In which Sonmei is disobedient, meets his new teacher, and sees off the last of Sound.
"There's something I want to learn," he told his mother as he followed her through the streets one day. He was twelve, and he was confident that if he needed to, he could take on both his parents in combat, quite possibly at the same time.
Sometimes he wanted to. They were both hiding in their pretend retirement, fussing over the secrets they pinned on him and doing nothing about the real problem.
People were still dying from the occasional strategic attack by Sand, or from the sabotage from the same. Sonmei didn't really understand the politics between Leaf and Sand, himself; his father always found a way to shut him up before he could learn more.
People were still dying due to rogue Sound incursions. Most of the Sound had been wiped out, first by the original leader's death years and years ago, then by Kabuto's assassination six years later. But they could still cause damage, especially backed by the same people who supported Rain and Grass.
People were still dying because Rain and Grass were constantly gnawing away at the Leaf. Sonmei didn't know why, and this bothered him tremendously, because he was sure the adults knew something they were very deliberately keeping from him. Maybe it was something to do with the cloaked interlopers who shadowed the battles, aiding Leaf's enemies whenever they could. But Sonmei had never seen one of these people, so sometimes he wondered if they were just a desperate tale concocted by battle-weary ninja.
He didn't think so, though. Shinobi wouldn't do that.
But then, shinobi wouldn't tell him not to learn things, either, and that was what his mother was doing now.
"Save your brains for your lessons with Tenten," she said, patting him on the head and smiling down at him. She looked back up and started selecting fruit from the stand in front of her.
"I don't think Tenten-sensei knows about this," he persisted.
"You shouldn't worry about things your sensei can't teach you, Sonmei," Sakura chided him without even looking.
"The Hyuuga might know something, though," he said. "With those eyes of theirs." It was the most he'd spoken in public for some time, and several passersby had stopped to regard him curiously.
Sakura paused and pretended to concentrate very hard on an apple. "You shouldn't bother the Hyuuga."
"I want to learn to see like I did five years ago," he said.
The moment he finished speaking, he could sense something uneasy gathering in the bystanders. His mother gave it little time to brew, though. She set the apple down firmly and leaned down to hug him. He grimaced into her shoulder as she pulled him close. "Sonmei," she said gently, "I know you liked the healing jutsu I used to help you out back then, and I know you loved the medicine that went with it. But we didn't know at the time--it was doing terrible things to your head. You can't go around seeing stars and colors everywhere."
"You're a /liar/," he snarled. "And you always have been."
She tightened her hold on him and leaned in to whisper, "You don't want to see like that again. Not now. Not ever, if you're lucky. There's only one man left alive with those eyes; the last two died over a decade ago. One was a psychopath and the other a failure and a disgrace, and the one who's left can't find out you have his gifts...at least not until we're ready to handle him. Because..."
Her voice, though soft, had become more intense as she spoke. Her grip on him had slackened. With her mind somewhere in the past, she couldn't focus on her body in the now.
Sonmei bolted and ran before he could hear the rest of her explanation.
The door to their home did not slam as satisfactorily as Sonmei would have liked, but he was pretty sure he made his point. His father actually looked away from the ceiling to give him a puzzled stare. "Hm?"
"Tell me what's going on with Sound," Sonmei said before he'd even finished catching his breath back.
His father lifted a brow.
"I know something important is going on," he said. "Why won't you tell me what it is? I could /help/."
Shikamaru sighed. "Yeah. Okay. Come here."
Sonmei advanced a few steps, eyes slitting with distrust. "So?"
"You're not going to sit down, are you." His father rolled his eyes upwards. "First of all, why do you think I know what Sound is doing?"
"Maybe everyone else believes that retirement crap," Sonmei said, "but I know they're not letting you get away with it. You're Godaime-sama's secret strategist."
Shikamaru closed his eyes. "You inherited those damn brains of mine, huh?"
