by gelfling
Summary: In which lost animals are found, walking around occurs, and a fight starts. Unbetaed.

If you hold a bird gently, the bird will stay. If you hold it too hard, it's eyes'll bug out. And then the pet shop owner won't let you hold the mice and animals anymore.
--Rose (Betty White), The Golden Girls

The ocean bay was a cold blue with oily iridescent highlights, the run-off from early spring's heavy rains and winds.

It was desolate enough on the waterfront that he didn't have to hide (since there was no one to hide from), but Kakashi lurked in the shadows of the harbor's warehouses out of habit. Bits of styrofoam, plastic bags, and other garbage floated serenely on the water.

Times had changed since the fires in autumn, but it wasn't exactly more or less dangerous to be identified as a shinobi. The hubris and debris of monsters and demons that Naruto had collected in the continent's center had terrorized and driven people to the borders or foreign lands, but the monster population itself hadn't spread. Kakashi guessed the beasts were too busy tearing each other apart to start on the easier prey, and hoped he was right.

It was still profitable business, ninja espionage and assassination, but people watched him longer, closer, when he went outside. It was unfriendly, but not hostile, and was the best he had hoped for. People continued to pay (often reluctantly), and that was all that really mattered.

People stared at what was left of Team Nine too, but they blended in better than he felt like doing. Didn't exactly matter though; the monsters were too busy killing each other to organize and be a real problem. The samurai and ronin were the ones with the high demand and fatality rate now, not the shinobi.

Still—Kakashi shifted against the dull concrete wall and watched a plastic bag bob—he felt quiet inside, and cold, cold deep down where the weather couldn't touch.

It'd been a little over a week or so now, and he still hadn't thought up a good way to kill the Sand kid. He had a couple of ideas and had tossed them around with a couple more, but he had nothing good enough that met his standards.

If the kid was just extraordinary, then at least Kakashi could trust him to stay dead, but the demon complicated things. Not even the Yondaime had thought up a way to kill a demon—theoretically, it wasn't possible. And it was the demon, more than the kid, that wanted Kakashi dead.

All over the waterfront—all across the bay, actually—there wasn't a single sea gull. No birds, anywhere.

The mangy alley cat Hinata had taken in was gone. The scrawny animal had been missing fur, an ear, and half its tail. It would tear the kitchen apart if they left it alone and rip up Hinata's plants, and bite anyone who came close to it, except Neji, and he'd only kept it because Hinata wanted it.

The animal had been missing for two days, and Hinata was still looking for it in her free time. Not even the sparrows or mice had touched the cat's kibble she'd left outside.

The street dogs hadn't sniffed Kakashi when he'd half-walked, half-limped his way down to the waterfront. Dogs didn't bark at him and almost never attacked, but they noticed him, and made sure he noticed them, even if they weren't looking for food or a hand. The street dogs had disappeared, and the penned-in dogs were silent now, reclusive.

All the lower life forms seemed to be evacuating, and Kakashi still wasn't sure who'd take leadership among the refugees if the monster killed him. Probably Iruka, but Neji and Ino had the talents to handle it together, if they could manage to keep off each other's backs. He'd already shipped Lee off to Asuma and Shino in the far north for 'rehabilitation' and security purposes. It hadn't been a complete lie, and with Gai still missing and possibly dead (probably), there weren't too many other people he trusted.

If he were following the stereotype of a traditional Western roughed-up protagonist, he'd probably be chain-smoking right now (or at least smoking a single desolately) or drinking. Because he wasn't, and because he didn't smoke and only drank in company or when suicidal, Kakashi only stared vacantly at nothing, leaving without a trace when the tide dropped low.

He did pick up a packet of cigarettes on his way back though. That probably didn't count.

Six months ago:

In the provinces of Stone in the far north the dry artic air cut over the high craggy mountain precipices, cut through the jagged thin ravines and sharpened every rock and pebble sharper than the finest whetstone could've done. The landscape ranged from coal black to silk gray, to snakeskin-brittle to iron-hard. Little green grew in Stone, and it tended to stick close to the ground, to hide from the ice siroccos.

Stone was a land of little rain, cold wind, and ragged shadows: Stone was wolf country, cold and gray and mysterious, and it always made Naruto feel just a little on edge.

Not too on edge of course—the only monsters he had to worry about was the one who slept in his bed, and the other that slept in his head—but just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

As a boy, he'd grown up with trees and buildings on all sides, and there was always a handy bush or alleyway to lurk in, and the fox in Naruto—which, while a monster, was still a fox—hated wolves, hated the infertile bedrock, hated the wide open sky.

So, with both centers of his being finally agreeing for once, Naruto had started a small garden on one of the small sheltered shelves above the fortress of the Demon King.

He'd planted mint.

The human part of him didn't really like mint, because it reminded him of toothpaste. The part of him that liked to roll in the dirt and garf down raw meat just didn't like it. Didn't like the smell. Made his muzzle itch.

Most of the soil in the garden was imported, and the mint burrowed and crawled through it, shoving up unusually tall waist-high stalks and white cones of tiny flowers. It was the only little spot of green for miles around, unless you counted Gaara's eyes, which Naruto didn't. The miserable little garden kept away whatever homesickness he felt, lowered his instinctual hackles, and passively annoyed him.

First, Naruto had tried dousing a section of the mint in petrol, then lighting the plant on fire. The smoke had been thick, very smelly (and a bit like toothpaste), and the damn thing had not burned particularly well at all. A few days later, after the half-assed fire had gone but the horrible stink lingered, Naruto ripped through another section with a rusty old scimitar that had been stolen from…somewhere, and left rusting somewhere else. Then he'd tried pouring bleach and other poisons over most of it, and that actually worked. The green bastards turned yellow and black and withered into crispy brown corpses.

For a while.

When Naruto had returned weeks later after killing one of his back-stabbing lieutenants—and it'd been one of the guys he'd actually liked, with funny hair, how fucked up was that?—he found that there were little yellow shoots clinging to the edges of his butt-wiped garden. Except for the first few times, when the mint had been kinda interesting, Naruto never bothered to water it.

A part of him had been impressed, and secretly proud; the rest of him had gone at the patch of sick vegetation with a flamethrower.

When Naruto had returned a couple of weeks later, the garden was still dead and black. He placed an order for more top-quality soil from Rain, and a seed packet of chrysanthemums, which was a very philosophical flower.

The next time he returned to the sequestered garden the plot of dirt was still black and ugly, dry. And, poking out of the sharp hard rock walls on three sides of the garden, were tiny sticks of sickly mint.

The packet of chrysanthemums was flushed down the toilet, in case you were wondering.

He could…hear music playing. Far away. Very far away, small and strangled-out, but he could hear…something. Strange. Very strange, and badly executed.

He didn't want to hear it. He didn't…want. To hear anything.

He wanted silence.

He was tired. He was so unbearably. Tired.

