Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine)

Konoha is cold and wet and irritating. And maybe that is why its people are so damn annoying. Growing up in this sort of environment would make anyone miserable, and miserable people were miserable to deal with. The last time Temari had set foot in Konoha, it hadn't been quite so depressing. Colder than Wind Country, yes, but not this downpour that had been going on ever since she'd arrived.

"It's a drag for sure." The Nara, Shikamaru, was one of the only people Temari found remotely agreeable in this country, and even he was tiresome in his own way. "It never rains this much here. My mom keeps saying it's those people from Rain that dragged it in."

"Wouldn't doubt it." Temari replied. "They say it's always raining in Ame."

"Probably just rumor. The land would flood if it rained this much all the time."

"There's always rumor coming from there. They call the Amekage an 'Angel of God'."

Shikamaru frowned. "Are all Kage that full of themselves?"

"I'm a Kage too, in case you forgot."

"Point stands." Shikamaru's frown turned into a tiny smirk. Temari couldn't help but smirk back in reply. The boy had grown some guts, at least, since the last time she'd seen him, and he was more than willing to participate in some of the harsher banter that she was used to dealing with in Suna.

(She'd made Danzo promise, when the dust had settled, that he'd leave the Nara boy alive.)

Shikamaru was an escort, her escort specifically while she stayed in Konoha. Konoha wasn't foolish enough to let foreigners walk around freely, not after the last exam had led to such a devastating invasion. Temari felt a small pang of guilt knowing what was to come. Konoha was prepared enough to deal with foreign invasion when it was united, but it was nowhere near prepared enough for a schism from within. Danzo had been counting on that.

In that regard, she was glad Shikamaru had been promoted to chuunin. If he wasn't in the exams, no risk of harm.

Too attached, Temari told herself. At the end of the day he's just another Konoha soldier. Another potential enemy.

Shikamaru left her and her bodyguards' sides once she arrived at the small building that had been reserved for her people. There were several genin teams all staying in their own quarters; a show, for the most part, as it wouldn't particularly matter who did well in the exams and who didn't. But more importantly than the genin team were several of her village elders, who were as of now gathered in a small room, huddled around several scrolls. They had come on the premise of 'wanting to watch their village thrive in the exams', but really they were here for a more secret purpose.

One of them, an older woman by the name of Chiyo, looked to Temari expectantly as she joined them. "It is nearly done." She announced as she funneled chakra into the scroll. "If Danzo's people can't figure out the rest from here, then they deserve to fail."

"Is it really so simple?" Temari questioned, kneeling down to example the sealwork being written by another elder. "I had thought Shukaku's seal was meant to prevent precisely this from happening."

"Don't insult me, you young brat. I was the one who crafted the seal to begin with. If there is anyone alive who can make this happen, it is me."

"...yes, I suppose that is true." Temari couldn't stop a small pang of worry from sounding in her own voice. What this would do...Temari had never been one to hesitate when it came to war, and considering that they had intended for similar consequences to occur the last time they invaded, she shouldn't have felt worried at all. But this time was different. Gaara was not with them. Once these scrolls were activated, Gaara wouldn't be…

But who was she to talk? She and Gaara had never been close. Temari forced herself to think of the Gaara of her childhood, the one who revelled in killing and bloodshed, the one who was as much a monster outside as he was inside.

Remembering that always helped steel her resolve towards him.

Tomorrow would be a big day, and Temari needed rest.

She made her way to her bedroom, where she was grateful to be allowed some time to herself. Not completely alone, of course, not ever; her bodyguards were just outside and Danzo had assured her his agents would always watch for threats outside. But she was Kage now, which meant she'd probably never really be truly alone ever again. Suna refused to let another Orochimaru incident occur. No matter how strong she became, Temari would never stop looking over her shoulder, and neither would the rest of Suna.

She refused to dress down in a foreign country; her clothes were as much armor as they were a statement of proper Suna fashion, and she would be a fool to remove protection. So as she made her way to her bed, she simply laid herself down on top of the covers, not caring if her shoes dirtied the pristine Konoha sheets.

She laid her fan against the bed before leaning back and closing her eyes.

She got all of five minutes of rest before energy appeared, energy that was dark and familiar and terrifying all in one. Danzo's agents apparently weren't completely good enough to stop a Jinchuuriki from coming through her bedroom window. Temari wasn't surprised. Gaara was, still was, the strongest shinobi she knew.

"Temari."

"Gaara."

