast isn’t constantly on the rampage, so we can infer there are some mechanisms of control. The seal, I presume. Or, less likely, the natural aptitude of the child.” She looked pensive. “I’m told the demon intrudes on his dreams. I can’t imagine a lack of sleep helps the situation.”
“What happens when he loses control?”
“The Ichibi attacks the village.”
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow. “The three-year-old?”
“No, the demon emerges and attacks the village.” She said this very calmly.
Kakashi stared at her for a minute. “What?”
Sadayo described two events that made Kakashi feel cold all over. The Ichibi bursting out of the confines of its host’s tiny body, swelling into a creature taller than a building, laying waste to Suna with the dispassionate thoroughness of a war crime. Subdued only when the Kazekage laminated every speck of the demon’s sandstorm with gold particles—
“Sakin,” Sadayo said. “Magnetized gold dust. It’s a kekkei genkai.”
“Of course it is.”
“It works because gold is denser than sand, which restricts the Ichibi’s abilities of manipulation.”
“Of course it does.”
Sadayo frowned at him, obviously not appreciating his tone. Kakashi ignored that.
“Is the Kazekage notably stronger than the Hokage?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“Of course not.” The curl of lip was purely for Kakashi’s benefit. Sadayo would never have shown it outside this room.
Kakashi balanced his chin on his hand. “And yet, subduing the Kyuubi just once nearly killed Minato. So — is the Ichibi weaker than the Kyuubi?”
“Not historically.” Her eyes narrowed. “The loss of life was much greater in Konoha. Suna has been… fortunate.”
That was one word for colossally stupid.
“The seal probably is the main factor,” Kakashi said. “It’s still anchoring the Ichibi to its host, clearly, and a three-year-old—”
She hadn’t said that to drive home the point that the boy was young, and that was sad, but because his exact age was a critical piece. Kakashi tilted his head, looking at Sadayo’s closed face, and saw only ice and steel. In her mouth, the Kazekage’s son was a puzzle piece.
Kakashi felt his own mouth tighten, and made a conscious decision not to examine why.
“A nearly three-year-old is going to be a significant pinch point for whatever amount of energy the Ichibi is trying to shove through into our world.” Kakashi leaned back against the bedframe. It dug into his spine. “Suna’s lucky the kid didn’t just burst and splash demon everywhere, especially the second time. I’d need to look at his seal— better, Minato and Jiriaya should look at the seal, but since the Kazekage’s keeping up his habits of inter-village cooperation…” Kakashi paused to sneer. “The problem’s most likely either the kid or the seal, maybe both. If it’s the kid, it might not even be possible to fix.”
Sadayo’s face was entirely blank. “And if it’s the seal?”
“Well,” Kakashi said. “I spent three days memorizing everything Minato-sensei thought might be useful. But that means nothing if I can’t get near it.”
“I’m aware,” she said.
Awkward Silence the Second introduced itself to the room and hung around for a few minutes, investigating the bookshelf.
Sadayo sighed. “I’m working on it,” she said. “The Kazekage is…”
“An idiot,” Kakashi supplied.
“Proud. And trying to protect his village, even if he’s using methods we don’t necessarily agree with.”
Like using neonates for demon canning jars? Kushina had been young when she’d inherited the Kyuubi, but young like shinobi were young, which at least meant old enough to talk.
“We may need to kill his son,” Kakashi said.
This time, Sadayo was the one to tilt her head. She looked at him across the ink-stained table, showing nothing on that cold diplomat’s face. Not for the first time, Kakashi thought her issue with his mask was that he simply hadn’t gone far enough and slid it under his skin, layering glass over top.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “If all other efforts fail. But not without a scapegoat.”
Potentially costly to engineer, but not impossible.
At least they were on the same page. When it came to missions, they usually were.
“You should eat,” Sadayo said, with the abrupt shift of focus that Kakashi was used to. He glanced at the covered plate. Beads of condensation gathered on the lid.
“I will,” he said.
He’d been invited to dinner, but had clearly slept through it. After her version of a welcome, he couldn’t quite bring himself to reverse-engineer the invitation. She’d already eaten anyway.
She took the cue and rose to her feet. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“I’m sure,” he said.
“My guards usually train in the morning,” she added, when she was a step away from the door. “I’m sure you’d be welcome.”
That seemed unusually optimistic. His brow creased, but he managed, “Good to know.”
She nodded, lingered a second more, and let herself out.
For the second time today, Kakashi found himself staring at a door his mother had closed and wondering: what was that?
Two more blankets were insufficient that night.
He missed Ryouma.
He was invited to morning training. Not from a wellspring of human kindness and hospitality, but because they wanted to grill him on his mother. He couldn’t really blame them.
He didn’t indulge them, but he did enjoy a quick, vicious spar with the most outspoken one: a jounin with light blue hair and dusty freckles. When the man had finished extracting himself from a sand dune and spitting grit, Kakashi offered: “Want to see that last move again?”