Gaara woke.

The sounds were more definite now: the foggy susurrus of buildings and trees carving out notes in the breeze, the dull clatter of people walking around, moving things, talking.

People far away, but not too far.

Not far enough.

It was harder to do than anything else in his life had even been, but Gaara managed to open his eyes. His eyelids felt gummy, glued together—his body stank, of sweat, urine, and blood.

He was sitting against a wall in the shade. In front of him was another wall, yellow brick and white stucco (was that right? Did it matter? …No), glowing with the sunlight hitting it. He was in…not a street, an alley. There was blue sky overhead, with a few white clouds.

It smelled…organic. Warm.

Gaara closed his eyes, and reached.

He didn't want this.

He'd…been there. Silent. Cold.

He'd been there and it'd been…so…

Like a building regaining power, he began to regain feeling of his body, became aware of his toes and elbows and beaten hips, bruised thighs and his feet…bleeding. Still bleeding, badly. Still. And not healing.




He didn't scream. He didn't. He didn't want to regain control, if it meant he had to feel.

Feel those…that

The price was too high. Too high.

But he was himself. Still.

For the moment.

Wincing, lethargically, Gaara cracked his left eye open. He focused on the dark fuzzy lines instinctually, and concentrated until he could make out the legs and body of the other person in the alley with him.

He thought, briefly, of all the people in the world who wouldn't want to kill him, all the people he wouldn't want to kill.

He couldn't think of anyone.

It hurt too much to move—he was empty, dead and drained. Empty. Completely and utterly empty. He didn't know why he felt that way, what had happened or when, but…

Gaara kept the man's gaze, an eye for an eye, and felt his throat dry out as he breathed slow and weak, spit dried to the corner of his mouth.

Even when Kakashi tiptoed nearer like a wolf scavenging a kill, Gaara kept his eye open. It wasn't the issue of death that bothered him, or even being murdered by a human, something he could rip apart in seconds.

It was a matter of…curiosity. Pride. Blood—

--blood lust; his blood or the human's, he wanted to be conscious blood was shed.

He hadn't lost that.

The cold blues and searing greens and dead grays in Kakashi's uniform blurred as he came closer, the colors—

--he had to blink to stay awake, conscious, here

--the colors swimming together in his head, sloshing back in forth with gravity and hunger and an overload of sensory material—too much to handle, too much to understand.

It made him sick to his stomach, the colors and smell, the—

--the stench of human and sweat and old skin, the smell of something--

//(someone always mine (mine?) always me mine but you're not we're not you're not—//

--pain and death and power and the stink of human loss and weakness and reminding jabbing poking bleeding him--

//none, never, not, none, nothing, no one not one nothing never me--//

--starving him--

//always marked smell mark mine mine me mine always I'm not we're not you're not--//


--which was why Kakashi had him halfway down the block before Gaara realized he was being carried in the other man's arms.

He was still, as the great poet had once said in a clairvoyant moment of epiphany, painfully hung-over, but Naruto didn't let that bother him too much. Not too much. Not as much as he could have, if Sasuke hadn't screwed him over so very successfully.

He'd been hung-over before. He'd never been hung-over this long or badly before, but he'd live through it.

Maybe. If it got less painful.

Every three or four steps he'd stumble on the dirty sand, trip on a used condom or beer bottle, or kick a dead jelly fish. He was a few hundred kilometers south of Yaka-whatever. Yaka-something. Or was it Something-mori?

Where Iruka was. Naruto was aware that he could be there tonight, if he mysteriously acquired a motorbike. Which would be easy. If he wanted to.

Voices several meters ahead of him caught Naruto's attention, briefly: a trio of kids were gathered around a beached dolphin, a light grayish lump on the sand.

After he'd come to yesterday afternoon in an alley smelling strongly of piss and vomit (and now pipe cleaner and bleach), stumbled around and thrown up himself, Naruto had ransacked Sasuke's hotel room, ripped through the mattress and smelled every crack in the floorboards and walls.

The place had reeked of bleach, and burned through Naruto's sinuses and had made him violently sick—or was that just the hang-over? It could have been the hang-over. This horrible, horrible hang-over that made him want to cry and fall to his knees and suck his thumb, made him want to rip someone's ribs apart. Such a horrible, horrible hang-over.

Fucking A.

Either way, Sasuke was gone and so was his smell. The jerk hadn't even left a note or said good-bye proper.

On the beach, Naruto raised his eyebrows as a fourth kid came flying down the beach with a fishing pike held over his head, heading for the dolphin group. The trio moved away from the gray lump silently, obediently, and Naruto watched as the beached animal curled its tail and moved an arm to crawl away.

The kid slowed and stopped a few cautious feet away, raised the pike in a business-like manner, then screamed when his bare arm caught fire, blue-orange flames crushing the wooden pike handle to splinters. Scarlet and green flames ripped through the damp sand and any sandals that weren't running away fast enough.

Naruto tripped and meandered on until he was close enough to crouch by the mermaid on the dirty (and now bloody) sand. He patted his pockets absently for a cigarette he didn't have.

"Are there any guys with you people? I mean, I like fishy dyke action as much as the next guy, but are you all girls? Like, all of you? How do you make babies?"

The mermaid's inky smooth eyes were half-open, turning gray in the center from too much sunlight, her gills bloated and discolored from oxygen deprivation. Naruto scratched his knees as he watched her breathe through her mouth, slow and thin.

He desperately wanted a cigarette.

"I could kill you," he murmured, knowing she couldn't understand him, could barely hear the wavelength his voice was on even if she'd been healthy. "But you're going to die anyway. It'd be mercy, whatever I do. Even if I do nothing. To someone."

Two big black flies settled on her hairless gray eyelids, licked her eyes with their tongues. Her eyelids twitched, but she couldn't blink and the flies stayed where they were. Naruto wasn't sure she could see him, if she was looking at him.

"Whatever I do," Naruto murmured, wrapping his hand around her neck and pressing her esophagus in, "I doubt I'll surprise anyone."

He threw her back into the ocean, easily. Then he continued trawling up the beach, heading north.

One of the nice things about Asuma-sensei was the fact that he was considerate enough to smoke, constantly. Ino could pass through a room or huddle on a tree branch and know if Asuma-sensei had been through there just by the smell of cheap cigarettes; it made him more human.

For a jounin, Asuma-sensei was pretty normal, reliable. If people were in danger, Asuma-sensei would probably let someone else take care of it. If Chouji was sick to his stomach from over-eating, Asuma-sensei had probably gotten him that way. If Shikamaru was absent, or hidden away somewhere they'd never think to look, Asuma-sensei would send Ino out to look for him, while Asuma sat in the shade and smoked.

The nice thing about Asuma-sensei was that he made sense. He'd been lazy and dull and very teacher-ish, but he'd made sense. Sense was nice.

Kakashi passed her in the foyer on his way up the stairs, carrying another man in his arms.

