Hinata begins a journey, and Ichiru tells a true story.
But here in the Sand, he couldn't sleep.
He'd be just about ready to drift off, and the muted skittering noises at the edge of his hearing would jar him into a nervous sweat. He shoved his head under the pillows and tried to sleep that way, but cutting off his senses like that made him too edgy to sleep.
Finally, Sonmei sat up, glanced across the room to be sure that Kakashi was still asleep, and quietly got dressed. He checked all his weapons, then stood up to go and padded silently out of the room, into the anteroom of their chambers. He stepped outside and was about to head off into the village proper when the faintest nagging feeling made him turn and look at the doorway behind him.
Kakashi stood in it, his distinctive silhouette outlined in silver starlight against the darkness. He said nothing, only watched.
"So you are awake," Sonmei said. There was no response, so he continued, "I'm going to find out what's up with this place."
"That's quite a task," Kakashi said softly. "Weren't you warned not to go wandering?"
"No," Sonmei said. "The Kazekage didn't say anything like that. He just said that if we did choose to wander, Sand isn't responsible for our safety."
Kakashi chuckled softly. "We're responsible for our own safety, then." Without another word, he started down the path to the village. Sonmei followed.
When Shikamaru finally caught up with Tsunade after the second wave of attacks subsided, she looked more disheveled than he'd ever seen her. Ino had told him that the Hokage herself had been forced to fight, but it didn't really hit him until he actually saw her.
Her clothes were a little torn; it was remarkably easy to notice that. Her primary genjutsu remained in force--more or less, anyway; she looked more thirty-something than twenty-something at the moment--but the other discreet little jutsu she used on her appearance to keep herself looking like an impeccable leader instead of a slovenly drunkard were beginning to fall apart. It was an unsettling sight.
Shikamaru had not realized she used a jutsu to keep her...assets from moving excessively until she'd stopped using it. He was suddenly deeply relieved that he hadn't had much of a sex drive in a long time.
"How many dead?" he asked.
"Four so far," she said shortly. "I didn't hear about how bad it had gotten until two chuunin and a jounin were already dead, and another chuunin went down before I could get to the front lines. Shizune!" She lifted her sake bowl from her desk, then paused. "She's tending to the wounded. Never mind..."
Shikamaru opened a cabinet and pulled out a jug of sake. "Here."
"You're good to me," she said, taking the jug and pouring it. "Not like your wife. She actually hides the alcohol from me sometimes. At least she doesn't whine like Shizune..."
There was a high note of stress and strain beneath the Hokage's mindless complaints. Shikamaru let her talk for a little while before saying, "Are we ready for the next attack?"
"We'll just have to find out, won't we," Tsunade said. She stared down at her sake bowl. "Some of the jounin are talking about bringing the genin into the defense for the next attack."
"I'll go see if we can do something else," Shikamaru said. He turned to go.
"Yeah," the Hokage told her sake, "you do that."
When Hinata awoke, she could not remember what she had been dreaming about, but she knew it was important. Without stopping to think or worry or fear, she quietly pulled her clothes on. Then she picked up the sheathed form of the chakra sword from next to her bed.
Thirteen years ago, the owner of that sword had promised her that when he came back from the mission to retrieve his teammate, he'd help her learn how to use a chakra sword herself--no matter how much her father disapproved. She didn't think he'd ever realized how much that meant to her.
But he hadn't come back, and all that was left was the sword. Hinata had kept it safe since Sakura gave it to her thirteen years ago. Now it was time to do more.
She took the sword and stood up to go.
"And this," Kakashi murmured as he landed soundlessly on the stone floor, "would be the Kazekage's personal library."
Sonmei landed behind him, releasing the genjutsu a moment later. The illusion dropped away from them; they were no longer identical to the hundreds of puppets scurrying through the halls. "Is this where he keeps secret documents, then?"
"That would make sense," Kakashi said. He paused, then clarified, "So no."
Kakashi shook his head and started forward. "Scrolls," he said, looking around him at the papers that lay recently opened on tables and desks. "On kinjutsu and demons, mostly. Interesting..."