She opened her eyes and sat up, not wanting to appear weak in front of her brother who was now the enemy. Temari pushed down her emotions and put on a face of discontent.

"I don't think your pretty little friend will fare well if everyone hears her pet is breaking into the Kazekage's room."

"I want to talk, Temari."

"Fantastic." Temari rolled her eyes. "You're a few months late to a talk, but I'm sure we can fix Suna's problems with a friendly chat between siblings."

"You're angry."

"Obviously! You left us, took our village's strongest weapon with you, and then went and spearheaded a coup at our northern borders! All because little miss Haruno batted her eyes and pretended to be your friend, now Suna is weakened, and it's only a matter of time before Plains or Grass start pushing at our defenses and seeing how much they can take!"

"Plains had formed before Sakura and I arrived there." Gaara retorted. "Father was dead. Our numbers thinned. Me leaving changed none of that."

"That doesn't change the fact that-"

"You don't want to be Kazekage."

Temari blinked in shock as Gaara spoke over her. "You never wanted to be Kazekage." Gaara continued. "You saw what it did to Father. Did to our family. You wanted to raise a family without worrying about them being used for Suna's purpose. Kankuro too. None of us. I remember what you said back then. Even then, I listened."

"What does it matter?" Temari replied. "We needed a Kage. Someone had to step up."

"Offer the title to Satomi."

"What, the Plains girl?" Temari hissed. "She's a rebel."

"She leads the rebels. If she's Kazekage, the rebels rejoin Suna. There would be no more Plains."

"Don't think you can manipulate me. You want Satomi in charge because then Suna would go along with your little pact."

"No."

"Don't lie to me."

"You're my sister."

And then Gaara looked at her, only it was a different look than Temari had ever seen on the boy's face before. He was pleading with her, she could see the begging in his eyes, the desperation. So much emotion all at once, so much that Temari thought she might be hallucinating. Gaara had never shown this much dedication or resolve, this much passion for something.

(Temari wondered if maybe, just maybe, it was Suna that had been holding him back.)

"You're my sister." Gaara repeated. "Maybe we've never held any love for each other, but I would rather not turn against my family. I've...already done that once."

Temari remembered their uncle, Yashamaru, founded crushed and bloodied on a rooftop. Father had claimed Yashamaru had been sent to test Gaara's mastery over Shukaku. She didn't know what that test had been, only that she had lost an uncle. Gaara had went cold ever since that day, cold and brutal and savage.

But now, when she looked at Gaara, she saw only regret.

This brought anger to the forefront of her mind. Now Gaara chose to have regrets, now when it was so damned inconvenient for everyone?

(She didn't have an uncle because of him. She didn't have a mother because of him.)

"Please, Temari. Suna won't suffer if you listen to Sakura. If everyone is being held to an agreement, Suna won't need Shukaku, and-"

"Get out." Temari whispered. "Gaara, just...get out."

She couldn't deal with it. The emotional whiplash. Seeing Gaara so secure in himself now, feeling herself so insecure.

He could break any moment, Chiyo had told her. Shukaku loves worming his way into people's minds and tearing them apart from the inside. How long before he turns on the Haruno girl and brings everything to dust around him?

"Temari…"

He was a monster, Temari reminded herself. A monster who had learned how to smile. A monster who was learning empathy.

He killed their mother and uncle. And now she was going to kill her brother.

"It's too late." She insisted with a shake of her head. "I'm sorry, Gaara, but it's too late."

"It wasn't too late for me."

Their eyes met and lingered for a moment, silence falling over the room. Then, in a small flurry of sand, Gaara was gone.

Temari didn't know how much time passed before she found the will to push herself to her feet. She burst through the door of her room, running down the stairs and pulling open the door to the elders' quarters with a huff.

"Lady Temari?" One of the elders looked to her in confusion. "What's the matter?"

"The scrolls-"

"We just passed them over to Lord Danzo." Chiyo confirmed. "I told you not to worry, child. Everything is in place now."

Temari felt the air around her grow cold. Wordlessly, she returned to her room.

It was too late.

It was too late.


Rule number twenty five of the shinobi code: a shinobi must never show their tears.

Thankfully, in this heavy downpour of rain, there was nobody around to notice.