It was one of Raidou’s. Kakashi didn’t think the captain would mind sharing.
The man grinned at him, a quick slash of white teeth, and dropped into a ready crouch. On the sidelines, one of his teammates whooped.
Kakashi won the next two, despite the rising sun, and bowed out of the third before heatstroke toppled him over.
Ten days passed in strange idleness. He saw his mother maybe once a day, if he was lucky, and she brought only bad news. The Kazekage ignored his advisors. The Kazekage would not tolerate interference. The Kazekage said no.
The Kazekage was becoming very displeased with Konoha’s presence.
That last tidbit meant Kakashi’s palace access was abruptly restricted to Konoha’s quarters, and Sadayo looked like she had a snarling headache for three days. He spent the time reading the few books on Suna’s fuuinjutsu that she had been able to find for him, scrawling chalk theories on the wall, and wondering what his team were up to.
Two days later, just before sunset, the Ichibi broke loose again.
Kakashi felt the chakra first. It hit his whole body, noise so loud it hurt. For a fractured second it was Iebara again – hooks in every blood vessel, ripping him in half. Then he got ahold of the edge and understood: killing intent, as big as a city.
Later, he’d wonder why he hadn’t thought of the Kyuubi, why his hindbrain had tangled on human madness, but in the moment there was the distraction of buildings starting to fall.
He wiped the chalk off the walls with one thoughtless jutsu, threw on his jounin vest, and left his room. People were already clustering in the main area: Ono, white-faced; the guards, armored and tense; Sadayo in the center, a still lake of calm. She didn’t have to call for silence; they were all focused on her like— well, trained shinobi.
“We’ve done this before,” she said. “Stay together, move quickly. Follow the evacuation route. If anyone is separated, you know where we’re going. If anyone falls behind, we do not go back for them.”
A thunderous crash made the floor shake. A wall-hanging broke from its tie and fell off the wall.
The group moved with professional synchrony, folding Ono within its ranks where the little man couldn’t get lost. At the door, Sadayo glanced back at Kakashi. He met her eyes and gave the tiniest shake of his head.
Her expression didn’t change. He hadn’t expected it to.
“Don’t get in the Kage’s way,” she said, and left with her people.
Kakashi rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and wrapped his chakra so close to his bones that it made his skin tingle. His presence, habitually muted, reduced to an ember. He pulled off his hitai-ate, blinked twice as the Sharingan yanked the world into a different kind of focus, and slipped out of the door. He went the opposite way to his mother’s group, searching for the closest window.
Outside, the air choked on sand.
The palace roof might have been a good vantage point, but it was already swarming with shinobi. Moving between them with long, angry strides was a white-hatted figure.
Kakashi ghosted to a nearby rooftop, taking advantage of the shadows and muddy visibility. He was taking a risk, and not just because of the Ichibi. A foreign shinobi moving through the city now was— frankly, stupid. At best, they’d capture him. More likely, they’d kill him on sight.
I don’t know, Minato, it seemed like a good moment to cause an international incident. Mom says hi.
Two streets over, way too close, a boiling sandcloud split apart and he caught a glimpse of a hulking shoulder. The hazy shape of a low-slung, brutish head. The Sharingan was a migraine in Kakashi’s skull, trying to catch and translate details in that avalanche of chakra. There were dark spots—chains—?
The short, wide muzzle swung, sniffing the air.
Focused on the palace.
The demon moved forward, casually backhanding a building out of the way with one massive paw. Sand peeled away and reformed in a constant colossal reshaping, sometimes obscuring, sometimes framing, and Kakashi got his first good look at the Ichibi.
It wasn’t like the Kyuubi, exaggeratedly lean and lethal, more like a splintered blade made out of fire than a fox. The Ichibi looked like a child had pressed wet clay into the rough shape of a tanuki, making something bulbous and clumsy. Its muzzle split into a snarl and it… did not look right. There weren’t separate lips and gums and teeth: it was all one weird construction, jagged triangles formed of the creature’s face, fitting together like a bear trap.
On the demon’s brow, right between its yellow eyes, was a small boy. He was half-buried in the Ichibi’s flesh, wearing the ragged remains of pajamas, utterly limp. Kakashi saw red hair, lax hands, and, with the Sharingan, the distant chains of chakra twisting from the boy’s navel to the creature’s head. Then the sand slammed closed again.
The Ichibi hurled itself at the palace.
The Kage leapt from the rooftop, hands bright with chakra. He ran on flat discs of sand suspended in the air, and pulled a waterfall of golden light up behind him. It was an immense amount of energy, but nothing Minato couldn’t have achieved. Kakashi narrowed his eyes, dissecting the jutsu, but it was pointless beyond an exercise of interest. Kekkei Genkai. A bloodline the Sharingan could memorize and Kakashi could never use.
The demon and the Kazekage met with a thunderclap of wind and sound that blew yet another building flat, despite the Kage’s best attempts to divert it. The Ichibi roared, staggering back, and struck again.
