The Infinite Perfection of Being
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

Team Kakashi had split off from Gaara's party as they made their way into the colder northern parts of the continent. The Land of Iron was a frigid, unforgiving place farther north and farther west than Sakura had ever been. She was thrilled at the prospect of snow, but she seriously could have done without the biting cold. Her cheeks felt like they might crack under the slightest pressure, numb as they were from the cold.

Naruto, of course, could not be bothered by the weather. His upbeat attitude helped bolster the rest of the team, for which Sakura was grateful. He was excited to finally be active and involved again instead of confined to Konoha.

They arrived at a local inn on the outskirts of the Land of Iron's capital, where the five Kage would be meeting. They had decided to lay in wait until after the meeting. It was most important to establish the shinobi alliance before Danzo could be rooted out as an enemy in disguise.

Sakura settled into her single room, grateful that the boys had opted to pair off and grant her privacy. Usually she didn't think much of it, but right now her mind was a muddled mess and she wanted to be alone to think. Inevitably, her thoughts drifted to Sasori back in Suna. Looking out the window at the steadily falling snow, Sakura thought about how far they had come these past months.

A small, sad smile played at her lips. She missed him. If only they'd had more time with this, perhaps leaving wouldn't feel so wrong. But she knew that was silly. No matter how much or how little time they had together, a separation at this point was inevitable. It was probably for the best, in any case. There were more important things going on than the two of them, and she knew it. Thinking about Tsunade wasting away in a prison cell in Konoha made her livid. There was also the issue of Sasuke's fate at the end of all this. She prayed he wouldn't do anything more to offend the other villages, for his sake and for Konoha's. Why couldn't he just come home? His brother was dead, so why was he still out there?

She wished Sasori were here, even if she knew he would probably just tell her to get over it. She had no control over Sasuke or his actions, so there was little she could do. If only it were so easy for her to rationalize the situation as it would be for him.

A knock on her door pulled her away from the window and her troubled thoughts. "Come in."

Sai poked his head through the doorway, fake smile plastered on his face as usual. "Hello, Ugly. I thought you might want this."

Sakura was about to tell him off for insulting her looks again, but when he pushed open the door to reveal two steaming mugs of hot chocolate, all her irritation melted away. Mouth already beginning to water, she closed the distance between them.

"That smells amazing," she said, eagerly accepting her mug. "This is really nice, Sai. Thanks."

He nodded, and Sakura took a sip.

"Oh, I should mention—"

Sakura jerked at the unbearably high temperature of the liquid. Sputtering, she fanned her abused tongue.

"It's hot," Sai finished. "Unnaturally so."

"Gee, thanks for the warning," Sakura grumbled, glaring at the too-hot liquid she wanted to drink but couldn't without causing herself bodily harm. Sighing, she motioned for Sai to come inside.

"So how did you make it out of Konoha? I guess Danzo doesn't know you're here?"

"No," he said, trailing off. After a moment of hesitation he added, "Beautiful helped me."

"Ino? How could she..."

"She made it so no one would remember what happened until they noticed me missing. I was long gone by then."

Sakura shook her head. Ino had excellent command over her family's mind techniques, and mind erasure was one of the perks. Still, she couldn't help but think that Ino must have put herself at great risk in helping Sai escape.

"If Danzo finds out—"

"He won't," Sai said softly.

It sounded more like a promise to himself than a statement of fact. Sakura couldn't help feeling warmer, and it had little to do with the hot drink between her hands. "You love her."

Sai blinked at his teammate. "I..." He swallowed. "I don't know if I understand love."

Sakura offered a true smile. Thinking back on her last night in Konoha with the girls before Pein attacked, she remembered the way Ino had talked about love and what it meant to her. Sakura reached for Sai's hand and gave him a reassuring squeeze. "That's okay. You will, one day."

At a loss for how to respond to that, Sai took a big sip of his drink and spat it out, having forgotten just how hot the liquid was. Sakura fell into a fit of laughter at his expense, much to his dismay.

"Hey, let's go see what Naruto's up to," Sakura said once she calmed down.

"I'll get a new cup of hot chocolate for him," Sai said with a smile that bordered on the devious.

Sakura smirked. "I like where your head's at for once."

It was sometime in the predawn hours, when Sakura was tucked into her warm bed tossing and turning that the explosions in her dreams suddenly sounded a little too real to be confined to her slumber. Instinctively, she shot out of bed, green eyes wide and alert as she strained to hear. Muffled shouting confirmed her suspicions.