Sonmei did not bother asking how Kakashi could tell what the scrolls were all about just by glancing at them. He'd begun to learn how hard getting answers from his new teacher was. Instead, he said, "The scroll on the center table."
"What about it?"
"It looks important," Sonmei said. He walked over and stared down at the scroll. A part of his mind patiently waited for Kakashi to make some remark to the effect of "that probably means it isn't"--but he didn't. Instead, he regarded the scroll in silent concern.
"'Kurokagami,'" Sonmei read. "It's some sort of summoning scroll. Yes?"
"I hope not," Kakashi said mildly. He traced some of the more obscure characters with one finger.
Sonmei frowned at him for a moment, then looked back down and admitted, "I'm having trouble figuring out what it summons."
Kakashi was silent for a moment. When he finally spoke, his tone was very even. "It doesn't. It's not exactly about summoning."
Sonmei felt his patience fraying. "Well, what is it about? It looks like a summoning scroll, but it seems like...you already have to have something, some sort of demon, to go to the next step? I'm not sure how that works..."
Kakashi gazed off into the distance, his expression as peaceful as ever. "Hmmm. You could say that it summons a demon much the same way sex summons babies."
"Ah! I'm sorry." Kakashi looked genuinely abashed. "Your parents haven't explained to you...?"
"Forget it," Sonmei snapped. "Just tell me what the jutsu does."
Kakashi's gaze slid back down to the scroll. "It's a copy, not the original; there are some omissions...probably deliberate...but still. The Summoning of the Dark Mirror."
"It takes an existing demon," Kakashi said quietly, calmly, "and makes it into a new one composed of the darkest corners of your personality. Everything you love, it hates. Everything you want to protect, it seeks to destroy. It--" He shook his head slightly and looked away.
"Why does Sand have this thing in the first place?" Sonmei demanded.
"Keep your voice down," Kakashi said. He glanced around. "We're not going to find what we're looking for in here. It's too easy for the public to get to."
"Too easy for...I almost lost count of all the twists and turns we had to follow the puppets through!" Sonmei paused. "What are we looking for?"
Kakashi did not answer. Instead, he looked up from the scroll and pulled his forehead protector straight, revealing his left eye. Not missing a beat, Sonmei followed suit and activated his Sharingan. Then he paused.
Lines of chakra crawled across the walls. Some started at the door they'd come in through; others emerged from minute cracks in the wall and vanished amidst others.
Sonmei stared and waited for Kakashi to explain, When only silence met his confusion, he said, "What are they?"
"Lines of chakra," Kakashi said helpfully.
"Yes, but--" Sonmei gritted his teeth, cutting off his own question. He was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "They're the tracks the puppets follow, aren't they?"
Kakashi smiled slightly. "Ah...close enough." He knelt by a convergence of chakra tracks and tapped carefully on the wall. A section of it slid aside. "Eventually, they have to pass through even the most secret rooms of the Kazekage's palace. That's the way Kankurou works. Let's go."
It wasn't that the rain stopped, but rather that they moved past it. In the poorly-defined zone between Fire Country's forests and Wind Country's wide stretches of desert, Tenten, Kiba, and Shino finally left the dull drizzle behind as night fell around them. It did not take them long to quicken their pace accordingly.
Tenten later realized that they'd just been far too grateful to get out of the damp. Of course they hadn't gotten too careless--they were still ninja, even if they were only chuunin, and carelessness meant death. But they'd let their senses slide just enough for the enemy to take advantage of it.
They'd just emerged from dark obscurity of a thin strip of scrubby trees when Shino stopped, one hand held up in warning. He was very still; the deeper shadows from the trees moved more than he did as the wind shifted the sparse leaves about in the cool night. "Something's wrong."
On either side of him, Tenten and Kiba drew to a halt. After a moment, Akamaru yipped, and Kiba said, "Akamaru and I don't smell anything."
Shino frowned. "I'm not sure what it is, but..."
Tenten said nothing. Instead, she flicked out a kunai and tossed it at the ground in front of them. It sank slightly in the sand, and for a moment, nothing more happened. Then the sand quivered and shook, and the kunai vanished beneath it. "Quicksand," she said, and she started to add, "You don't usually find it in deserts, though--"
The back of her neck prickled suddenly, and she stopped. A split-second later, the sand in front of them reared up into a razor-edged wave. She dodged back just in time, followed instantly by Kiba and Shino. After that, everything started happening very fast. But then, combat was always that way.