"Not really." He opened his eyes again. "The thing is, Sound is almost finished off. They've been dying since they lost Kabuto, but we've gotten them down to one last encampment now..." His gaze slid lazily to the door.
And Sonmei knew he had about two seconds to run, or he'd be stuck here until his mother walked in that door.
"What encampment?" he began, lifting his hand as if to scratch his head in thought. Instead, he slapped his hand to the lightswitches and turned on every light in the room.
Five seconds later, Shikamaru knew exactly how he could get his shadow back and hold Sonmei until Sakura's return, but by that point, the boy was gone.
Children were troublesome. He was glad he had none of his own.
Sonmei was over a mile out from the village before he realized that he had probably made a mistake. He was another mile out before he realized someone was following him.
He'd taken off in the directions that attacks these days tended to come from--what he assumed would lead him to the Sound encampment. He was thinking that maybe that had also been a mistake.
The ground flew by beneath him as he bounced from branch to branch. He was going to have to do this fast. He could handle that, though.
In mid-jump, Sonmei activated his invisibility genjutsu and swerved to the side. Instead of going for the next branch, he slapped a hand onto the tree trunk and, sticking himself there with chakra, carefully scuttled down to the ground. He was moving instantly, running silently through the woods as he tried to trace the path of his unknown follower and determine where they'd come from. If they were chasing him from Konoha, all he had to do was keep going in the other direction. If they were from elsewhere, on the other hand...
It was harder than he'd imagined. Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing; all he could tell was that they hadn't come from Konoha. There were barely any indications of their travel through the forest. Sonmei was nearly ready to give up when he almost stepped on the remains of a camp.
There were no ashes. Whoever it was had been smart and stealthy enough to avoid lighting a fire. But there were marks and scuffed earth and stamped-down ground, all of it consistent with someone having spent some time here--or at least, that fit with what he'd been taught, but he'd never had the chance to put his knowledge into action before.
It was more than a little exciting. Sonmei just wished Tenten-sensei were here to see him.
As for the identity of the camper, he was inclined to suspect his pursuer. At least they seemed to have stopped following him by now. That was a relief, but he'd still take the opportunity to investigate here.
He paused at the sight of something poking out from under a pile of dead leaves and sticks. Wary of traps, he carefully brushed the debris aside...only to find a simple book underneath. It was an old one, maybe older than he was, with gaudy and, he suspected, marginally obscene images on the front. He settled down to read it.
Sonmei heard the footfall right behind him, but by then it was too late to do anything useful. As he spun around to face the other ninja (because they were clearly another ninja), he wondered if the book had been a trap after all; if perhaps it had summoned his pursuer back to his side. Surely they couldn't have followed him all the way back here without him realizing at all.
The man Sonmei found himself facing quietly failed to launch any attack. He didn't even seem very fazed, but then, it was hard to tell: he was wearing a cloth mask over his lower face and dark glasses over his eyes. A long scar scissored through one of them. Sonmei forced himself to prepare for some kind of delayed attack instead of stand there staring.
The man held out a hand. Sonmei reacted immediately, whipping out a kunai and slicing at the exposed skin--
--or trying to. The stranger's other hand was suddenly around his wrist. Sonmei got the nasty impression that the man was smiling underneath his mask.
"The knife is yours," he chided, voice mild and very faintly amused. "The book is mine. Can we switch?" He was wearing a jounin's uniform, but it had taken Sonmei a while to recognize it, because all the insignias had been stripped off.
"You were following me," Sonmei said.
The masked man was definitely smiling now. "You were heading for some dangerous territory. I thought maybe you were lost and could use someone to take you back to Leaf."
"I don't need to go back to Leaf," Sonmei said sharply. "And I hope you're not going to try to take me back."
"I won't make you do anything you don't want to do," the stranger said.
Sonmei shoved the book at the man. "Fine. Then you won't stop me from leaving." He dropped his kunai back into its sheath. "But I'm not going back to Leaf, so don't bother trying to follow me there."