Without even bothering with warm clothing, she raced into the hallway in only her flannel pajamas toward Naruto's shared room with Sai.

Oh please let them be alright...

She broke down the door with a super powered punch. The sight that greeted her was beyond bad. The roof of the room was completely demolished in the wake of Naruto's Rasengan. Sai and Naruto stood in the center of the room, looking less than formidable in his ratty sleeping cap. Above, set against the backdrop of the full moon, stood a man in a red and black robe. The sight of the orange mask he wore made Sakura's blood freeze independent of the frigid night air.

"You!" Naruto shouted at the masked Akatsuki.

"Rasengan, hm? You know full well that won't work on me," he taunted.

Uchiha Madara, Sakura thought. Could this really be him?

Before Naruto could respond, the sound of creaking wood filled the space. The masked man was suddenly bound by twisting wood columns from head to toe. More columns sprang up around Sakura, Sai, and Naruto, caging them in the ruined hotel room. Sakura wasted no time in joining her teammates, taking one of Naruto's hands in her own. He turned to her and some of his anger melted, reassured by the sight of her there with him.

"Hatake Kakashi," the masked man said. "You're fast."

"You won't capture the Nine Tails so easily, Uchiha Madara," Kakashi said from behind the masked man.

A short pause ensued, and Sakura thought perhaps he wasn't expecting them to know his identity. Madara chuckled softly.

"I wonder how you came by that name," he said, an edge to his tone belying some inner irritation.

"An inside source," Kakashi answered. "We also know all about your plan to collect the Bijuu and fuse them together."

"Do you, now. I suppose I have a few loose ends to deal with."

Sakura did not like the sound of that one bit.

"Tell me where Sasuke is!" Naruto shouted. "What have you done to him?"

Sakura and Sai shared a significant look.

"Sasuke?" Madara said, the amusement evident in his tone. "I'll tell you about Sasuke... But first, let's talk about Itachi."

The tale that Madara spun thereafter was one of a betrayal far more horrific than any Sakura could have ever imagined. He told them about the Uchiha clan's planned uprising, Itachi's double-agent status, and how the Elder Council finally overruled the Hokage's wishes for a peaceful resolution. They used Itachi to slaughter the entire Uchiha clan under the belief that such genocide was a better option than full-scale civil war.

"Itachi died a hero of Konoha, although he never wanted anyone to know, least of all his precious little brother whom he couldn't bring himself to kill."

"No, you're lying!" Naruto cried. "Itachi... Itachi was the bad guy! I saw what he did to Sasuke!"

"Yelling at me won't change the truth, boy," Madara said. "If you still don't believe me, why don't you ask your new Hokage? Danzo knows all about the Uchiha massacre and the truth about Itachi."

No, this is worse than we thought, Sakura thought, horrified. Konoha sanctioned the Uchiha massacre? It's just too much...

"If what you say is true, then Sasuke would have followed Itachi's wishes and protected Konoha. Why would he work with Akatsuki?" Kakashi said, his Chidori sparking and dyeing the falling snow around him a faint blue color.

Madara laughed. "You call yourselves Sasuke's friends, his mentors, and yet you don't know him at all. He's a true avenger."

"You did this to him," Naruto said. "This is your fault!"

"Not at all. Sasuke chose this path himself. I told him everything I've just told you, and he made his decision. He'll exact revenge on Konoha for what's been done to Itachi and the rest of the Uchiha clan."

Tears glistened in Naruto's eyes, and Sakura felt she might not be able to take much more of this either.

"Why did this happen to him?" Naruto said through his tears.

"It's in his destiny. The Uchiha are mired in hatred, and that legacy has been with us for generations. It's a curse."

Madara then explained the legend of the Sage of Six Paths, and how the Senju's ancestor won the succession rights over the Uchiha's ancestor. Thus began a curse of hatred between the two clans that continued to this day, with Naruto and Sasuke as the newest generation to suffer its ramifications.

"You see," Madara continued, "hatred is Sasuke's greatest weapon, his hidden strength. I will use him to force everyone to acknowledge the Uchiha clan!"

"But if you just want acknowledgement for the Uchiha clan, then why bother with the Bijuu? What will that accomplish?" Kakashi pressed.

Madara turned to peer at Kakashi out of his lone eye, and Sakura got the eerie impression that he was glaring at her teacher beneath that mask. "It seems like your informant doesn't know the extent of my plans, although judging by how much you already know, he must be close to the Akatsuki. Perhaps even one of our members."