Ino slowed down, and stared. "Sensei?"

"Yeah?" Kakashi didn't slow down, moving up the creaky wooden steps in absolute silence. If she hadn't been used to it, Ino would've been jealous.

"What are you doing?" Ino asked, because it was perfectly possible that maybe Kakashi was bringing home a corpse, or had found a very good lifelike doll, and had done something completely and totally different that had nothing to do, whatsoever, with bringing home a bloodied-up guy that looked a hell of a lot like the monster that had helped kill half of Konohakagure's people. Including her family. And Kakashi's, if he had any.

It was perfectly possible. Kakashi-sensei wasn't that reckless. Kakashi-sensei was really very, very smart. Everyone knew that.

"Going upstairs," Kakashi answered, before moving silently out of her sight.

Kakashi-sensei probably had never heard of sense. At least, not common sense. Which was strange, because he and Asuma-sensei had gotten along very well.

Ino skipped up the first four loudly-creaking steps, "Need help killing it?"

"No, thanks."

"Want me to get Iruka-sensei?" because he'd want to kill it.

"Fine. Get Hinata here, while you're at it."

It hadn't been long; not that long.

After all, it was only last fall—a few months ago—that he'd burned down the forest, torched Konohakagure and most of the Fire Country. It wasn't even spring yet—still mid-winter, really.

In reality, it hadn't really been long at all. Not long enough to leave him feeling this thrashed and beaten, gouged out and torn up. Hell, he'd been riding the wave, spurring it on, winning, and then he'd…tripped. Tumbled. And it really hurt.

Naruto hung out of the train's passenger window, an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Trains were still something of a novelty to him—he'd done a lot of traveling when he was busy creating himself, a workable kingdom, and he'd ridden the subway and other trains when he was on vacation with Gaara and screwing like monkeys on side, but trains still fascinated him.

It was just—just the idea. The feeling of moving so fast, in a straight line, going faster than he could on foot or by animal and doing it so damn easily, without tiring his body or straining himself in any way. He loved trains; they were fun. The ride was even helping his hang-over; he could sleep on the bench if he wanted to, let the gentle swaying and straight lines soothe his mind.

If he were to evaluate his situation—which came naturally when he was smoking and moderately content and still-hung over—he'd find himself homeless (again) and loveless (again). Or lover-less at least; friend-less. Most definitely still hung over.

In the great scheme of things, he'd never planned on this scenario. He'd planned on being dead, but not on being alone. He didn't have a plan out of it, either. He hadn't thought he'd need one.

//I miss you.//

Naruto ducked inside the empty train car and slouched in his seat. He'd finally managed to acquire some decent clothes from a tourist-y beach store (he'd removed the price tags), mainly for his own benefit than for anyone else's. He didn't care if anyone saw him naked; he didn't even have to worry about shrinkage, since his cock stayed mainly the same length regardless of the cold. Normal people couldn't even see him if he didn't feel like being seen; he'd just gotten tired of cold drafts in sensitive places, of seeing himself looking like that.

//I have your power. All of it. I did what we wanted. Have I complained about this before? I think I have. I can't really remember.//

Did he want his kingdom back? The political power, the wealth?

Naruto inhaled deeply, the cigarette lighting on its own, and exhaled smoke through his nose.

In some ways, it'd been nice—he'd gotten nearly whatever he wanted, nearly whoever he wanted, and he had all the control.

He'd been—nearly—completely free.

Sure, it'd taken a lot of work. A whole lot of work; managing people and motives and profits, keeping everyone inside his organization on a leash long enough to keep them happy but short enough to choke them if they tried to do something stupid, keeping everyone on the outside uncertain enough not to attack him but certain enough to deal with him.

It'd taken a lot of work, balancing, climbing.

//You could have told me.//

Most of it hadn't been his work.

He'd been the puppet, not the master--and he'd been fine with that, he'd gotten what he wanted out of the deal. No one else knew (except maybe Gaara, who wouldn't care), and he hadn't been used badly.

//You could have said goodbye. Told me that you would leave my head, after you got your revenge./ /

At least, he didn't think he'd been used badly. Not really.

//I guess revenge was the only thing keeping you alive, at the end, huh?//

Being a shinobi was all about being used, being someone else's tool, for better or worse. And, even if he'd taken a different direction in life, that was how he'd been raised. How he'd been told to think, even if he did fight back plenty and hardly listened.

//So, if I'm like you, will I die too? Once I get what I want?//

The train slowed and the intercom beeped lowly, and Naruto inhaled on another cigarette while walking onto the loading platform. A chill wind combed him over, going through his summer clothes—a black polo, orange nylon swim trunks, and violently green plastic sandals—like a heated knife through butter.

//I miss you. I didn't think…I would. This much. The voice inside my head.//

Yakawa. Miserable little port town, in his opinion.

Naruto wandered in to town, badly dressed for the winter, and didn't even feel the cold. Underneath his skin his blood was heated, and hungry.

In darkness—

--he floated. It was quiet.

Outside darkness—

--ants built iron towers in red pain outside his head outside silence red crimson tiny ants with feet and fingers and knives and teeth and—

//kill them//



--someone's skin on his skin.



Gaara sank back into silence, harmless.

"Are you out of your mind?! Have you gone completely blood simple, do you have any idea—"

"Listen--" Kakashi inhaled.

"Eh, s-sensei, maybe—"

"He's right," Neji interrupted.

"—monster is? What it did to us—what it did to—"

"B-but Neji, m-maybe--"

"You're being irration—"

"It's a danger to every—"

"—b-badly hurt, h-he can't--"

"--including you, Kakashi-san."

"—out of your mind? What were you thinking bringing that—"

"Can you all shut up?" Kakashi didn't bothering looking up as he finished one of the inked wards on Gaara's right forearm, the mixture of kanji and bindings resembling a home-made tattoo job.

Logically, he'd known things wouldn't go over well when he brought the kid home. He'd expected opposition, hostility, and resistance.

He'd hadn't planned on throwing half the compound out of the attic, but it wasn't nearly as bad as he'd expected; no one actually tried to go through him to get to the kid.

At least, not yet anyway.

"You shouldn't bother," Neji added again, sounding strangely relaxed. "It's nearly dead anyway."

"We can't wait until it recovers consciousness," Iruka had brought his voice down to a more tolerable level, angrier and more violent than Kakashi could honestly ever remember. "I don't know what you were thinking or your motives but we have no possible way--"

"If he dies," Kakashi began working on the right forearm, connecting the chakra points and throughways, "the demon inside him will be released."

"—to control him or it, regardless," Iruka continued seething, reminding Kakashi of one of the many ways Iruka could be his least favorite person to argue with; Iruka didn't step down if it meant endangering other people, even if risk seemed lucrative. "And that result is only theoretical at best, but if he wakes up…"

Kakashi hoped this was only a dramatic pause, and continued to scribble.