"Ah? Why would I want to follow you to Leaf?"
"I don't know," Sonmei snapped. "I mean, it can't be to find the way there, because that's pretty damn obvious. Maybe you thought you'd wait until we were close, then henge into me and sneak in..." He shrugged. "I don't claim to know the minds of Sound spies."
Soft laughter greeted his words. Sonmei snarled. Feeling his patience give way, he stopped resisting the urge to fight. He flicked shuriken out of is sleeve and down his palm, flinging them hard at the strange man. They sank into their target--
--and the chunk of wood shattered, spraying splinters everywhere. Sonmei stared.
A half-gloved hand settled lightly on his shoulder. "That's amazing technique. I wasn't sure at first, but...you really are his son."
"What?" Sonmei spun around. "You know my real father?" Tell me, he almost said, but at about that point his brain caught up with his mouth, and he realized that the stranger was gone. He couldn't even see what direction he had taken off in.
Sonmei let out an irritated huff of breath and settled down to think. The man had said he'd been heading for dangerous territory--so he'd been on the right track. He was pretty sure he wasn't being followed anymore, so it was probably time to get back on course for the Sound encampment.
When he was younger, Sonmei had thought of Sound as the timeless enemy, looming just out of Leaf's reach in some ill-conceived combination of stone fortress and giant hornet's nest, darting out stinging attacks every so often. That had been when Kabuto was still alive and providing central authority. At the time such a man had seemed untouchable, but he knew now that such leaders were as vulnerable as any other human being.
Which wasn't to say that destroying them was easy. The mission that had brought Kabuto down had claimed the lives of his sensei's teammates.
The current state of Sound reflected nothing of its past glory. It was a threadbare assortment of tents surrounded by rudimentary defenses. Sonmei found himself slipping through them before he even realized what he was doing. Once he did realize it, he paused a moment to consider the wisdom of his actions. Then he decided to go ahead with them anyway.
For all that their camp was nothing fancy, the Sound-nin noticed him the instant he stepped out of the concealing shadow of a tent. A compact, fierce-eyed man grabbed him by the collar and shook him sharply. "Leaf's here," he called out. Then he sneered. "And they sent a child."
"I'm /twelve/," Sonmei snapped back, only belatedly realizing that this was not the most mature comeback possible. Scattered laughter broke out around him. He suppressed an angry flush. "Leaf didn't send me. I ran away from the bastards. I can help you out."
"Child," said a long-haired woman holding a strangely-shaped flute in tattooed hands, "how could you help us out? And why would you want to? We're destroying your home." She smiled as she said this. "We've probably killed people you knew."
"Good," Sonmei spat. He forced himself not to show the way he was scanning the surrounding area for anything that could be used as a weapon. "I'm done with them."
"Eh," said the man, "if he changes his mind later, we can kill him then. Nidasu, make sure he's not planning anything nasty and see what you can get out of him." He let go of Sonmei and turned to go. The woman stepped up and lifted the coiled flute to her lips.
Sonmei blinked at Nidasu as she started to play. The music was very strange, and he felt his guards sliding down one by one. Why shouldn't he drop the lies and tell these people why he'd come? What was wrong with that?
It was the music.
He didn't give himself any more time to plan or to succumb to the music. Instead, he took a step forward, tentatively, awkwardly, and then pretended to stumble. When he fell, his hands wound up by a pair of tentpegs supporting one of the smaller tents. He grabbed them, but instead of pushing himself back to his feet, he channeled chakra into them, at once sharpening them and blasting the earth away from them. When he did return to his feet, he held them as weapons.
Around him, the demeanor of the Sound camp changed. A nearby man leapt to his feet and whistled out a piercing note of alarm. Nidasu stopped playing her flute and pulled a tiny switch on it; a blade sprang from the end. He didn't give her time to use it. Even as she moved toward him, he lunged, then drove one tentpeg deep into her abdomen. When he pulled it out, blood made his grip slippery, but he held on.