Sakura knew it was probably silly, but she was suddenly afraid for Sasori. If Madara found out about his role in all this, would he go after him in Suna? With those chakra bangles still in place, Sasori wouldn't stand a chance against this man.

"In any case, it's high time you know what will happen to this world. You see, I want to use the power of the Ten Tails to cast an infinite genjutsu. I'll create a new reality where everyone lives in peace, where dreams can come true."

Perhaps she was hearing things, but Sakura could almost detect a ringing sadness in his voice that spoke of too many years alone.

"It will be a place without suffering, where those we've lost will come back to us."

Silence descended upon the group for a moment as the meaning of Madara's words sank in. A place without death? A chance to see lost loved ones again?

"That sounds like a beautiful fantasy," Sakura found herself saying. "But that's all it is: fantasy."

Her outburst earned her Madara's full attention, and she shivered under the weight of his concealed stare.

"Your acceptance matters little to me," he said. "You too will lose people close to you, and then you'll understand. It's been fun chatting with all of you," he said, turning away from her. "Until next time."

With that, Madara seemed to suck himself up and disintegrate into nothing, leaving only Yamato's twisting branches, an empty husk where Uchiha Madara once stood. With the threat gone, Yamato dispelled his Mokuton, freeing the three younger members of Team Kakashi.

"He's gone," Sai said.

Sakura suddenly remembered how cold it was and shivered. "We need to alert Gaara and the other Kage about this."

"They may not believe us," Kakashi said. "It'll be hard for Gaara to convince them of what we came here to do, but this? I'm not sure how far we can count on them to go on faith alone."

"Bullshit," Naruto growled. "They're the five Kage. They have to listen. That guy's not just after Sasuke and Konoha, he's after the whole world with that freaky genjutsu."

Sakura was inclined to agree. "Sasori must not have known about that part of the plan. I wonder what else Madara's hiding."

"I think we ought to decide how we're going to approach the five Kage with this. I'm concerned about Danzo and how he'll react," Yamato said.

Yes, there was that. Silence stretched on as the five members of Team Kakashi thought about how things would play out with Danzo in control.

"We can't expose ourselves to Danzo just yet, especially not Naruto," Kakashi said. "We'll wait until the end of the summit, then make our move. If Gaara can get an alliance solidified, that will make this easier."

They all agreed. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best they could do given their limited options and necessity for caution around Danzo. In the meantime, Sakura offered to let Naruto and Sai share her room, since theirs was now destroyed.

They would deal with this in the morning. Sakura just hoped that there would be some answers waiting for them once they came forward.

Kankuro glared at the rest of the room's occupants over crossed arms, thankful for his hood and face paint in that moment. The five Kage sat spread out around a meeting table facing the lord of the Land of Iron, their bodyguards hovering on an overhanging balcony as though waiting for someone to breathe wrong and have an excuse to launch an attack. He hated these political schemes. Kankuro had always been more of a doer than a talker; that was more up Temari's alley. But the only thing that would work in this setting was a sound argument based on facts and mutually assured destruction, so he tried to calm his twitching hand ready to launch Scorpion at anyone who so much as looked at Gaara wrong.

"You are gathered here today at the request of the Kazekage, Sabaku no Gaara," Mifune began. "We are here to discuss the growing threat of the criminal organization known as Akatsuki. Who would like to begin?"

"I will," Gaara spoke up confidently before anyone else could interject.

"Heh, you're pretty bold for a kid. Did your father forget to teach you any manners?" the Tsuchikage grumbled.

Kankuro growled at the thinly veiled insult, but Temari put a warning hand on his shoulder. Gaara looked unmoved by the Tsuchikage's words.

"I suppose he would have taught me more if Orochimaru, a former Akatsuki, hadn't murdered him prematurely in cold blood," Gaara said, his voice hard. "Which brings me to why I called this meeting in the first place."

"You're a cheeky one, Kazekage," a disgruntled Oonoki said.

"I think we've heard more than enough interruptions from old men for one day," said the Mizukage. "Go on, Kazekage."

Well, maybe they're not all bad, Kankuro thought as he took in Terumī Mei's beauty. If only they made them like that in Suna...

Gaara nodded to the Mizukage. "The remaining Akatsuki are no less dangerous than those already eliminated. I was once the Shukaku Jinchuuriki, and I became Akatsuki's target. They kidnapped me, forcefully extracted my monster, and left me for dead."