Kiba leapt to his feet first as the sand subsided, his nostrils flared wide and an animal light in his eyes. He lifted one hand and pointed. "Over there. Two of them!"
Neji wouldn't have done it like that. He'd have simply activated the Byakugan and turned to nod in the right direction, and Tenten and Lee would have been after the hidden foe in a second.
Shino didn't leap up immediately; instead, he stayed low to the ground, arrowing silently in the direction Kiba had pointed. As he moved, a dark cloud began gathering around him, crawling over his arms and legs without ever impeding his movements.
Lee wouldn't have done it that way. He'd have burst out of hiding in an explosion of energy, falling upon the enemy before they could begin to prepare themselves for his assault.
Kiba and Shino weren't Neji and Lee. It was the most ridiculously obvious observation that Tenten could think of, and yet for a moment, it paralyzed her.
Shino paused for just a moment. "Tenten," he said.
She thought of Sonmei, remembered his back turned on her as he walked away for the last time. "I've got your back," she said, and she reached for her weapons.
Hinata had been aware, in a distant, intellectual fashion, that the desert got very cold at night. But it had been so long since she'd walked alone through the world outside her home that she hadn't thought of the cold as a real thing. It had been just an idea, like the idea of walls, and just as insignificant to her.
She dropped to her knees in the shadow of a rock overhang and pressed herself up against the cliff wall. The stone against her back was almost as cold as the air around her, but not quite. There was still some of the day's warmth lingering deep down inside it.
She closed her eyes and hugged herself. "Even if I can get there--wherever that is--what will I be able to do?" she asked the empty night around her.
The old chakra sword felt strangely warm against her side. Then, suddenly, he was kneeling next to her. She started, jerking out of her huddled position, and realized that she was blushing like a teenage girl. "Naruto-kun--"
"I'm not really here," he said. "I think. I don't--really know how it works, but I knew you were upset and I wished I could do something about it." He squinted at their surroundings. "I can't...really see where you are. It's all kind of fuzzy. Except for you."
"I'm in the desert," she said quietly.
He frowned. "Alone? Weren't there others with you?"
"I left them back in Sand," she said. "They would have stopped me if I'd told them I was going."
He bit his lip, concern suddenly lighting up his eyes. For just a moment, he looked heartbreakingly unsure--and then he grinned that grin of his that made her warm inside. "Not a problem! They'll follow you, and it'll work out great. Just--when you get there, don't go inside until they show up, all right?"
"When I get where?"
"I'm...not really sure," he admitted. He was silent for just a moment, and then he spoke up again. "Hinata?"
"Why are you doing this?"
That brought her up short. She opened her mouth to tell him, to explain how she felt, but nothing came out. Finally, she said, "I'm doing it for you and for me." It wasn't really a lie, and it was certainly the closest she could get to the truth.
But it didn't stop her from shivering in the night air.
He gave her a hard look, and then he shrugged out of her jacket. "Here," he said. "Take it back. You need it now."
"No arguments," he said. He held out the jacket and smiled. For the first time, she could see him silhouetted against the dark sky, and he didn't seem entirely real. He glimmered at the edges. But when he dropped the jacket into her lap, it felt as solid as the sand beneath her.
Then he was gone. Still, she felt a little warmer than before.
Hinata stood up, pulled on her jacket, and started heading back in the direction that was calling her.
The chakra tracks wound through the passageways of the Kazekage's palace like cracks spidering out in an ancient wall. Kakashi and Sonmei followed them in their tortured paths until they resolved into a single knot at the center of a bare room.
They stood in the doorway with Sonmei's genjutsu covering them. Just behind the central tangle of chakra tracks, Ichiru knelt as if praying. She was still as stone or wood. No veil hid her face, and there was something inhuman about her features. Individually, each aspect of her face was merely slightly odd--the empty pallor of her eyes, the smoothness of her lips, the unnaturally even tone of her skin. Taken all together, though, she gave the impression of having been sculpted like a clay vessel or carved like a wooden bowl.