He left Nidasu where she fell and lifted his makeshift weapons to deflect a rain of kunai, then threw one of the tentpegs at the Sound-nin who'd thrown the kunai. In the same motion, he twitched several kunai of his own out of his sleeve and at his target. The man had time to register surprise before the flashing blades struck him.
Sonmei twisted around to drive the remaining tentpeg into his nearest opponent, but he caught the slender young woman a glancing blow to her thigh instead of anything more vital.
She drew back her lip in a snarl and lunged at him with a razor-edged fan. There were strange holes in its blades, and he could almost see the air rushing through them. No--he could see the air rushing through them. He could see everything, down to the smallest detail.
His eyes had finally turned on again.
Sonmei darted out an arm and caught the woman's fingers just so, bending them back against her tessen until he heard the bones snap. Then he grabbed the fan before she could reassert her grip and slashed her throat with it. She went down with her eyes still wide.
He took her tessen in one hand and drew a long knife with the other as he turned to face the club-wielding man approaching him.
Wait. Clubs? What sort of ninja used clubs?
Sonmei got his answer when, instead of striking with the weapons, the Sound-nin knocked them together just so, and the vibrations hummed through the air. He could see what the sound waves would do before they struck him, but he couldn't get out of the way. The invisible blow caught him, and he felt his bones go jelly-like. He glared up at the Sound-nin as he sank to his knees.
"Gave us a bit more trouble than we thought," the man with the clubs was saying, "but now--" He stopped. He looked harder at Sonmei's face. "Hey. He's got Sharingan."
Sonmei didn't see why it mattered now, but all the same, it was nice to know what these strange eyes of his were called, if that's what the man was referring to.
Before it could all end, though, a figure melted out of nothing behind the small cluster of Sound-nin that had gathered in front of Sonmei. It was the masked man he'd met on the way here, but his dark glasses were gone.
"He's not the only one," he said softly, his tone calm and faintly amused.
Before Sonmei could properly understand what was going on (although he could still see it down to the last detail), two of the Sound-nin were on the ground, choking up blood. The remaining one, a wild-haired woman wearing claws and bells, scrambled back and hissed as she took in the new arrival. "Who are you?"
The man smiled at her, his mismatched eyes squinting shut in mirth. "I wouldn't expect you to know anymore." He drew a strange, slender sword. With a jolt, Sonmei recognized it as the same kind as the one his mother kept on the wall as if in decoration, the same kind as the one he sometimes saw with Tenten, though she'd never used it around him.
"/Tamashii no ken/," the masked man murmured, and with the faintest hum, pale blue light lanced down the blade's length. "This is a chakra sword," he said, lunging at the clawed woman. She barely dodged. "It's difficult to master, but--"
He lunged again, this time sending the blade right through her heart. "More effective than most people would imagine."
Sonmei caught sight of an older man rushing at the stranger from the side. He forced words out of his mouth. "Look out!"
The man with the chakra sword turned just in time to deflect a flurry of shuriken with his blade. The weapon moved with an unnatural grace, as if it were a colder, sharper extension of its wielder's arm.
"I know you," the older Sound-nin said. "Copy Ninja Kakashi."
"Yes," Kakashi said before lashing out again with the sword.
"But you're--" the other man said, cutting off when he died.
The effects of the clubs were wearing off. Sonmei shoved himself to his feet. "Whoever you are, 'Copy Ninja,'" he said, "I'm not letting you do this alone." He stripped a pair of blades off the most recently fallen enemy and straightened.
Kakashi gave him a swift, appraising look. "Don't strain yourself."
Sonmei gritted his teeth. "I won't."
And he threw himself into the fray.
Blood lay everywhere. Sonmei stared at it all, feeling suddenly very weary. The glitter of red sank out of his vision.