Silence reigned for a moment as Gaara let that sink in. Everyone knew by now of what had happened when Deidara and Sasori showed up in Suna to level the city. If it hadn't been for Gaara, there wouldn't be a Sunagakure anymore. "And yet, when we requested aid in dealing with the threat, none of you for the former Hokage of Konoha."

Kankuro chanced a discreet look at Shimura Danzo, the acting Hokage. It was difficult to treat him civilly like this when he knew the truth. He tried to imagine the many Sharingan eyes dappling the man's arm beneath the bandages that concealed them without cringing.

"Hmph, if a country loses its Bijuu, that's no one's problem but their own. In fact, it's an embarrassment. And now you presume to whine to all of us? You really are naive," Oonoki said.

At this, Kankuro detected a slight tensing in Gaara's shoulders. Under the table, Gaara's fist clenched. He was angry.

"I don't have time for antiquated notions of survival of the fittest. A lot's changed since you were my age, Tsuchikage."

Mei laughed lightly at that comment, but the Raikage decided he was finished waiting for things to pan out.

So he decided to smash a hole in his section of the table.

Kankuro and Temari were immediately at Gaara's side, jutsu at the ready. The other guards were similarly positioned, each one eager to defend their leader but loathe to throw the first punch.

"Enough!" bellowed A.

Mifune stood up, his wrinkled face scowling deeply. "Please call off your guards. This meeting will continue in a civil and respectful manner." His tone brooked no room for argument.

Sensing that the display of violence had merely been to reign in the escalating enmity between Gaara and Oonoki, the Kage each dismissed their guards, albeit not without a few grumbles here and there.

A was not finished yet. "If you want to talk about Akatsuki, then let's look at the facts. All of your villages," he gestured at the five Kage, "have members in Akatsuki. Kumo's got none. And that's not all. I know for a fact that some among you have even hired Akatsuki for your personal use!"

"Personal use?" Gaara spat.

Oonoki scowled. "I know where this is going, Raikage, and you know as well as I do that in times of peace, our shinobi grow complacent. When arguments escalate into war, it's only natural to hire mercenaries to clean up the messes. Akatsuki didn't used to be this threat they've apparently become. They had a reputation for getting the job done, no questions asked."

"Are you saying that Iwa's hired Akatsuki in the past?" Gaara looked absolutely outraged.

"And you, boy," the Raikage turned on Gaara. "You said it yourself. Suna used Orochimaru, a former Akatsuki, to incite war with Konoha. Don't look so scandalized over there." He whirled on Mei this time. "But if you ask me, Kiri's the most suspicious."

"Do go on, Raikage," Mei said, all her previous joviality evaporated as she fixed icy green eyes on the man twice her size.

"You've got no diplomatic alliances with anyone, and there are rumors that Akatsuki was even started in your village."

Kankuro watched the arguments unfold below, and all the while Danzo remained silent.

Mei smirked. "Well, I don't know about that. But I will say our former Fourth Mizukage was being influenced by someone. Perhaps it was Akatsuki, perhaps not, but I'll let something like that happen again over my dead body."

Kankuro actually shivered at the barely concealed threat in her saccharine tone. It reminded him of when Temari acted nice to cover up an impending shitstorm.

"You're one to talk, Raikage," Oonoki interjected. "While all of us were pursuing policies of disarmament after the Third World War, you continued amassing power and stealing other villages' bloodline limits. That's why we were forced to use mercenary groups like Akatsuki to deal with the threat!"

A stood up abruptly, his hulking form appearing even larger than it was over the splintered remains of his portion of the table. "You wanna say that again, Tsuchikage?"

"All right!" Mifune shouted. "That is quite enough, all of you. When I agreed to host this summit, I was under the impression that I would be moderating a discussion between adults, not squabbling school children."

He turned his weathered glared on A, who looked none too pleased about being on the receiving end of scolding from a man half his size. Nevertheless, he sat back down.

"Thank you," Mifune said. Turning back to Gaara he added, "Kazekage, I believe you were about to explain something important before the conversation got carried away."

Gaara nodded. He signalled to one of the samurai helpers stationed around the room, who immediately proceeded to pass out thin manila folders to each of the other Kage.

"If you'll take a look at the documents I provided, you'll find detailed profiles and feats for each remaining member of Akatsuki."

"Hoshigaki Kisame," Mei said, tapping a manicured finger on the table. "That one's been at the top of my hunters' list for years. He owes me a sword."