It was only after being away from Konoha for so long that Kakashi realized just how ingrained this habit of his was, visiting the memorial stone upon which Rin and Obito's names were engraved. During his time in Iwa, he often found himself wandering in search of it, only to turn up lost somewhere deep within the village. It garnered a bit of negative attention at first, but Kakashi managed to turn it around and give everyone the impression that he simply liked to wander. (Though he noticed rather quickly that there was nowhere in Iwa that he went without hidden escort.) During those wanderings, Kakashi came across countless other memorial stones, and it sunk in then just how many shinobi had died during the last war, many of which had been killed at the hands of himself and his sensei. It had been admittedly sobering, and since he did not have his home's memorial to spend time with, Kakashi ended up spending time with Iwa's memorials instead. He read the names, over and over again until he could recite many of them in his sleep. Names of shinobi who had been like Rin and Obito. Shinobi who were like Sakura.

(Kakashi hadn't been invested in Sakura's neutrality pact before then. But standing in front of the Iwa memorial stones then...that had been the push.)

And now he was home and routine came back to him as easily as breathing. His companions weren't buried here of course; it was merely a memorial. Rin had been given over to her family, and Obito…

They never found the body.

Sakura had come to him time and time again with her thoughts and theories about the Kyuubi attack fourteen years prior. She was stuck on one particular thought involved Uchiha Madara. (They never found the body, did they?) Eyes could be transferred; Kakashi was the proof. Was someone walking around with Madara's Sharingan? Or perhaps, even less likely of course, was Madara alive after all this time, walking around, scheming?

They never found Obito's body.

But Obito's body had been crushed, there was no possible way anyone could have retrieved Obito from there, let alone an intact Sharingan. It was far more likely that someone was walking around with Madara's eyes, as far fetched of a concept as that sounded. But the thought tugged and nagged at Kakashi's mind, even if it was just the sinking realization that, for all his posturing and all his mourning, he never went back to retrieve Obito's body.

Another thing he'd missed. Another failure.

Sakura was participating in the chuunin exams now. It was impossible to miss that news. The Kage meeting had gone poorly, that much was clear, but she had been given an opportunity to prove herself. She'd trained under the Tsuchikage, fought off Itachi Uchiha, so why was Kakashi so damn worried?

Something was wrong. Things weren't adding up. There was something going on behind the scenes, something he'd missed. Something they'd all been missing.

...or maybe he was just a paranoid wreck.

But it was the paranoia that had kept him alive all these years.

Paranoia and...a secret.

Kakashi lifted up his headband, exposing his Sharingan eye to the wind and rain. The Sharingan was always active; maybe it was a result of being implanted, or maybe he'd just never figured out how to turn it off. It was a constant strain on his chakra, but as a result his chakra reserves had grown to match, until now it was barely a trickle on his energy. He squinted through the rain until he spotted an errant branch on a tree nearby, with one or two leaves haphazardly grown into its wood. Then...Kakashi focused. It was different than using the Sharingan to copy. It required flexing his eye in a way he wasn't sure anyone else could flex. He felt something in his eye move, and then, all at once, it happened.

The space around the branch warped and pulled, sucking in the branch and leaves until it cut off the tree with a 'snap' and disappeared.

Kakashi stop flexing and took a deep breath. That pulled on his chakra reserves, as much as an A-rank jutsu would, and it sometimes hurt to do. Today, there was no pain, only exhaustion. The portal had been too small to cause pain.

He wasn't sure how he'd learned this ability. He'd never seen Sasuke use it, though not for lack of watching and prodding, and his one lead, Itachi, had never used such an ability either. But Kakashi remembered facing Itachi that day, seeing the tomoe in his eyes spin and lock together into an entirely different shape. A different Sharingan. A more powerful one.

Madara, Sakura had told him, had been capable of controlling the Kyuubi with his eyes. A feat no other Uchiha had replicated.

But Itachi had unlocked an ability that had never been registered in Konoha's database of Sharingan knowledge, that strange 'Tsukuyomi' that had distorted time and subjected him to the worst torture he'd ever experienced. And now he had unlocked an ability, not similar to the Tsukuyomi, but equally unique. An ability that he'd used to get him out of tight spaces in battle, but an ability he didn't dare reveal to anyone else, not yet, not until he knew what it was and why.

Sharingan could evolve. But Kakashi didn't know how he'd done it, and now the only two Uchiha left alive who could tell him were missing-nin.

With a sigh, Kakashi pulled down his headband. It was a dead end, seemingly, but he couldn't stop himself from thinking about it. Not when it might be a clue.

The wind shifted, and Kakashi shivered, which was strange. The cold usually didn't bother him, but something…

Something.