"This was the one that broke your legs," Iruka watched him from the other side of the low cot. "Wasn't it?"

"Yeah," because there was no point in lying about it now.

"But it didn't kill you."

Ah crap. Kakashi repressed the urge to react, "No. It didn't."

"Ah," Hinata broke the prolonged moment quietly, her nervous frowning accentuating her heavily veined eyes as she studied the scant energy flows in Gaara's body. "Eh, he, ah, he isn't w-well enough to, um…d-do anything. He's n-nearly dead."

Kakashi finished up with the right arm, noting the Hinata was probably the only one in the room who would call Gaara a 'he', instead of an 'it'.

"Those restraints won't hold it," Neji added off to the side, arriving at the same conclusion Iruka had without choosing a course of action. "Not if it wakes up."

"They're not supposed to," Kakashi stood, eyeing the inked markings and iron bed frame Gaara was laying on, separated only by a few heavy old sheets and some sheaves of broken cardboard boxes. "Iruka, I want to talk to you outside. Hinata, keep an eye on him."

Of course, if Neji wanted to kill the kid, Hinata wouldn't be able to stop him. But still, for the look of things…

Iruka closed the attic's trapdoor behind them quietly, the tense restrained energy showing in his every clipped movement, from the way he moved his neck to the way he looked at Kakashi—not glaring, not seething, but only barely.

In a perverse way, Kakashi found it highly amusing—good to see some fire back in Iruka, the paternal protectiveness and maternal bloodlust. He kept himself from smiling though; Iruka wouldn't get the joke.

"I found him in the city," Kakashi stated quietly, weighing the chances of being openly attacked, knowing Neji and Hinata (and probably Ino and Shikamaru below them) were listening in, through the cracks or jutsus or whatever was handy. "He was already like this."

"Why did you bring him here?" Iruka sounded strained, cold. "For what purpose?"

"Thought that would be obvious," Kakashi slouched against the wall, letting himself sound mildly surprised (not enough to enrage him, but enough piss Iruka off). "Observational purposes; it's easier to defend ourselves if our enemy is in plain sight and in our custody--"

"That thing isn't in our custody Kakashi," Iruka hissed, keeping his voice low, "that thing was never--"

"It was a calculated risk."

"—our control. And, perhaps, neither are you."

"You weren't a qualified psychoanalyst when Konoha was standing," Kakashi pointed out irritably, "you're not one now either. And I told you: it was a calculated risk."

"It attacked you and let you live," Iruka returned, "the same thing the Fox did to Sasuke, and you didn't have any problem doubting his sanity. Why should we treat yours differently?"

Damn. He really hated arguing with Iruka.

"Because I know what the demon was trying to do to me," Kakashi sighed, languidly frustrated, "I don't know what the fox's goals were with Sasuke, or the extent of the damage. The sand demon attacked me originally with the intent of murder. The only reason it let me live was because it wanted to make a deal."

"A deal? A deal," Iruka raised an eyebrow incredulously. "And you believed it?"

"It asked me to destroy its human vessel," Kakashi shrugged, nonchalant, "then to kill it, within a two week period. The human vessel doesn't have much power left, as the Hyuugas have pointed out, so we can reasonably control it for a time—let me finish first—and I don't think demons are suicidal. Maybe they are, maybe it is, but I would prefer to take cautious action."

"You brought it home with you!"

"Yes," Kakashi acknowledged, noting that Iruka became the stereotypical parent to almost everyone, "it tracked me down the first time, and it seems to have tracked me down again. As long as I'm in the group and the demon exists, everyone is always at risk because I'm the one it's after. If you want me to leave,"—and that may have been the better course of action, he knew that--"I will, but I need some time to prepare."

"It's only targeted you," Iruka mused. "What are you planning—what were you planning to do? By bringing it here?"

"I told you, observational purposes. Keep the human vessel where we can see it, monitor its health, energy, and keep it alive but only barely until we have a surer course of action available. He's not entirely unmanageable—Sand kept him tame for several years," Kakashi reasoned, trying build on the tiny moment of Iruka-curiosity, "before they were destroyed."

"I don't want to follow their example," Iruka hissed again, keyed-up. "What the hell are you planning to do if it's not manageable?"

"Take the uncalculated risk," Kakashi shrugged again, "and cut his throat. It's not hard."

True, he was being condescending. True, also, Iruka was being stubborn, over-protective, and had several valid concerns. However, Kakashi thought he was completely right and logical and since he also thought he was the unnamed leader of this cell of survivors, he would win the argument and get his way. Provided Iruka didn't put up too much of a fight and screw everything up.

Kakashi waited, and pretended to be annoyed and bored.

"We don't even know how long he's going to be unresponsive like that," Iruka groused, but silently signaling a temporary surrender. "He could snap back to life at any minute."

"We don't even know how long he was in the city," Kakashi agreed, helpful and modest after getting his way, "or what his reasons or goals are. However, at least this way we can get a clue, rather than have him running on the loose and be open to an attack at any moment. It's dangerous, but sometimes the safest hiding place is your enemy's shadow."

"Unnecessary," Iruka muttered, mildly pissed and recognizing the textbook quote; he'd made millions of brats memorize the fact, after all. "He might not have been alone."

Kakashi didn't answer immediately. He had information others probably didn't and an untested theory (which wasn't much), and everyone was on edge enough already; he had to be careful. "I don't think that's a strong possibility."

"You've been keeping a lot of things from us," Iruka said a bit too calmly. "That's a liability we can't afford."

"I tell you what you need to know; I have reaso—"

"Sensei!" Hinata's voice hissed urgently through the trap door, "the prisoner, he's--"

He would probably be followed. Happened every other time he wanted to be alone.

Ignoring the usual evidence, because the ache in his neck hadn't started throbbing red yet and he didn't feel any of Kakashi-sensei's cronies following him, Sasuke didn't take pains to skulk through the streets, didn't make himself anymore invisible than he normally did.

If he was going to be honest with himself—

No. No, that wasn't right. Wasn't correct. He was honest with himself—had always been painfully honest with himself. Lies—to the self—were self-serving, self-indulgent, and he didn't have the patience for that sort of bullshit anyway. Hell; he didn't have patience for any sort of bullshit, and the convenient kind was no different.

The problem wasn't lying to himself. That wasn't it.

He wanted to talk—no. He needed to talk to Kakashi-sensei. He needed and wanted to, badly.

But, naturally, like every other time he wanted company, he was alone. He'd probably be alone for a while, until he could stop avoiding Kakashi-sensei, keep himself from sneaking out of the compound whenever he knew Kakashi-sensei was coming.

The problem wasn't lying to himself. The problem was…the main problem was…

Even though he'd grown up in a wealthy clan, surrounded by uncles and aunts and hundreds of cousins and second-cousins he couldn't remember, people he wasn't even sure how he was related to, living in crowded spaces still bothered him. Or even living in moderately social environments like Yakawa bothered him.