"Not if I can get to him first," A snarled, leaning forward across his destroyed section of table as though he was ready to pounce at any moment. "These Akatsuki have been allowed to roam free for too long."

"There's more," Gaara continued. "According to my informant, they're being led by Uchiha Madara."

Oonoki rose in his chair suddenly, face red with indignation. "Uchiha Madara? Don't be ridiculous, boy. I faced that man decades ago, and a power like that one's not been seen again in this day and age."

Gaara looked unfazed by the show of pride. "I don't know if the man is actually Uchiha Madara, but he calls himself that. I think it's worth treating the threat seriously until we know more."

"Where exactly are you getting your information, Kazekage?"

All eyes turned to Danzo, who had finally decided to speak for the first time since the meeting began. Kankuro narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the old man, wondering why he'd chosen this moment to actively participate.

Gaara kept his face carefully blank. "My source happens to be very reliable. He used to be one of the Akatsuki, so you may have heard of him. Akasuna no Sasori."

"Your missing nin?" Mifune said, incredulous.

"See, this is what I'm talking about. None of you can be trusted because you all have ties to Akatsuki," A said.

"You expect us to believe anything a traitor says?" Danzo said quietly. "Why should we?"

Arguments about Sasori's reliability spewed forth as though the floodgates had been opened, and Gaara was forced to take the onslaught in dignified silence.

"Why would your missing nin agree to reveal any information anyway?" Mei said thoughtfully. "What did you offer him in return?"

"A dignified execution, when this is all over," Gaara said simply. "But I think it's time I got down to the real reason we're all here." He took a moment to make sure he had everyone's attention. "Based on Sasori's information, as well as the hostile acts we've seen ourselves on the part of Akatsuki against our Jinchuuriki, I believe that the only option is to ally against the common threat. Individually, we've failed to contain the problem, and as a result we've lost too many lives."

Gaara turned to the Raikage. "You recently lost your brother to Akatsuki, and I sympathize with you personally." He turned to Mei. "Your predecessor may have been under the control of Akatsuki for years, and that may have directly contributed to the horrors of the Bloody Mist." To Oonoki he said, "You knew Uchiha Madara personally, Tsuchikage. Now's your chance to get even." Finally, jade eyes settled on the acting Hokage. "And you. Konoha was decimated recently thanks to Akatsuki. I'm sure as the acting Hokage, you will be the first to agree that they must be stopped."

The dirty look A shot Danzo just then was not lost on Kankuro. Puzzled, he wondered if Danzo was as unpopular with those who didn't know the extent of his treachery as he was with the rest of them.

"I think this is a prudent idea," Mifune said. "And as the neutral party here, I'd like to offer my advice on who should lead this great alliance."

"Hey! We haven't even agreed to this yet!" the Raikage said.

"I think it's a good idea," Mei said, twisting her long hair between a thumb and forefinger. "I'm tired of Akatsuki and all the trouble they're causing for my village's reputation."

"I agree," Danzo said, much to Gaara surprise. "Akatsuki must be stopped."

"Who do you think would be best fit to lead, Mifune-sama?" Oonoki said, crossing his little arms.

"In my opinion, the Hokage is the most natural choice. I believe Konoha is the last Hidden Village still in possession of a Jinchuuriki, which seems to be Akatsuki's target."

"What! If there's going to be any kind of shinobi alliance, Kumo should be in charge. We're the only village with no connection to Akatsuki, so that makes us trustworthy."

Mifune stared at the ruin that was once that Raikage's table place. "With all due respect, Raikage-sama, you allow your emotions to rule your judgment. I fear you would destroy this alliance as surely as you destroyed that table."

The squabbling started up again, and Kankuro could only look on in frustration. Beside him, Temari looked similarly exasperated.

"This is unexpected," she whispered. "I didn't expect Mifune-sama to nominate Danzo, of all people."

"I don't like this," Kankuro whispered back. "We need to expose Danzo before they decide to make him the leader—"

Kankuro abruptly cut himself off when one of the Mizukage's bodyguards suddenly jumped down from his post and landed on the table next to his leader. "Hokage, show me your right eye!"

Everyone turned to look at the guard who had chosen to interrupt the meeting.

"Ao, what's going on?" Mei asked.

"Mizukage-sama, I believe the Hokage is hiding a Sharingan beneath those bandages. I'd recognize that chakra anywhere—it's Uchiha Shisui's chakra!"