Something in the trees

As he turned to look, a flash of green greeted him, and Kakashi was face to face with Gai. "Kakashi! My eternal rival!" The man announced, his boisterous voice breaking Kakashi's thought bubble completely. "I admire your persistence in honoring your fallen comrades in such a downpour, but your vigil will have to end here."

"I'm not really in the mood to spar right now, Gai."

"Well, that is good!" Gai replied, his trademark grin glistening even in the rain. "Because we jounin have been called for a meeting with Hokage, and I have no doubt she would protest to us coming in with fists flying."

"Ah." Kakashi let out a small sigh of relief. Just a meeting. Before the chuunin exams, it was to be expected. "Thanks for getting me, then."

"But that does not mean we cannot have a friendly race on the way to the Hokage's quarters!"

"...right." An even deeper sigh made its way from his lungs. "A race. Of course."

Kakashi put on an air of annoyance, but in actuality, he was grateful. Gai, above everyone else in the village, was truly the best at the one thing Kakashi could never figure out how to do for himself.

Distraction.


The rain fell on the memorial stone for several minutes after Kakashi left. The water ran down the firm rock, pooling below until the dirt beneath it was so soaked that it was beginning to form a small puddle. Quietly, a dark figure landed, his presence not even disturbed the water at his feet.

Obito put his hand to the memorial stone, running his fingers along it until he came to a stop at his own name.

Obito Uchiha. He had not heard his name in years, not since he had taken up the mantle of Madara. He ran his fingers over each engraved letter, repeating the name in his mind until it ceased to be anything but syllables on stone. It had been so long, so long since anyone had said his name, that he wondered if it was even his own anymore.

Seeing Kakashi here had been a vindication. See what you have wrought, Obito thought to himself, his hand moving upwards to rest on Rin's name. Remember what you did. Remember who you killed. You swore to protect her and now she's just a name on a rock that only you ever visit.

It wouldn't matter soon. Already the preparations for making a brand new world of peace had begun. Madara's plan was in motion. It would be only a month longer before the containment was ready, funded by revenue from Amegakure and efficient bounty hunting handled by the other members of Akatsuki. Nagato had been pushed and prodded until he was set on course to bring the plan to fruition, and one everything was in place…

Obito would become God, and God would put the world into eternal, blissful sleep.

There was just one bump in the road.

The girl, Sakura Haruno, who had broken into the Uchiha compound and challenged him, challenged Itachi, threatened to weave the world together without promise of godhood or eternity. It wouldn't work, of course, not with men like Danzo pulling strings from the background, but that someone else was willing to try and break the wheel that the world spun upon was both admirable and threatening.

And she'd been Kakashi's student, no less.

A small part of him wanted to see just how far Sakura was capable of taking her little plan. A part of him wanted to see her break, wanted to see her fall apart as he had and realize that there was only one way, only one answer, and that was to bend the world to one's will with strength and technique.

And she had power. Obito could practically taste it. Something about the way her chakra ran across her skin, as if it wasn't even hers but something alive that had just chosen to reside in her body. He'd never seen chakra like that before, never felt chakra like that, something that had forced its way into his mind that night when he had seen her visage in his reflection. A bloodline technique, it had to be, and whatever it was had given her the power to resist the pull of a Mangekyo Sharingan. It was as if her chakra was alive.

And she hadn't even seen fit to use it against him that night, not even as his kunai dug into her skin, not even as he dragged her partner to the other side of the Kamui.

Not that she'd needed to. Had she known, then, what throwing the Fourth Hokage's kunai was invoke in him? There was no way she could have possibly known, it was coincidence made weapon, but she had not hesitated in striking while the iron was hot. Sakura did not hesitate. She saw a chance and took it. She'd need to, if she wanted to change the world.

How funny, Obito thought, that Kakashi's own student would be far more similar to him.

She was Plan B, Obito decided then and there. Plan B when all else failed. Madara had come to him when age overcame him, knowing that he could pass on his plan to another who was just as worthy. If the worst came to pass, Sakura…

Sakura would make this new world. And she would make it right. She would make it his way.

All he had to do was make her see. Make her understand. And already Danzo was doing it for him. Tomorrow the chuunin exams would begin.

Tomorrow the Ichibi Jinchuuriki would die and Shukaku would be in his hands. Tomorrow Root would overtake Konoha and deal with the traitor that had left for Sakura's side.

Sakura would lose everything.