"Let's go," Kakashi said sharply. He was staring intently at a spot at the edge of the clearing; to Sonmei, it looked no different than anywhere else.
"Are you sure...?"
Kakashi didn't answer. He just held out his chakra sword and watched while the glow faded back into cold steel, then sheathed it and vanished into the trees. Sonmei just barely made out his outline fading into a cluster of vines and short trees. He hesitated, then followed.
He was only a few steps into the shadows when he heard someone's approach in the devastated camp behind him. He turned and crouched behind a tree, not stopping to consider that perhaps he didn't need to see this.
A man in a dark cloak stood in what remained of the Sound encampment, regarding the dead ninja around him dispassionately. He nudged a body absently with one foot. Sonmei frowned absently at the cloak, trying to figure out what was bothering him about its design.
The man suddenly leaned down, took hold of the hair of a woman who'd gone down near the end of the battle with kunai in her belly, and yanked her head up. "Don't die yet," he said in a low, nearly emotionless voice: not a plea but a command, and a calm one at that. "Speak."
The kunoichi groaned and spat up blood. "Put that jutsu away and let me die..."
"No. Not until you've told me what happened here."
Her eyes focused, then widened. "My lord--I didn't realize it was you--"
He gave her an impatient shake, and Sonmei abruptly saw what was wrong with his cloak. It was patterned with dark red clouds, but their shapes were obscured by countless dark stains. He had a fair idea of what those stains might be, or at least what someone viewing the cloak was meant to think they were.
The woman spoke more freely now, her words nearly tripping over themselves to get out of her mouth. "There were only two of them and one was a boy, but even he was good, and the other one could have been a god or one of the sannin--"
"Idiot. There's only one of them left now." The man sneered (Sonmei could see it even from a distance, the nasty crook of his mouth). "If a boy and one of Leaf's elite bitches can take what's left of Sound down, you probably deserved it."
The sudden vitriol in his previously calm voice made Sonmei draw in a sharp breath of surprise. He froze as the man's gaze flickered in his direction, then relaxed slightly as it went back to the dying woman.
"But my lord," she said, "you promised the Akatsuki would help us until the end."
"This is the end," he said, his voice cool once more.
"There's one more thing, lord," the kunoichi pressed on.
"I hope it's worthwhile."
"They had Sharingan."
Judging by the way the cloaked man paused, it had been worthwhile. "Which one?"
"Both of them, my lord."
"Impossible," he said sharply, but something about his stance suggested that he was more eager than he let on.
"But true. The boy's weren't mastered, but he had them. The man didn't look like an Uchiha, but he had--"
"One." That dispassionate voice was distant now. "His left eye. I know."
The man threw the woman's head back at the ground. Sonmei heard the snap of her neck breaking and saw her stop moving.
Then he saw dark eyes meet his own. The man smiled. It was an unsettling, out-of-place expression. "Come out of there, boy."
Sonmei considered disobeying, but decided to indulge his curiosity. He stepped out from the trees. "Who are you?"
"You'll find out eventually."
"That's not good enough," Sonmei said.
"It'll have to do for now," said the cloaked man. "Because it's not time for you to come to me yet."
Sonmei went over his inventory of weapons in his head. "If you don't tell me anything, I don't see why I should ever go to you, if that's what you want." Most of them weren't in position to be quickly drawn after the battle, but he had a kunai sheathed under his collar.
The man drew up that misplaced smile again. "You want to learn how to use those eyes of yours, don't you?"
Sonmei stared, and he began calculating how fast he'd need to get his kunai out.
"And don't think that the man you fought with could do it," the cloaked man said dismissively. "He's a terrible teacher. Apparently a better survivor than I thought, though."
"People have a habit of doing that," Sonmei said. "Surviving."
"You'd be surprised." This time, the accompanying expression was a smirk, not a smile, and it fit much more comfortably on that face. "What's your name?"