Gaara stood up, as did A. Kankuro and Temari didn't waste any time jumping down to the meeting table to flank their brother. This was it, Kankuro thought. Danzo would be exposed!

"Shisui had the power to control a person's mind to the point that they wouldn't even realize they were being controlled," Ao went on. "I think you're using it to control Mifune-sama."

The Raikage was furious. "Danzo, you old snake. I never trusted you, but this is going too far!"

Danzo remained seated in silence, but his two bodyguards had joined him, eyes darting about the room in preparation for a fight.


The rooms occupants recoiled in shock as someone—something—suddenly materialized through the floor in the center of the room. Kankuro stared in shock at what appeared to be half of a naked man, skin too bleached to be human, and one leering yellow eye. The other bodyguards readied themselves for whatever threat this intruder presented. Kankuro summoned Scorpion and Temari gripped her giant fan, ready to strike at a moment's notice.

"Who the hell are you?" the Raikage bellowed.

The white half-man grinned, revealing an impressive row of sharpened teeth behind curling white lips. "Zetsu, but I'm just the messenger. The real guest of honor is Uchiha Sasuke."

"You're one of those Akatsuki," Oonoki said. "The one that can travel freely underground."

Zetsu's wide smile faltered slightly. "How did you know that?"

"Uchiha Sasuke is here?" Danzo said.

"Gaara," Temari whispered to her brother. "I don't know why Sasuke's here, but I have a feeling it's not to pay his respects."

Gaara nodded discreetly. "I'll take care of it before he does anything more to incriminate himself."

He disappeared in a flurry of sand, leaving Temari and Kankuro behind to track him down on foot. At the Kazekage's sudden disappearance, A bellowed angrily.

"I don't think so. If anyone's getting a piece of that Uchiha runt, it's me. Shī, find him."

The Raikage's blonde bodyguard nodded resolutely and executed a few hand seals. "He's two floors below us." After a moment he added, "He has three others with them, also strong. One of them is a sensor type..."

Kankuro and Temari didn't bother sticking around to hear the rest. Zetsu cackled at the Kage's antics.

"You're all going to die!" he sang.

Mei stood up and materialized by Zetsu's side in an instant, leaning down close to his face. He looked taken aback at the sudden proximity.

"Die, huh?" She tapped her lips, an enigmatic smirk concealing secrets better left unsaid. "I think I'm too pretty to die just yet."

She blew Zetsu a kiss, and he began to melt. Screeching ensued as he felt the pain of her deadly steam technique boiling his skin. Mei simply smiled sweetly, and the other Kage looked on in horrified silence.

"He's two floors up, to the east," Karin said, wiping sweat from her brow.

"Good. Let's go," Sasuke ordered, motioning for her to follow. "Suigetsu, Juugo. Make sure no one gets in my way."

"Be careful, Sasuke," Juugo said.

"Disclaimer, if I kill anyone it's only because I was clearing a path for you. Cool?" Suigetsu grinned and brandished Kubikiribouchou.

"As long as I get Danzo, I don't care what excuse you make up."

Suigetsu's grin faltered and he peered at their leader suspiciously. Ever since Itachi kicked the can, Sasuke had been different. Something changed in him, something dark and cold with rending talons ready to lash out at the slightest provocation. Karin was worried, he could tell. She was snappier with him and quieter around Sasuke, uncharacteristically so. He wondered if she sensed something different in him too. And Juugo, well, he would always put Sasuke before himself. After everything they'd been through, they were practically family now.

A really fucking dysfunctional family.

But a family nonetheless.

"Stop procrastinating," Sasuke said irritably. "Get moving."

Suigetsu rolled his eyes. "Yeah yeah, don't get your panties in a twist, Fearless Leader."

Sasuke ignored him, which was only further proof that something was not quite right with him. Suigetsu sighed and nodded to Juugo. The pair of them took off ahead and to the right to head off any incoming samurai or shinobi. Sasuke and Karin headed for the stairs.

They didn't get far before a violent sandstorm whipped up out of nowhere, blocking their path.

"Uchiha Sasuke."

The last Uchiha glared into the eye of the storm, recognizing that voice and malevolent chakra signature from so many years ago. "Sabaku no Gaara."

The Fifth Kazekage materialized before him in a whirlwind of chakra infused sand, an admittedly impressive entrance, if Sasuke was honest with himself. He instinctively brought a hand up in front of Karin.

"Stay behind me and out of sight."