And then, truly then…

She'd be just like him.


The rain followed her, always. It was a sign from Nagato. A blessing, some might call it. Proof that he was always there watching over her. He'd promised it to Yahiko, after all, that he would keep her safe, and Nagato had kept his promise to him in full. Konan was a capable kunoichi, one did not become Amekage by being weak, but she knew that if her own strength ever failed, Nagato would be there.

The shinobi of Ame viewed him as a deity. Konan could never see Nagato that way, not having grown up alongside him, seeing him as a child, but she could see why others would come to view him as such. The Rinnegan had only ever been seen before in the Sage of Six Paths, who was revered as a deity by many shinobi. Nagato was the next coming of the Sage. That he should be revered as such was only proper.

Even now, the three genin that Konan had brought with her to Konoha prayed to Nagato's image. Well...no, it wasn't truly Nagato. If anything it was Yahiko they prayed to, his flesh made into a vessel of Nagato's will. They'd brought a makeshift shrine with them to Konoha, and in the center of it was a depiction of Yahiko. The genin bowed and asked for God's protection in the coming days. They asked for strength to succeed in the exams. They asked for courage to do what needed to be done.

Konan sometimes wished she had a god to pray to. When your best friend was God, where did that leave you?

An Angel, Ame told her. A messenger of God. A divine protector.

(Sometimes Hidan called her a blasphemer, and she had to fight to keep herself from laughing. She was more inclined to agree with him than with the shinobi of Ame.)

Her shinobi prayed, and instead of praying Konan wrote, the same message over and over on different strips of paper. Each one she folded perfectly into the shape of a bird, and as she ran her chakra over the paper, the wings flapped and the paper bird came to life. Her chakra would protect it for two days, which was more than enough time for it to soar through the air, high into the clouds, and then come back down to Konan's intended recipient. Sakura Haruno had learned far too much of Akatsuki in her time abroad, and their people needed to be wary. Nagato, of course, was yet unknown, and so were Deidara and Sasori, but everything else Sakura had reported with extreme accuracy. They'd slipped up. They needed to prepare.

It was unfortunate because Nagato's likely conclusion would be to kill her before she put too much together. Unfortunate, because Konan found herself liking the girl. Much like Yahiko had been in his youth, so too moved Sakura, desperately trying to pull warring villages together and prevent bloodshed. Moving against Danzo too, no less, and Konan could not fault her that. If Sakura could give Danzo a taste of his own medicine, that would be vindication enough.

But the girl was young and playing with fire. Danzo moved in the shadows, twisting and turning events to his will. Sakura was too young to know how to play at a proper shinobi. She had the power, and she had a sharp mind, but it wasn't enough.

"Amaha. Samidare. Urin."

The three genin looked towards her, wordless and obedient. They were young, perhaps too young for battle, but that hadn't stopped her, so how could she stop them? The Hokage Tsunade wanted to ban child soldiers. In another universe, where Sakura was successful, would these children still be learning and growing under the safety of Ame rooftops?

The children noticed the grimace on her face and each bowed low, not wanting to displease her. Konan reached out to gently touch Urin's head. (She was the leader of the group, though it went unsaid.) "You will have a secondary objective tomorrow." She announced. "This objective is surpassed only by your continued survival. At all other costs, you will keep the girl known as Sakura Haruno safe from harm."

"Yes, my lady." The three sounded in unison. They did not look surprised to hear this objective. Rather, they looked pleased.

"I heard she wishes to end war." Amaha said aloud. "Of course God would favor her."

"If God favors her, then she will not need our help." The boy, Samidare, retorted.

"God favors her, which is why he sends us." Urin ended the debate with a single sentence. The three nodded as one, then returned to their prayer. Konan could not help but feel a sentiment inside her that was almost motherly in nature. These young ones were already so dedicated to Nagato's cause, so ready to follow him into making a new world of peace.

But Konan worried over this vision, worried over what the consequences might be. The Bijuu were violent creatures. She wanted to trust Nagato's ability to contain them, trust in what they had built, but even if they did contain the Bijuu...they would be using them. Making Jinchuuriki out of the Akatsuki, maintaining world peace with an iron fist. There would be no need for war if Nagato's Nine crushed the war out of everyone. Power, Nagato had said, that was the only thing that shinobi responded to. Peace could not be born with words and promises. Peace was born through power.