Fate lines criss-crossed in the Sharingan and Kakashi leapt hurriedly to the next rooftop, landing a second before a rope of sand smashed his previous roost in half.
The next blow didn’t come.
In the air, strands of sand hung frozen, slowly twisting together as gold frosted over them. The Ichibi howled with fury, but gold was creeping up its stocky legs and over the massive belly, encasing it in a fragile cage. At first, Kakashi still couldn’t see how that would hold it — a coating of gold leaf wouldn’t stop Naruto — but the Sharingan showed him what was happening underneath. Thin golden tendrils wormed into the Ichibi’s lumpy, naked flesh and worked down, wrapping around deeper chakra structures that connected back to the seal.
Very, very carefully, Kakashi eased closer.
It was… an odd technique. Not quite fully chakra or fully material, but some amalgamation of both. Kakashi couldn’t tell yet whether it was a function of the seal, or of the relationship between father and son, that allowed the Kage to do this, but it seemed to be working. The Ichibi’s flesh roiled. On its forehead, the boy jerked and moaned.
Gold seeped over the Ichibi’s chest, up the back of its head. It screamed — an animal sound, magnified by massive lungs into an unearthly shriek that made Kakashi’s skull judder. He clapped hands over his ears, but didn’t close his eyes. Gold wrapped the beast’s muzzle, cementing its mouth closed, and flowed up the bridge of its nose, covering its eyes, until the only ungilded thing left was the boy.
For a moment, there was perfect stillness.
Gaara opened his eyes, stared at the red sky, and burst into tears.
Beneath him, the demon crumbled.
It happened so fast, Kakashi almost lost the moment when the seal snapped closed. Gaara, suddenly unsupported in thin air, fell. The Kazekage caught him, and Gaara tried to cling to him.
The Kazekage landed on a rooftop, stumbling slightly. He shoved the boy into the arms of a slim, blond man, who gathered him close and darted away, taking him speedily over broken rooftops towards the edge of the city.
Yashamaru, Kakashi knew, from conversations with Ono. Gaara’s uncle and keeper. Responsible for keeping him safe and hidden somewhere outside the city.
A job that was going well, clearly.
Kakashi blinked a few times, unspooling Sharingan-memories. Confirming he had caught the exact instant when the seal had swallowed the Ichibi back down. Chakra flares turned parts of the image blue-white-black but— yes, there. Good.
Softly, but quite precisely, someone cleared their throat behind him.
Kakashi turned and found himself eye-to-brim with a white hat.
“Kazekage-sama,” he said, holding his hands loose, open, and very still at his sides. “This is… not what it looks like?”
“I certainly hope not,” said Suna’s Yondaime. “Konoha is usually smarter than this.”
Kakashi glanced aside at the remains of the first building he’d perched on, considered a few responses, and decided on one that wasn’t: you’re a fucking idiot.
“I’m here to help,” he said.
The Kazekage gave him a long, long look. “Are you?”
Suna actually had quite a nice dungeon, all things considered. Cool, dry, relatively hygienic. No roommates. Somewhat lacking in a view, since they were several dozen meters under the palace, but big enough for him to stretch without hitting all four walls at once.
The bed was a slab of rock, but someone had placed a thin futon on top. Kakashi reclined on it, feeling slightly queasy from the anti-chakra seals, and considered his options.
- Wait to see what happened next.
- See option one.
Yep. He just wished they hadn’t confiscated everything except his underpinnings. Now would have been a perfect moment for Icha Icha.
The anti-chakra seals did unpleasant things when he tried to use the Sharingan, so he stopped. His own memory offered enough threads to pick at, for now. Why was the Ichibi able to escape when Gaara was asleep? Why did waking the boy re-chain the beast? Kushina had never had problems like this. Was it a function of sealing the Ichibi into an unborn baby? Most Jinchuriki were at least ten…
How had they crammed an entire tailed beast into a baby and only killed the mother?
Why had no one come by to interrogate him?
After two days he’d gotten more sleep than he ever needed again, and he was climbing the walls.
On the third day, Sadayo finally showed up. She looked at him for a long moment. Since he was currently upside down, with his head hanging off the bed, the effect was slightly diminished.
“Iwa is planning an attack,” she said shortly. “Your team just showed up.”
Kakashi sat up so fast he gave himself a headrush. “What?”
“We’re invited to a meeting with the Kazekage. You should have a bath first.”
The guard hovering politely behind her shoulder stepped forward to unlock Kakashi’s cell. Sadayo turned and walked away, not waiting for him. Still angry at him, then.
Kakashi twisted off the bed, landing gracelessly without the automatic world-awareness of chakra to right him, and hurried after her. The moment he passed through the door, chakra-sense blossomed back under his skin. It was the same relief of a knotted muscle finally unlocking: something returning to its place.
“An attack against who?” he asked, when he caught up. “Us or Suna?”
“Suna,” she said. “First.”