"This guy's chakra is through the roof, Sasuke," Karin said, staring wide-eyed at the Kazekage. "This is dangerous—"

"I can handle him." Fixing cold Sharingan on his former nemesis, Sasuke appended, "I did once before."

Karin scowled. "Arrogant son of a bitch," she mumbled. But it was only a shadow of her usual brash commentary. With Sasuke's chakra as cold as it was now, a part of her wasn't sure who the real danger here really was.

"I'm not here to fight you," Gaara said. "I just want to talk."

"There's nothing I have to say to you. Get out of my way, or I'll kill you."

Gaara smirked. "Bold words for a guy who had to stand on the sidelines while Naruto defeated me."

If Sasuke was affected by his words, he didn't let on. "Bold words coming from the guy who lost to Deidara."

Gaara narrowed his eyes at the Uchiha avenger. He was not here to trade blows to their egos. "Listen to me, Sasuke. I don't like you. I never have, and I probably never will. But Naruto and Sakura seem to think highly of you, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for them just this once."

Sasuke chuckled humorlessly and cracked his knuckles. "Is this your plan? Sway me with pathos? You of all people should understand why I'm doing this."

"I do, and that's why I'm going to stop you."

"Then prepare to die!"

Sasuke didn't even finish his sentence before he flung himself toward Gaara, Chidori roaring. A wall of sand greeted the lightning blade in a shower of sparks, repelling Sasuke's attack and sending him flying backwards. Demon sand raced after him in deadly tendrils, meaning to entrap and paralyze him. But the last Uchiha was fast, and he remembered a thing or two about Gaara's attacking style from their Genin days.

"Katon: Gokakyu no jutsu!"

A raging ball of fire collided with Gaara's animated sand, arresting its movement and allowing Sasuke the extra second he needed to escape the incoming sand coffin. After a few moments, though, Gaara's sand snuffed out the fireball completely.

"I don't have the patience that Naruto and Sakura have for you, so I'm giving you one final chance. Hear me out, and stop this madness."

"There's nothing you can say that will change my mind," Sasuke said.

Gaara's lips twisted in irritation. "I don't blame you for wanting Danzo dead. He murdered innocent Uchiha clansmen for their Sharingan—"

"He what?"

A tense silence reigned momentarily as understanding dawned. "You didn't know..."

"Did you just say that Danzo murdered Uchiha and stole their eyes?" Sasuke spat. "On top of what he did to my brother..." Sasuke gripped his head in his hands. "After everything he put Itachi through, I'll fucking destroy him."

"What are you talking about?" Gaara demanded. "What does Itachi have to do with anything?"

But the time for talking was over, it seemed. When Sasuke finally looked up again, his Sharingan had morphed into an unfamiliar form. Gaara didn't know what it was, but he had a feeling things were about to get very ugly. Kankuro and Temari picked that time to show up, flanking their brother.

"Gaara!" Temari called.

But Gaara didn't have time to worry about his siblings.


Black flames materialized before the Sand siblings, growing larger until Sasuke hurled them directly at Gaara. Sand flew up to meet the flames, shielding the three siblings from their smoldering wrath. Gaara sent more chakra into his sand, fortifying the wall and keeping the flames at bay. He felt his strength leeching away with every passing second.

"What is that?" Kankuro said, awed by the extreme heat and raw power the flames exuded. Stygian tendrils licked at the sides of the sand barrier, threatening to overcome it. Gaara brought his hands together and flew through a round of hand seals, whereby more sand joined the wall and attempted to surround the flames completely.

Little by little the flames disappeared beneath the sand, and Gaara began to sweat with the exertion. The sand wall that faced them began to warp under the extreme heat, revealing shimmering black beneath it.

His flames melted my sand to glass...

Gaara fell to one knee as he maintained the glass orb filled with shimmering black flames, willing it to hold strong. No fire jutsu could transform his sand like this, he thought. This was unreal.

"Not good enough," Sasuke rasped.

Gaara looked up and noticed that blood leaked from Sasuke's left eye. What power...

"Now die!" Sasuke shouted, his evolved Sharingan spinning.

The giant orb suddenly began flying toward the Sand siblings. Gaara watched, shocked, as it closed in on them. The orb burst, scattering glass across the room and releasing the fury of the black flames trapped within, now morphed into the shape of a cackling face ready to devour the three Suna shinobi. It opened its jaws with a roar that shook the foundations of the structure.