He hadn't always thought that way. Konan wondered every day if such thoughts were right. So...she could afford to place her bets on Sakura. Sakura was the other path. If she too faltered in her way, if she too was torn apart by powerful men who only thought inwardly, then Konan would know for sure. Chance happens once, but twice? A trend. She would be unable to deny Nagato's words if Sakura fell too.

Let her live, Konan prayed, not to any god in particular but to the world, if it was listening. Let her live and prove him wrong. Let her live and prove me wrong.


Biological manipulation was an art, and damn anyone that tried to insist otherwise.

Once upon a time, Orochimaru had managed to create a cell line from a single piece of bone from Hashirama Senju's corpse. The cell line had been powerful, exuding a unique chakra that had always brought a smile to Orochimaru's face whenever he'd felt it. It had killed forty-nine of the shinobi he'd injected it into, but had been taken up successfully by the fiftieth, which was as good of a success rate as anyone could have hoped for. True to form, the shinobi had been granted the power of Hashirama's Wood Release, albeit a bastardized version of it. The boy couldn't raise forests with a wave of his hand, couldn't level mountains with its power, but he could seal away a Bijuu's power and grow, at the very least, one or two decently sized trees with it. It was a pity that the cell line had been destroyed. It might have made these experiments so much easier.

A single strand of hair from Kaguya Otsutsuki was a stretch to believe in, but Orochimaru knew the truth of the Zetsu creature's origin, and if anyone was capable of retaining any part of Kaguya, it was them. It was almost as if they had been waiting for someone to come along and take it, to try and recreate what was once the most powerful being on the planet. But a single strand was barely enough to work with. With Hashirama's bone, Orochimaru had plenty of room for error. With this, he had one shot. One chance to make a viable cell line. One chance to recreate the power of a goddess.

(But if he did, oh if he did...his final vessel could be crafted, and he would have a power to surpass that of both Uchiha and Senju.)

It required chakra, copious amounts of chakra, and a mixture that would serve as the nutrients for the cell line. Cells couldn't grow on nothing, but even then Orochimaru worried that it wouldn't be enough. What nourished a goddess, anyway? Had Kaguya ever eaten at all, or simply absorbed chakra from the air to power her body? The energy had to come from somewhere. He would have little time to figure out exactly what the cells required, once they had been crafted.

Recreating a stem cell from a developed cell was, in theory, biologically impossible. Orochimaru spat on such a term. He was biologically impossible in his own immortality. Jutsu made the impossible a reality. Jutsu would make Kaguya live again...even if it was only in tiny pieces.

Behind him, Kabuto stood at the ready. This jutsu had an incredibly high chance of just killing him outright, especially if Kaguya's power proved too difficult to contain. It required him to maintain perfect focus, perfect chakra control, and it required the seals he'd so carefully crafted to do their job and not explode in his face.

But if this body died, he'd just take another one. Death didn't scare him anymore.

Orochimaru took a deep breath and flew through several dozen hand signs. Around him, the seals began to activate. Inside the petri dish in front of him, the strand of hair began to squirm and writhe as chakra pulsed through it. Orochimaru felt a pushback then, which all but guaranteed that this had to have been Kaguya's. It pushed and pushed, desperate to break free of his influence, but Orochimaru had fought this sort of battle before and knew just when to pull, just when to push back, and bit by bit he broke the strand down into its most basic elements.

That the hair was so intact after all this time was but a testament to Kaguya's power. She was said to have been immortal, if not for the fact that her sons had put her down. The DNA within the strands had not degraded over time, which was a miracle, and exactly what he needed to thread chakra through to create his new cell line. All the components were there, all the nutrients, everything…

Before his eyes, the strand seemed to fizzle to ash.

Orochimaru cursed. The pushback had suddenly stopped. A failure? It couldn't be a failure, not after all this time, how could he have destroyed it…

He flew forward, thrusting the petri dish beneath a microscope. His eyes searched along the plate, desperately looking back and forth until…

Until…

There it was. There it was.

Four beautiful, round, perfect cells. The energy that came off of them was faint, but as Orochimaru focused he could feel it there within the media.

"The Kaguya line…" He said aloud, pleasure dripping from his voice. "A success."

"Excellent, Lord Orochimaru." Kabuto replied, always eager to please. "Percent confluency?"

"One percent, if that. But it will be enough. We shall treat these ones with utmost delicacy. If it truly is Kaguya's line, they will not die so easily."

The first difficult step had been completed. Now he would let the cell line grow, until he had enough to start crafting subjects for injection. If the Hashirama line had a two percent success rate, what would the rate of the line of a goddess be? It might be thousands before Orochimaru had success...but he had time. All the time in the world.