He hesitated, but he wasn't going to walk away from this without at least giving a name. "Sonmei. Who are you?"
"It's not time yet," the man chided. "Where did the other ninja go, Sonmei?"
Sonmei was pretty sure that he knew where Kakashi was hiding; he was also pretty sure that if he set this man after him, there would be bloodshed. So far he found both of these two older ninja quite irritating. Intellectually, he wasn't sure if he cared if they lived or died. And yet--his instinct was to protect Kakashi from whatever the cloaked man had in store.
He stared back at his questioner, letting himself seem enthralled by those dark eyes. "He went over the tree branches," he muttered. "Further north."
The man in the bloodstained cloak smiled once more, and then he was gone.
Sonmei stood motionless for several minutes, staring straight ahead, refusing to focus on any of the corpses around him. Finally, a tree rustled briefly, and Kakashi said, "He's gone now."
Sonmei turned to face him. The dark glasses had been replaced; the everpresent mask was still there. Not much of his actual face was visible. "Who are you really?"
"I'm your new sensei," Kakashi said. He paused, then added, "If you want."
"I don't know," Sonmei said slowly. "I heard something about you being a terrible teacher..."
Again that airy little smile behind the mask. "Better than none."
"I have a sensei," Sonmei said. "She may not be the strongest ninja in Konoha and she may not know much in the way of legendary techniques, but she's /good/."
"You don't have to decide right now," Kakashi said pleasantly. "You've got at least until we get back to Konoha."
Sonmei eyed him warily.
"There's not much point in hiding now," Kakashi said. He started walking.
They spoke little on the way back, but Sonmei couldn't resist the urge to ask a question here and there.
"Did you know that was the last of the Sound encampments?"
"I should hope so, since I was only this close to Konoha in the first place to spy on them."
"Why wouldn't you be close to Konoha otherwise?"
"A few reasons."
"Convenience," Kakashi said. "Self-preservation. Sanity."
And further on, as it was starting to get dark:
"Why are you coming back to Konoha now? How do you know they'll even take you back?"
"The Hokage and I worked it out before I left," and Kakashi would give no more information.
They stopped to spend the night partway back. As he was preparing to sleep, Sonmei caught Kakashi giving him a strange, almost sentimental look. He stared back, frowning.
Kakashi almost smiled beneath his mask, and it was somehow more real than any of the actual smiles Sonmei had seen from him thus far. "You're twelve, aren't you?"
"Same age your parents were when I started teaching them," Kakashi said.
Sonmei opened his mouth, then shut it, unable to think of the proper questions to exploit this sudden opening.
Then it was gone. "Now go to sleep."
If he hadn't been so worn out from the chaotic day, Sonmei wouldn't have obeyed.
It was almost midday when they reached the edge of the village, and it wasn't until half an hour later that they got to Sonmei's house. Without ever actually saying so outright, Kakashi had insisted on taking all the circuitous routes that would keep them out of public view.
"If you're so sure you'll be welcomed back..." Sonmei began, but he stopped when he saw that Kakashi wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to his words.
There were shadows moving behind the drawn shades. "My mother's home, then," Sonmei explained. "My father doesn't move around so much."
"My mother's husband," he said darkly.
"Ah," Kakashi said. "Excuse me for just a moment..." He walked up to the windows, then ducked out of sight around the corner of the house. After a few moments, he reemerged. "Let's go see your mother, then."
Sonmei hesitated. "Should I go in first?"
Kakashi shrugged. "If you want to."
Sonmei straightened up, walked up the back steps, and pulled open the door. "I'm home," he said.
His mother immediately stopped pacing and turned around to take in his presence. "Finally," she breathed. "What a mess this all is--"
She stopped. She was looking over his shoulder at the man behind him.
"Sakura," Kakashi said.
There was a moment of stillness. Then, in movements so swift and graceful she might as well have been dancing, Sakura picked up a kitchen knife off the table and threw it at him just so.