Even the less moderately social environment of Konohakagure had…that had bothered him too. Knowing that everyone there knew him, knowing that they could intrude on his privacy or home whenever they wanted to (although hardly anyone did, no one except Sakura when she scraped up the courage, or Naruto when he was super bored), bothered him.

If he was going to be honest with himself—

--and he could be honest with himself, he was honest with himself—

--he missed the forests.

The huge, looming trees, taller and darker than any of the buildings or alleys he'd run across in the cities. Nothing really compared to them, in the metal and cement world; nothing matched them, nothing really even imitated them. Konahakagure had been a modern Village, complete with billboards and wireless technology, but the modernity had never drowned out the natural taste, the maze of forests.

And—as Sasuke stalked through the small community park where mothers brought their kids to play and old people came to take in the sunshine and sleep—he had no idea how old the forests even were.

The trees here, in this park and even in the rural stretches between cities and towns, were tiny. Miniscule. Itsy-bitsy. Baby-sized. And most of the trees planted were usually older than he was. Older than Kakashi. And they were still so small.

Even if he lived to see a hundred years—which he probably wouldn't, Sasuke doubted he'd live to see 30—he'd never see the forests of Konohakagure again. Not like they used to be.

That wasn't the problem either. Not the problem that was slowing him down.

Loss had followed Sasuke all his life, from his family to his friends to his home to the sacred privacy of his own mind and soul; loss was the defining feature of his existence. Of his life.

That fact had lost its melodrama over time. Now it was just something to keep in mind.

He couldn't afford to let it slow him down. He would've died, years and years ago, if he'd been that weak. That emotionally attached.

It was not particularly gentle, but Kakashi shoved open the trapdoor (and Hinata) faster than Hinata could move out of his way or Iruka could move into his way, most likely bruising some skin (and possibly egos) along the way, but he was a bit too terrified to worry about those.

There was nothing worse than being wrong. Especially when people would die because he was wrong.

The kid was still on the bed. His eyes were still closed. But his face tense, frowning, and—

--froze when Kakashi reached the bed.

The monster's breathing was labored, his ribs showing easily through his unhealthy translucent skin and torn and dirty shirt, but his face was taut. On instinct—or a gamble—Kakashi gingerly brushed a knuckle against the ravaged cheekbones, all his weight balanced on his toes and praying (something he hadn't completely forgotten to do) desperately in the quiet silence of his mind.

Gaara grunted. Then his body relaxed, and melted into the thick musty sheets.

His heartbeat sounded very loud in his temples. Not so much in his ears—his ears were picking the sub-audible whisper of drawn weapons from behind and below and the even quieter hum of chakra (could Neji kill it? Disable it? Would that actually hold the demon's power in check?)—but in his temples.

On a second guess—gamble?—he pressed his fingers, lightly, into the juncture of the teen's neck, as close to the place where the original demon had ripped flesh from him as Kakashi could determine.

Gaara's breathing steadied immediately, and slowed in the same shallow child-like trance breathing Kakashi had brought him inside with.

"I'll stay with him," Kakashi murmured gently to the shadow clones and writhing shadows at his back. "The very instant my student decides to show up, notify me."

After all, most of his decisions were based on information he wasn't even sure was correct…

"The very instant. But don't let him inside. And don't say his name."

In a way, he kind of knew what the problem was. Had a good idea of what the problem was.

He needed to talk to Kakashi-sensei. He didn't want to talk to Kakashi-sensei. Except, that he did want to talk to Kakashi-sensei; badly.

Part of the problem was, he didn't know what he wanted to do, but he was getting frustrated with his indecision and not doing anything. Not improving or degenerating. Just staying in a hot fuzzy middle area that seemed to be getting smaller and smaller, closing in on him. Bringing him down.

Even when he wasn't present, Naruto still hunted him. And Sasuke still felt like an animal, the prey.

He wanted to talk to Kakashi-sensei, but he couldn't. He couldn't see how…how anything, how the words, the information, anything, how any of it would transfer. He couldn't see how Kakashi-sensei would have any other choice but to throw him out on his ass, or make him do something he didn't want to.

But something he should have done. He knew that. He knew that.

Closing his eyes, Sasuke leaned against the trunk of one of the miniature elms, and let his legs fold underneath him and let his body and clothes sag and melt into the shadows—not ninjutsu, or even a ninja technique, but a simple trick of melting into the background. Even animals knew it; he'd learned it as a child.

Maybe Naruto wasn't wrong. But that didn't justify his actions, his violence.

Sasuke's eyes snapped open, almost on their own—that wasn't something he wanted to think about, neither in body or mind. That was something he would have liked to lie about, but since he couldn't, he ignored it until he couldn't afford to anymore.

That was the real problem. Well. No, not really. But it was part of the real problem.

It didn't even smell close to what the forests had smelled like—there was still the dried-out taste of diesel exhaust, the sunburnt feel of too much paved ground and glass. Here, in the park, he could focus on the tang of grass and weeds, the musty-oily perfume of the elm and eucalyptus, but there was always the undertone of the city.

Always the undertone of…and only in his mind, and he knew it was only his mind and he couldn't stop smelling it…

…the of ashes. Fire and blood. The sick-sweet stink of charring flesh.

The memory of darkness. Metal bars. Helplessness. Fear. Hatred, thick and foaming and poisonous. Suicidal, even.

Everything—when it had happened, it'd happened so fast, so damn fast, he couldn't think or breathe, he could only act and fight and fight and fight and fight and lose. He always lost. Lost something.

He wasn't even sure the Fox intended it. Meant for it to happen, the way he'd been the only Uchiha left alive. He was never sure if it was intentional, if he was worth something to his enemies, or if it was just convenient for them. If he was just a side-note they'd never bothered with, because he wasn't important enough.

Betrayal. He'd lost a memory.

He wasn't sure if the Fox—if Naruto—meant for him to feel the duplicity as…as keenly as he did. Maybe he didn't.

Maybe it was all only in Sasuke's head, Sasuke's heart. Maybe it wasn't real at all. Maybe he was the only one aware of the loss, the loss of hope.

He couldn't afford to become emotionally attached. He would die.

And, if he hadn't been nearly-dead, hadn't been starved and drugged out of his mind, always fighting to keep his sanity, to keep his integrity, if he hadn't—

--if he hadn't lied to himself, hadn't told himself that none of this was really happening, that Naruto would never do this, would never hurt Sakura would never hurt him not this way, not this way not ever this was sick this was wrong he wouldn't do that—

--he could have killed Naruto. It wouldn't have been easy…would've been almost impossible but only almost, he'd nearly done it once and then he'd…he'd…

Well. That was the problem, wasn't it? That was the big problem, now. The biggest. The one he needed to talk about, only he couldn't talk to anyone about this, not in a million years. Never.