Just when Gaara mustered the energy to draw upon his chakra reserves to deflect the mad flames and buy them time to escape, a translucent barrier appeared between the flames and his siblings, trapping Sasuke's jutsu within its walls. The black fire monster screeched, a bright light suddenly forming in the center of its mouth. A silent implosion ensued, and Sasuke's technique was engulfed in blinding light before disintegrating into nothingness.

"Che, kids these days can't even pull their own weight," Oonoki said.

Gaara turned to see the pint-sized Tsuchikage standing beside him, arms crossed and the permanent scowl on his face even more prominent as he glared at Sasuke across the room.

"Thank you," Gaara said.

Oonoki spared him a cursory glance out of the corner of his eye and grunted. "Be a darn shame if you died so young."

Gaara smirked. "I wouldn't have died, old man. I was just getting warmed up."

"Ha! You got spunk, kid, I'll give you that."

"Uchiha Sasuke!"

The Raikage appeared with his bodyguards just then, and Sasuke was now severely outnumbered.

"Now what," Sasuke grumbled. "This is a waste of time. The only Kage I want to see is Danzo so I can rip his head off."

"No, Raikage," Gaara said. "I still have business with him."

Sasuke looked between the three Kage and their guards, frustration building as he searched for a way around them. They didn't concern him; his objective was Danzo.

"Sasuke, someone's coming. Someone strong," Karin said suddenly.

He turned to look over his shoulder, eyes narrowing as the ones Karin was talking about suddenly rounded the corner. The familiar shock of blonde hair only served to irritate him further. He did not have time for them right now.

"Sasuke! What the hell are you doing?" Naruto yelled.

"Naruto, Sakura," Sasuke said, turning to face his former teammates. "Kakashi."

It was not lost on them that he deliberately ignored Sai and Yamato.

"Sasuke, we know about Madara," Kakashi said. "We know everything he told you and why you're here."

Anger flared in Sasuke's eyes, illuminating his Mangekyou Sharingan. "Then you know there's no stopping me until I get the justice Itachi deserves."

"We're not here to argue with you on that," Kakashi reasoned, voice calm. "But there are things you don't know. Just let me explain—"

"I'm done listening to other people's explanations, like they'll make everything better," Sasuke snapped. "I've got news for you, sensei. I decided my own path this time, and I choose Itachi, not Konoha."

"Sasuke please!" Sakura entreated. "It doesn't have to be this way. We all know Danzo isn't who he says he is."

Sasuke began to laugh. It was slow and soft at first, but it built into a full-fledged mockery of his old team's pleas. "See? This is why I left you all behind. None of you will ever understand! All I have left is hatred, and I'll use it to get revenge for Itachi and the rest of the Uchiha that Konoha threw away. If any of you get in my way, I'll kill you."

"Sasuke," Karin said, horrified. "What's wrong with you?"

"There's nothing wrong with him."

All eyes turned to the new voice as it was followed by a rapidly materializing body.

"Madara," Naruto growled.

"Uchiha Madara," Oonoki said. "Is that really you?"

"I'd love and stay and chat," Madara said, looking between the room's many occupants. "But I'm a bit pressed for time. Sasuke, you failed me here. It's time to leave."

Sasuke glared at the masked man. "I don't take orders from you. Taka is my team, not yours."

"Perhaps, but your target's already left the premises. Would you prefer to stay here and reminisce about the good old days?"

Sasuke narrowed his eyes in suspicion at the masked man before turning to Karin. "Karin."

She nodded. "Danzo's chakra disappeared. He's not in area anymore."

"No way," Naruto said. "You're not leaving before we have a chance to talk."

Sasuke met Naruto's challenging gaze with an air of intimidation despite his grievous eye injuries. "I don't have time for you, Naruto."

"Let's be on our way then," Madara said.

The air around them began to swirl, as though bending time and space.

"I don't think so!" the Raikage shouted. He then proceeded to launch a thick lightning bolt at the retreating threesome, making everyone's hair stand on end. Sasuke paid him no mind, holding Naruto's angry gaze until he evaporated completely, untouched by the Raikage's technique.

"Sasuke!" Naruto shouted, lunging himself at the space where Sasuke had been just a moment ago.

"Naruto," Sakura said, rushing to his side.

"Damnit," Naruto growled, his voice thick with desperation and regret. "Not again."

Sasuke was gone.

Author's note: I'm very sorry for not responding to everyone's reviews for that last chapter. I was super busy in real life for a while, so I had no time for fic-related anything. Thank you to everyone who reviewed since my last update. I promise that I'll get back to my habit of responding to all the signed reviews personally after this chapter.