Assuming, of course, that the Akatsuki didn't end it prematurely, messing around with the Bijuu as such. He would have to deal with that sooner rather than later.

He would be ready for Sasuke soon. With the Uchiha blood, he stood half a chance. He didn't need to beat the Akatsuki, just ensure they didn't get in his way. They maintained somewhat friendly relations for now, but he couldn't trust Pein to not butt his nose in where it didn't belong. And speaking of which…

"Don't you have a meeting soon, with Sasori?" Orochimaru questioned Kabuto.

"Ah, yes, of course." Kabuto replied.

"And you are certain he has yet to realize I have freed you of his influence?"

"Quite certain. Sasori is very confident in his jutsu, and in his superiority over you. He doesn't think for a moment that you could have bested him."

"Good. As it should be. You will report to me immediately once you are through."

"Of course, Lord Orochimaru."

Orochimaru turned his attention back to the cells, watching them eagerly. Pieces were coming into place. The world was turning, and he with it. Soon, he would be the most powerful shinobi to walk to planet.

Soon…

Soon.


"Sasuke Uchiha, if you stick your elbow in my rib one more time I will rip off whatever I can get my hands on first."

"...hn."

It wasn't what Sasuke had expected to spend his afternoon doing. Huddling in an air vent, surrounded by Karin's seals, gazing down at a small room with no light and copious amounts of dust...it was, quite frankly, beneath him. But Karin had insisted that it was important, their one way ticket to finding Itachi once Orochimaru was dealt with.

Important enough to cram themselves together for, each of them desperately searching for breathing room before whatever was to happen happened and they had to hold perfectly still. Thankfully, Sasuke didn't have much longer to wait.

Kabuto walked into the room. Sasuke recognized the man by his chakra alone; he was wearing a thick hood, and clothes that hid his figure. Behind him walked...something else. It might have been a man, but it was hunched over so much that it also could have been a sentient orb. Sasuke saw a face peek out from the huddled body, and saw the aura of a living being's chakra around it...but whoever this was had fucked up his body even worse than Orochimaru had.

"In here, as usual, Lord Sasori."

"You have checked the seals?"

"Thrice over, my lord."

"Good. There is much I would hear from you."

The huddled man's robes were dark, and in the dim light Sasuke didn't see it at first, but as the man moved to the center of the room he noticed red clouds on the robes and realized instantly why Karin had been so insistent that he come. This man was Akatsuki. He worked with Itachi.

Sasuke couldn't suppress a small shiver of excitement. This was a clue. This was a step.

"Orochimaru still believes that he has freed me from your influence, of course." Kabuto began with a chuckle. "His ego surpasses all other shinobi. But he has successfully isolated a cell line from that hair Zetsu gave him. He calls it the Kaguya line."

"This does not worry me." The man, Sasori, admitted. "He will be dead before he sees this plan to fruition. What I need to know is of a different nature."

Sasori handed a small, folded piece of paper to Kabuto. Kabuto looked over it for a while, and Sasuke wished he could glimpse even a word or two of what was on there. Thankfully, he wasn't left guessing.

"There's been an information breach, has there?" Kabuto said with a smirk. "Little Sakura Haruno's managed to name five of your nine. How very interesting."

"Our leader demands that she be dealt with. It is possible that she will die in Konoha under Danzo's hands. But if she does not...she will be heading here, to Otogakure."

"Does she honestly think she can sway Orochimaru?"

"She is a naive child. So, naturally, yes."

"Now that will be amusing to listen to."

"You will be prepared for her arrival. You will ensure she is detained. Then, Deidara and myself will eliminate her and retrieve the Ichibi for our organization." There was a strange clacking sound as the man turned towards the door. A sound almost like wood rubbing together. "Is this understood?"

"Yes, Lord Sasori. Everything will be ready for you, should this come to pass."

Sasori left. Kabuto lingered for a couple of minutes, reading over the paper in silence. Then, he too left.

Sasuke let out the breath he had been holding.

"How long?" Sasuke asked. "How long has he been a double agent?"

"Oh, it gets deeper than that." Karin replied with a chuckle. "He's got his own story so warped I can't tell who he's working for. He tells Orochimaru that Sasori doesn't know where his loyalties lie. He tells Sasori that Orochimaru doesn't know where his loyalties lie. He's very good. And he's been this good for as long as I've known him. It doesn't matter which one of them comes out on top, he'll always have been loyal to them this entire time."