The back of Sonmei's neck prickled uncomfortably. He couldn't quite look away from her.
Kakashi lifted one hand slightly in a placating gesture: stay back. Then he stepped forward and started silently towards Ichiru.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, although she did not look directly at either of them, she said, "Ichiru would be a very poor bodyguard indeed for Kankurou-sama if a prideful genin's genjutsu could fool her." She rose to her feet and took a step forward so that she stood atop the knot of chakra.
Sonmei felt an angry flush creeping up to his face, but Kakashi remained expressionless as he dropped the illusion from around him. He did not give Ichiru time to react; he simply reached out and caught her by the shoulders.
"You won't get in without Ichiru's help," she chided.
"I'm willing to risk that," Kakashi said mildly. He hadn't yet covered his Sharingan again, and now he reached out to catch hold of her face.
But she turned her head at the last moment and looked straight at Sonmei. Her gaze did not drop in intensity. "Sonmei-kun was right," she said.
He dropped his genjutsu and glowered in disgust. "What's the point of this jutsu if everyone can see through--" He paused. "Right?"
"About your father."
He took a quick step forward. "You know about my father?"
"Your father," she said, as if correcting him. "Not the man who sired you."
"Oh," he said.
"You were right. He really was in love with the Rokudaime Kazekage."
Sonmei went very still.
"She's stalling," Kakashi murmured. But Sonmei thought he could hear the faintest hint of uncertainty in Kakashi's normally cool voice.
"Tell me," Sonmei said.
"Rokudaime was never the same," Ichiru murmured, "after Gaara-sama died. Ichiru was only seven when it happened, but Kankurou-sama tells her--his sister was a caring person, once. She was violent--always violent--but she believed in peace between the villages. And she cared for her little brothers...so much." She paused. "And she loved your father, Sonmei-kun. Ichiru was just a child, but after Gaara-sama's death, she started noticing these things..."
Sonmei did not move. He barely breathed. Even Kakashi had fallen silent and still, his hands slid away from Ichiru and back to his sides.
"Something broke in Rokudaime when she arrived at where the Akatsuki had taken her brother and found your mother and her teammate standing over his dead body."
"There was nothing we could do," Kakashi said. "And nothing she could have done. He was already dead when we got there."
"Ichiru knows. Perhaps Rokudaime even knew. But she couldn't accept it. Couldn't believe that the one she'd pledged her life to protecting could be taken from her so easily. So she gave up all she'd believed in and turned against Leaf for failing her family. She waged war on you, but she might as well have been waging war on herself."
"People died in that war," Sonmei said, lifting his chin. "My father's teammate--"
"The shadow-wielder and Kankurou-sama were all she had left," Ichiru went on. "And she loved them desperately because of that. But she was broken, and they couldn't fix that. Ichiru could see Kankurou-sama also breaking day by day as he watched his sister fall."
"Then they sent my father," Sonmei said.
"He passed by outside Kankurou-sama's rooms when he made his way to Rokudaime that night," she said. "Ichiru saw him, and she followed him, but she did not stop him."
Kakashi gave her a curious look. Sonmei said, "Why--" He cut off as he realized, abruptly, that sometime while Ichiru had been speaking, his Sharingan had switched off, and he was looking at her now with only his normal eyes.
She ignored them. "It was easy for the shadow-wielder. He didn't even have to touch her, and there was no blood on his hands when he came out from her rooms. But Ichiru was still there, and he saw her." Her empty eyes were distant. "He stopped, he shook his head...he said, 'I'm not going to kill a child to protect myself now. Too troublesome,' but he was crying, you understand."
Sonmei only stared.
"But Ichiru said, 'There was nothing left of her. It was an act of mercy.' And he said, 'Not for me.' And Ichiru let him go." She looked steadily at Sonmei. "Ichiru thought that without Rokudaime dragging him down, Kankurou-sama could begin to heal. But Ichiru was wrong. Kankurou-sama is still lost and spinning around the memory of her. Now he is bringing the village down with him the way Rokudaime brought him down with her. Do you understand, Sonmei-kun?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted.