He'd slept with him instead. Had…sex with him. Several times. Many times.

In different ways. And positions. And lots of different places, on the bed and shower and floor and once against the wall over and over again, Naruto underneath him or against him or kneeling in front of him. The same Naruto who'd done…everything he'd done. Everything Sasuke had lost, what hadn't been already taken by his brother.

Which made Sasuke a traitor too, by association. Maybe not on the same scale…but what if it was a trick? What if he was a fool? He was still betraying people who trusted him…somewhat. They could be killed—Kakashi-sensei could be killed—and it would be because of his…his…

Because of him.

Because he'd…

It'd happened more than once. Originally, it started because he knew the Fox was going to kill him in his sleep, that Naruto would try and break into his mind, once and for all, the minute he went to sleep, lowered his defenses. He'd known.

So he'd…stayed awake. Stayed alert. Waited, vigilant and cautious in the darkness and very, very naked and sweaty and wet with more than sweat while Naruto pressed against him, as close as he could before Sasuke instinctually kicked him or moved.

He'd been careful, heedful, he'd done all the right things, and sometimes he wouldn't sleep at all, naked or clothed and warm underneath the sheets and he'd still

--and it wasn't his fault! He wasn't trying to! He wasn't even looking for it (he wouldn't look for it why would he look for it? he wasn't that sadistic he wasn't that stupid he wasn't he wasn't he was not) and he'd still see…

…See Naruto. Wearing the Fox's face.

Simple, bland, and heart-stopping.

Traces of his friend, even though they'd never called each other that, never said what they were because it wasn't true and too embarrassing and they already knew, anyway. They didn't need to say it. They'd understood each other, in a way no one else did, in a way no one else ever had, and it'd been…perfect.

He couldn't smell without smelling fire, couldn't be inside without feeling helpless, terror, but he could see his past in the goddamned Fox and that didn't bother him.

Except that it did. As it should.

Only, sometimes it didn't.

He couldn't help flinching when he felt Fox come in the room, couldn't push the panic out of his throat, but he could shove his tongue down Naruto's throat, and could fuck him rough and hard—

--But only as long as he remembered not to be too gentle with him, as long as he remembered to act accordingly, remembered not to do what he wanted (to kiss him softly and slowly, down his back and stomach and suck his cock slow and heated and play with his body and his balls and his thighs until Naruto was writhing, keening, wanting…and then fuck him slow, tantalizing and teasing out the foreplay as long as he could, making the pleasure go as high and far and long as it could until they were both shaking inside, until Naruto was hoarse and he needed to and then just, just--).

He couldn't do…He couldn't do anything that would arouse suspicion. Nothing that would let the Fox know he was…

He had to be careful. So very careful, to make sure he wasn't caught in the shower, hands between his legs and Naruto (what Naruto used to be, who Naruto used to be) in his mind touching him there instead, doing other things to him. Had to be careful about what passed through his mind, in case Naruto was listening in, however shallowly. Had to be careful about how he even looked at Naruto, how he dreamed, what he dreamed, that he never thought about—

--about Naruto pressing him into the bed, gentle and sweet and him—him, his--between his legs and—

--He'd been so damn terrified about being raped.

About being violated. Taken. Hurt. Losing whatever integrity, whatever honor he still had left.

He still was. He still was.

If Sasuke was honest with himself—and he could be—he'd admit that he frightened himself. That he was apprehensive about how very fucked up he was inside, how twisted and misaligned and more apprehensive because he couldn't fix that, even though he tried so very damn hard.

He needed to talk to Kakashi-sensei. Badly. So badly. And what would Kakashi-sensei say? What could he say? If he couldn't fix himself, who the fuck could?

The ironic part was—the part that would make him laugh, if he wasn't trying so very hard to act rationally, to not be crazy—was even if he ignored the traces, the hints of the old friend, he still couldn't kill him. Still.

He had the enemy sleeping under his arm, sometimes burrowing underneath him at 3:15 in the morning and clinging to him, and he still couldn't kill it.

Even when he was angry. Even when he was sane. Even when he realized that he was a traitor, a hypocrite. He couldn't do…anything.

It wasn't until it got to be too much, too thick and sickening and waiting for Naruto to come, expecting to see him and not hurt and then finally seeing the goddamned box and realizing that, in truth, in reality, Naruto and he were both hypocrites.

It wasn't a grand game of cat and mouse, a lavish scheme of seduction and betrayal, it was just…just two kids, being so very incredibly stupid. Foolish. And that…that was too much.

At some point, Sasuke's eyes had closed. He could hear a woman talking 20 ft away, the words muffled, could hear a child mumbling to itself as it played in the sandbox below the red plastic slide directly in front of him. It was cold in the shade, but he liked the cold; it grounded him. The darkness behind his eyes, the quiet asylum behind his family's bloody legacy, was far less demanding than the sunlight and sand outside.

//What did you do to me?//

He hadn't done anything to make things better. All Sasuke had done, that he could see, was run away. Cause a distraction. Buy himself some time.

He wanted…Kakashi's help. He needed…someone he could trust. Another hand in the darkness, one that wasn't his or a monster's.

If he would grab that hand…that was another question.

It was…



Cold, but…


…stable. Serene.

Skin on his skin, smell of stale water, dried blood and…

…fire and lightening, charred and charged and…



…old. Stale. Flaky.


…old lightening? No. No. No, there was…there was something…

…delightfully calming. Being like…this. This way. Cold and…

…touched. Always, always touched. Caressed. Polished. So…so very…

//Familiar. This…this smell…//

Fire and lightening. Fire and blood. Lightening and…and pain. Pain, hurt, bleeding from the throat, bleeding from where he…where he couldn't reach, where he couldn't bite, where he couldn't, where he wasn't

Smell of stale water, dried blood…and metal, steel shavings and iron knives, iron bars, and—



//hurts hurts hurts hurts//



Skin on his skin. Cold. Hard. And…

…Voice. Rough, deep, threatening. Cold, imposing, and…serene. Pushing the, the noise out, making it worse, making it…

//hear me?//


//want me? you want?//

Monotonous. No change. Steady.


"…is 60. 5 by 13 is 65. 5 by 14 is 70. 5 by 15 is 75. 5 by 16 is…"

This seemed too convenient to be coincidence; there was also a chance Iruka had been completely right. Kakashi didn't think it was much of a chance, or that evasion was the best course of action, but…

"…by 26 is 130. 5 by 27 is 135. 5 by…"

The pained sub-audible whimpers weren't coming from Gaara's gaunt throat anymore, and his breathing was starting to slow again; this attack had been quieter and less dramatic than the earlier one during Kakashi's absence, but at least he'd been able to reason out a motive for that one.