"So where do we come in?"

"I just thought of it, actually. Oh, it's the perfect way to take Orochimaru down a peg too. Orochimaru uses Kabuto like a crutch. He needs a skilled medic-nin to make sure his body doesn't collapse under all that weird experimentation. But what if he learns that Kabuto really isn't his double agent?"

"He wouldn't let Kabuto live." Sasuke concluded.

"And then Orochimaru is without the 'help'. All we have to do is wait for that Haruno girl to get her ass over here, and Orochimaru is as good as dead."

"Her name is Sakura." Sasuke insisted, trying his best to ignore the pit that grew in his stomach at the mention of her name. Akatsuki wants her dead. What have you done since I left, Sakura? What have you become?

(And Sasuke can't help but shiver again with a strange sort of anticipation. Once upon a time, Sasuke thought that only Naruto was capable of matching his strength. Now, hearing this? Now he wonders. Now he hopes.)

"Right, right, Sakura." Karin continued to talk. "We'll get this ball rolling once she's here. For now, we'll keep an eye on Kabuto. Make sure we can see whatever he might be 'setting up'. Sound good?"

"Hn." Sasuke grunted in response before squirming his way backwards.

Right now, he was just desperate to get out of this damned vent.


Hidan dreamed of home.

It wasn't unusual, this sort of dream. He missed home, missed the hot water springs that filled the air with pleasant steam, missed the sounds of sparring echoing through the hollowed caves that ran beneath the country's feet. He even missed the calmness of the meditation chambers, and in the dream his mind walked through the peaceful halls until he came to be in the chamber. He sat before the Altar of Jashin, criss-crossed, arms held in prayer position at his chest. He took a deep breath, and he could smell the musk of the caves, feel the chakra running through its stones.

At the Altar were two candles, one white, one black. The black one was lit. It had been lit since his initiation years ago. His candle, Hidan thought, a sloppy grin coming to his face. The indication of his power. So long as that candle was lit, he was alive and Jashin's power ran through him.

He heard a sound not unlike the striking of a match. Then, before his eyes, the white candle lit.

Hidan awoke with a curse. Many curses. An entire long stream of them that woke Kakuzu up in the bed across the room, and ended with Kakuzu throwing a kunai directly into his jaw. He couldn't curse if his jaw didn't work, that was likely the rational there, but out of spite Hidan just kept grunting and moaning.

It had happened. But why now of all times? And to whom?

They'd expect him to return. But he couldn't. He was here by order of Jashin, and who was he to disobey? If orders conflicted, he'd go with the ones that came straight from the source. Besides, it wasn't as if he wanted to meet whatever miserable bastard had gotten designated as his 'other half'. Some snivelly little bitch, most likely, someone Hidan would want to stab, even if that was the highest form of blasphemy.

Another kunai made its way to his throat. He couldn't make noise if his windpipe was busted. Hidan let Kakuzu have his silence for now. He was sure the man would already be grumpy, having been woken from slumber so early in the morning. No point tempting fate further.

One day I'm going to rip all five of that man's hearts out.

Half an hour later, after Hidan had worked the kunai out of his jaw and throat, a paper bird fluttered into the room. Kakuzu caught it with a stray thread from his arm, pulling it close and reading it, still lying down. Eventually he sat up, looking strangely bemused.

"Remember that girl from Wind Country?"

"Little pinkie badass?" Hidan answered, his voice slurred as his jaw healed itself back together. "Yeah, what about her?"

"She had the Ichibi with her."

"She had the what?"

"The Ichibi. Right under your nose."

"Right under your nose too, you stupid motherfucker!" Hidan yelled, running over to pull the paper from Kakuzu's hands. "And...what the fuck is this about killing her on sight?"

"She has the Ichibi." Kakuzu shrugged. "She'll likely protect it. She's got a deathwish already."

"Fuck and shit, Kakuzu, I'd just converted her! Maybe. Fuck it all."

"Not everything is about your stupid religion."

"God, I really hope you eat shit and die one day, Kakuzu." Hidan crumpled the paper in his hand, then dropped it on the floor and stepped on it.

Pinkie had better not come anywhere near him. As much as he enjoyed killing, there was no way he could bring himself to kill a potential recruit. She'd had promise.

He cracked his jaw back into place.

Looked like today was shaping up to be one hell of a shitshow already.

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0