"Understand this," she said. "Kankurou-sama is not lost yet, not the way Rokudaime was. Ichiru will not believe it. But she cannot save him herself." She slowly folded back to her knees. "She leaves it up to Sonmei-kun."
"What am I supposed to do?" he demanded.
"Ichiru does not know," she said. "But Kankurou-sama says Sonmei-kun reminds him, just a little, of a boy he knew once who could change people." She set her hands down on the place where the knot of chakra was, though it was invisible now to Sonmei's ordinary eyes. After a moment, something shifted and clicked. A panel in the floor slid aside, revealing a winding stairway down into the sandy rock. "Go," she said. "Ichiru has severed the connections that call Kankurou-sama's puppets to him. You can subdue him now. But one thing."
"Yes?" Kakashi regarded her warily. He had not yet replaced his forehead protector over his left eye.
She did not stand; she merely looked steadily up at both of them. "If you harm him--if you leave more than a scratch on him--I will take control of his army of puppets, and I will take them out of Sand, and I will run Leaf into the ground. I will leave no one alive."
"Why do you care about him so much?" Sonmei asked her.
"Go," she said.
They went. The panel slid closed again over their heads.
Beneath Kiba's foot, the ribs of the surviving Sand jounin snapped--but slowly. The enemy shinobi had plenty of time to blanch with pain first. He did his best to cover it up by spitting blood at Tenten, who crouched above him. She ducked slightly to the side and went back to regarding their captive with a patient expression.
"Let's try this again," she said. "Why did you attack us?"
He snarled. "We were two jounin! Three chuunin can't have defeated us!"
"I suggest," Shino said, "that you check your current situation before saying something like that."
"One more try," Tenten said. "Why did you attack us?"
The Sand-nin's eyes narrowed. "You were the enemy, approaching our country. What else should we do?"
"What of the peace talks?" Tenten said.
"Do I look like I care about peace talks?" their captive snapped. "We were told to guard the borders and kill anyone trying to cross either way. That's all I know--" He stopped, cutting off abruptly as he realized just how much the pain and frustration had prompted him to say.
"That'll do," Shino said. "Kiba, his legs are already broken?"
"Yeah," Kiba said. "Think me and Akamaru should savage him a bit before we go?"
"That's probably not necessary," Tenten said, standing up. "Let's go." It was still night, and the desert had gotten quite chilly remarkably fast. "We have some ground to cover before dawn."
The Kazekage's inner sanctum was a stark room with walls of stone. Plastered over them were assortments of maps--not just of Wind Country but of Fire Country and others as well. Kakashi paused to regard those maps. Sonmei ignored him and strode forward.
For a moment, Kankurou, at a desk at the head of the room, did nothing. Then he twisted around and gestured. Nothing happened; worry and irritation mingled on his painted face.
Then he snapped into action, lunging forward. Sonmei hit the ground hard, and he felt ribs break as the breath rushed out of him. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, he rolled over and pulled himself to his feet--
--only to see Kankurou struggling without much dignity in Kakashi's calm grasp. The Kazekage bared his teeth at Sonmei; Kakashi merely twisted his captive's arms a little behind his back.
"How badly are you hurt?" Kakashi asked.
Sonmei stood up slowly, wincing. "Few ribs broken," he said.
"See what's on his desk," Kakashi said.
Sonmei walked over to the desk, moving gingerly, and started going through the papers on it.
Kankurou hissed. "I see you don't take the peace talks very seriously."
Kakashi made a noncommittal noise, the kind usually reserved for old relatives in the midst of a boring tale.
Sonmei held up a paper. "Neither do you," he said.
Kakashi regarded him with interest. "Go on."
"These are letters from Rain, Grass, and--" He hesitated. "Stone. Stone aren't our enemy now, but...these letters are talking as if they were. They--oh."
"Oh?" Kakashi said.
Sonmei was silent for a moment as he picked through the letters. Then he said, "Sand was talking to our enemies, Kakashi-san. Arranging things with them. Preparing for some kind of ultimate strike. There's some references in here to something I don't quite understand...someone else was involved? But there was no plan for peace."
"The Akatsuki," Kakashi said quietly.