Unexpectedly, Gaara's cheek turned into Kakashi's palm. The boy's—teenager's, nearly an adult Kakashi reminded himself, and a very avid murderer—eyelashes were wet, and skin possibly a few shades paler. The monster's thin ribcage continued to move in slow, excruciating movements, while the kid's overall skeleton shuddered minutely, regularly.

"5 by 31 is 155. 5 by 32 is 160. 5 by 33 is 165," There was also the chance Neji and Hinata were right; it didn't seem likely that Gaara would survive another 24 hours. Then what would he do? What could he do? How quickly could he schedule a mass-evacuation?

Most likely, not quickly enough.

"5 by 34 is 170. 5 by 35 is 175."

Ideally, it would only take half an hour to clear out the port town—however, if they were going to be running from a demon on a rampage, circumstances weren't likely to be ideal.

//Can you hear me?//

"…is 195. 5 by 40 is…"

//Is this what you want? What did you--//

"Sir," Neji's voice came from outside the second-story wall, hushed and indifferent. "We've found him."

//Fuck. He is here.//

"…by 44 is 220. Move him. 5 by 45…"

//Keep sleeping. Keep--//

The monster opened his eyes half-way.

//Knew that was going to happen.//

The monster closed his eyes—a murky, cloudy jade color, dilated and unfocused--a quarter of the way when Kakashi stroked a thumb over his eyebrows, rubbed and massaged the human skin curbing the demon's power. He couldn't feel Neji's chakra outside, couldn't smell him, but the demon's senses were sharper than his, irritatingly sharper, and while Neji's scent was something the demon had already been exposed to with no problems, Sasuke's would be different case.

If, of course, Neji had gotten close enough to him for that to matter.

Kakashi pushed that thought away—there was no telling how close the monster's mind was to his own, if Gaara connected to him through more than scent and touch—and kept the multiplication tables coming.

Constant and—

--pounding neon—


//did you wan--//

Blood and old lightening. Blue blur green gray.

Flaking smell, dying smell, mature not raw not dying not—

//help meh//

//mine help mE you ha--//

"Shhhhh," clicking wooden sounds high up above the clouds cold crystal—cold fog dry rain clean wood empty space the—





Closed his eyes—aching soothing cooling and—calming. Tired. Nails over his scalp, through his hair—


--human contact. Physical—

//I'm not, I'm not--//

--language. Communication. Falling. Sinking. Safety. Pleasure. Security.


Sinki—struggling. Digging…down. Safe. Safety. Sinking…darkness. Rocks. Lead pipes. Copper traces. Sedimentary rock; sandstone, limestone. Mother. Sinking deep. Glass. Rock and—

//keep me//

--glass. Rock and…lightening. Rock…

//--eep me. no. no. no pleas--//

…and fire soaring swirling roaring screaming—

//--se, hel--//

"Shh, it's--"

::The hell?::




The house tore itself in two.


He would punch himself, if Sasuke could find which part of his skull hurt—there was definite pain going on there, it felt like someone had scalped off the top of his skull and hammered icicles through his brain.

//What happened, what was that that, what happened, what happ--?//

In the distance—in the far, far distance, the one that didn't have anything to do with the sudden short screaming that echoed in Sasuke's brain like an avalanche—it had sounded like something exploded, like a muffled gunshot the size of a truck.

He tried to get to his feet—screaming, what the hell?—using the tree he'd been drowsing against, but he couldn't see clearly and his joints didn't want to work correctly.

He could hear the kid crying behind him, birds screeching and whirling agitatedly, so he hadn't had nightmare. It just felt—

—pain dark bitter kill you kill you kill you—

—like he'd had one, a nightmare that hadn't…hadn't been his?

"S-sasuke?" Hinata materialized at his elbow, the veins surrounding her eyes thick and pronounced. She looked paler than usual.

"What's going on?" his was hoarse, unnaturally dry, as if he'd been shouting for hours. He didn't sound like him, and he caught a flicker of something in Hinata's eyes, dislike, unease—maturity and the Byakugan made it hard to read her expression, but not impossible. "What the hell happened?"

"I—well, um, see," Hinata shrugged, "we n-need you to leave. Now. Orders."

"Why? Where's Kakashi?" //Why? It has to do with me. That scream—it has to do with me.//

"T-that's not important"—but she glanced nervously over his shoulder, to the rising cloud of dust— "you have to c-come—"

But Sasuke was already gone. Under her feet, several hundred miles under and undetectable, the ground shivered awake.

"D-darn it!"

On the streets around her and in the sky, panic erupted as birds swarmed and screeched and people ran and screamed. And, gliding through the higher pitched raucous, was the howl of every dog in town.

There was vomit down his shirt. On his shirt. Against his cheek.

Ah. Fantastic.

Now. He needed…needed to stand up…

Hah. Needed to remember which way up was first.

Naruto coughed and spit, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Almost made him glad he hadn't eaten anything solid in a while.

His skull…felt like it had turned into molten lead. Incandescent and oozing.

He pulled himself up slowly, unsteadily, and waited until he got his balance and coherence back. Until he could remember who he was, and who he wasn't.

When he'd first started experimenting, Naruto had had some fairly bad mind-fucks, impressions against his own consciousness and identity that had left him sick and woozy for days, sometimes weeks or months. She—the Kyuubi, who'd been the Fox before it'd transferred over to him—had walked him through most of it, the parts he couldn't handle.

She had always known who she was, what she was, so the semi-telepathy had been a game to her, one where the people who got hurt were never her.

Humans, though, didn't have that same kind of certainty—Naruto's various headaches and backlashes were proof of that.

And now—now there were lots imprints on his mind, nearly three, maybe more, and he hadn't meant to touch any of them.

Well. Maybe one of them, if he thought Sasuke wouldn't throw a violently homicidal or suicidal hissy fit if Naruto touched his mind again. But he still hadn't tried to touch Sasuke's—not consciously, anyway.

Naruto let go of the chain-link fence he'd collapsed against, tried standing on his own, and promptly felt his gag-reflex kick-in again.

Whoo. That did hurt. Not sure why that hurt so badly, how the hell something //Even Sasuke, Sasuke shouldn't be able to do that, not to me, not like that.// got in his head so deep and sudden without his permission or awareness, but whatever it was, whoever they were…he didn't recognize anyone.

Couldn't place name to pattern, place sensation to imprint, and that was, that was just fucking impossible. Or at least fucking unlikely.

The only thing that should be able to do something like that, to him, would be a full-fledged demon with a complete pedigree and blue-blood ribbons and a strong hand at telepathy…and he'd hunted those last two down and out of the country when he'd forged his (theirs, really, the Fox and he) shaky yet extremely powerful kingdom.

So…what the hell was that?

And more importantly—Naruto broke into an unsteady, continuously collapsing lope, trying to cover ground without eating it first—what the hell did his sex toy have to do with it? His sex toy that…usually hated him, almost all the time.

"Holy crap holy crap holy cra—"

"Can you shut up?"

"Fuck you Shikamaru I knew we should've killed—"

"It's underground."