Kankurou looked down at the floor and said nothing. Kakashi did something to his hands, and he flinched and then snarled. "It doesn't matter. We won't be able to do it so elegantly now, but it'll happen all the same. Either Leaf gives over military control of Fire Country to us here in these negotiations, or we send Stone in to overrun them. Rain and Grass are already attacking. They must be worn down by now."
"How did you gain control over the other Hidden Villages?" Kakashi asked quietly.
Kankurou was silent for a moment. Then he said, "The Akatsuki."
"Mmm," Kakashi said.
The adults were talking over him again. Sonmei ground all his anger into a single word: "/Why/?"
Kankurou slid him an annoyed glance. "You'd have to ask the lord of the Akatsuki."
"Not /them/," Sonmei snapped. "You. You've sold out Sand to this war because the Akatsuki told you to! You've forgotten what you're supposed to be!"
"How would you know anything about what I'm supposed to be, little boy?" Kankurou asked, his voice soft.
"I wouldn't," Sonmei said. "I wouldn't know anything about what other people are supposed to be. I was supposed to be anything myself. But I know that if I had the chance to serve my people the way you're meant to serve yours, I wouldn't be letting some men in bad cloaks push me around!"
"They didn't give me much of a choice," Kankurou said. "What was I supposed to do, fight them?"
"Yes! What else do you do when someone threatens the ones you're meant to protect?" Sonmei shook his head. "Why are you even fighting this war anymore?"
Kankurou hesitated. He looked away. "It was what my sister wanted."
"Was she even your sister anymore at that point?"
Kankurou glared. "How much did Ichiru tell you?"
Sonmei took a step forward, hands clenching into fists around the papers he held. "Don't even bring Ichiru into this! Do you have any idea what she's done for you, what she still does?"
"This isn't your business," Kankurou said. But after a moment, he looked down.
Before he could say anything more, part of the wall exploded inwards in a blast of rubble. Sakura stood framed in the hole this left behind, her chakra sword in one hand, the other formed into a gloved fist. "Nice night, isn't it?"
Hanabi soundlessly stepped up behind her. Her expression was cold and intent.
Kakashi did not release Kankurou, but he did look startled. "Sakura?"
"I tracked you by the signature of your chakra sword, Kakashi," she said. "There's quite a bit no one but me knows about those things." She glanced over at Sonmei and added, "I tried to track you first, but you haven't even used yours yet. If you don't know how, I'll teach you on the way."
"On the way?" Sonmei echoed.
Sakura nodded at Hanabi, who stepped forward. She said, "Hinata disappeared sometime earlier tonight. I managed to follow her trail for a little while before losing it..." She strode forward to one of the maps and indicated a short path on it. "She's going that way."
"Oh," Kankurou said.
"Oh?" Sakura repeated.
"It's interesting," he said, "but that's the direction of the Akatsuki hideout. It's several hours' journey out from Sand. I can provide you with directions if you want."
Sakura's eyes narrowed, but Kakashi said, "We'll take them." He glanced at Sakura and said, "Ah, I may need to explain some things as we go."
"Really," she said. She paused and gave Sonmei a hard look. "Sit down," she ordered him.
Without waiting for him to comply, she strode over and pushed him into the seat at the desk. Then she laid her hands on his chest, and after a moment, he felt the pain recede. "I'm not going to ask you how you broke your ribs," she said, "/for now/."
"He's coming with us," Kakashi said.
Sakura looked at him for a long moment. Then she nodded. "There really isn't any other choice," she murmured.
"Why is Hinata going there, Sakura?" Kakashi said.
Sakura shook his head. "There isn't time, now. We need to get going."
"All of us?" Hanabi asked.
Sakura looked at her. There was a pause.
"...no," Hanabi said. "I'm not staying here while my sister is in danger."
"Hanabi," Sakura said, "she doesn't usually do things on her own like this. It's important to her. And--" She hesitated. "It's personal, for us. It's about my teammates. Please."
Hanabi stared back at her for a long moment. Then she said, "Keep her safe. There'll be no reason for me to go back to Leaf, no reason for me to care about it at all, if she--if she isn't there."
"Is that so?" Kakashi said.
"We'll care for her," Sakura said.
"Is anyone going to explain this to me?" Sonmei asked.
"If you're good," Sakura said. "Get ready to go."