"What? What?"

Ino's last word was a little bit strained, just the teeniest bit stressed. Their house was torn in two. There was enough chakra in the air—vibrating off the windowpanes, the telephone lines, discoloring the sunlight into a tired raw orange—to make the invisible hairs on the back of her arms stand straight up, so her skin looked like raw chicken flesh and made her feel just as small and weak.

She was not happy about this. Plus, Kakashi was possibly dead and had just doomed them all.

"We should probably get moving," Shikamaru leaned on his left crutch. He didn't look anymore awake than he normally did. "Ready?"

She didn't look down or acted like she'd noticed that Shikamaru was touching her hand—lightly, ring and pinky fingers almost but not quite wrapped around each other. No one from the street or neighboring rooftops would notice it.

It was too easy to remember the stink of ashes so thick in the air she'd coughed her throat raw, her spit clotted with black ash and blood. Too easy remember how vulnerable she'd felt, how weak and open, utterly helpless.

Too easy to remember the smell of burning death. Her family dead. Everyone.

And now Kakashi might be dead.

And the only thing left to do, still, was run.

Ino scowled, tightened her hands before letting go. "Whatever."

Neither of them noticed a ragged figure slipping in from the street. There were bigger things to worry about.

It was a little pathetic, how easily he found Sasuke's room. Not pathetic for Sasuke, but pathetic for Naruto; he was so in sync with the bastard's smell and chakra signature that he could find the ass-hole's bedroom with his eyes closed and thinking about what he wanted for dinner.

Finding her skin was harder than finding Sasuke's smell, and another shot at his pride; he'd lost touch.

//Shitty security around here.//

At least finding the place wasn't hard. Naruto could've done it by Sasuke's smell alone (and Hinata's and Shikamaru's and everyone else), but it was the only large building on the street cut rather elegantly into symmetrical halves. The only things that weren't mirror-perfect about the division were the roofing tiles; the south tiles hung over the cleft, while the north side had crumbled like so many missing teeth.

But it was odd; there was a clean break from the roof to the plumbing below—Naruto could see water was squirting out of pipes—yet the place was empty, bare of bodies and minds. Something had—hadn't ripped the place in two, merely cleaved a line through it. But what had happened to everyone else?

Naruto wandered and lightly trapaised his way up the eternally-creaking stairs, shrugging--provided no one he needed was dead, it didn't particularly matter. He followed his nose.

//All right,// Naruto began poking through the Spartan room, lifting the cheap bed sheets with his toe to peek at the dusty floor underneath, //if I were a neurotic, cold-hearted whiny bitter slimy angst muffin, where the hell would I put my most powerful magical object? Probably not in my pants. Probably not even in this room, probably in some remote random location that no one in their right mind would--//

Naruto opened the shallow sliding closet, the scent hitting his nose like a wrecking ball.

//Or not. Or not. I could just be a dick. An obvious dick. Should've guessed, really.//

There wasn't much inside the closet--one gray parka, two nice-looking katanas hanging by their sheath-strap, and heavy-looking broadsword laying on the floor.

Oh, and Naruto's box, sitting on the shelf above the clothes rack.


It was…fair obvious, what he needed to do, what should be done. What he'd come to do, after all.

Yet…his hand stayed on the closet door.

//Didn't…didn't need to…//

Something bad was going to happen. He knew that; he didn't know what was going to happen, but something was.

He didn't need to read it in the sky or animals like Kakashi had—he was an animal—and even though Naruto knew, he still wasted his time staring at the inside of the closet, feeling the sweat from his hand ooze onto the door, the ache at the top of his spine and every slow, tempered beat of his heart. So slow and solemn, it felt like a march.

It would be prudent to take his box. He wanted to take his box. To take his stuff back. He couldn't—

He couldn't move.


"You don't need to panic," Naruto heard himself say coolly, sounding like he was a million miles away from earth, "it didn't work. My clever plan failed."

"I can't let you leave here alive."

He didn't answer, but he managed to pull his hand off the closet door.

//I thought…//

Naruto pulled the gray winter parka out, his skin burning and itching in sympathy resonance.

//…you would love me.//

"If you give a man a present, his very heart's desire," Naruto rubbed the collar of his jacket, watching the gray bulk bleed into a thrashed crimson leather, "he's supposed to love it, right? He's supposed to love it more than anything else in the whole world. The present is his most precious, precious beloved thing. Right?"

//I gave you power. I gave you the greatest power…in the whole damn country. I gave you myself. And you…//

Naruto turned around, an animal skin hanging limply from his hands, the leather an ugly patchwork quilt of old blood, hair, and maggoty-white skin, "If he throws the gift away, what does it mean?"

//I thought…//

"It means we're not your toys," Iruka stood in front of the closed door, hands empty, eyes empty, and apparently unarmed. "And you were never a god."

Naruto balanced his weight on his toes, waiting for Iruka to make the first move, his mind still on other matters, on other winters and darker hearts.

In reality, it hadn't been that long since the fires, since the time he'd destroyed his own village. He'd proven himself, a thousand times over, and even though Naruto had lost--or given up, thrown away--the majority of his political power, he hadn't lost any of his other powers--although they'd been worn a little thin, but not so much that he couldn't kill a lone shinobi. Any shinobi.

//Because I did. It was real. What I felt. I didn't--//

"Aren't you going to attack?" Iruka didn't sound sarcastic, didn't sound curious, and hadn't drawn a weapon or formed a jutsu.

Naruto absently warmed the skin in his hands, and wondered if it was too much to look for recognition in the other man's eyes, acknowledgement of who he—of who they used to be.

//I didn't lie about that. I never…//

"You can't kill me, old man," Naruto smiled faintly, "and I don't get anything out of killing your ass."

It would've been better if it'd been Kakashi-sensei. There was a cold understanding there, a comfortable distance. He'd never run crying to Kakashi-sensei, never been hugged by him. Kakashi-sensei was only a teacher who had begun to be something else, before Naruto abandoned the village.

//…I loved you.//

"You don't have a choice."

Below the earth and dirt—

--the filth and carnage and useless mongrel whores and traitors—

--something dug deeper and answered and he called and was answered and he didn't he KNEW—

--and this was where things ended this was where things stopped this was where—

The World Ended Because

--he wanted it needed so mucH to keep Chil—

--didn't know what he wAnted what he need--

//Liar lieS liar I'll have I'll have I'll//

So then he'd have what the stone cement three hundred kilometers below sea level not deep enough for compressional waves the thunder on water but but but—

//Bring Me//

Pull Twist Curve Pull Push Find

//Find Me Mine Find Me Mine My My Own My Mine Find Me//

--deep enough for shear waves butcher knives through ba

So Deep Down

nothing breathed

The chilling chorused howling didn't last—the dogs stopped after a few minutes, with only one or two whining loudly and a couple more barking at odd intervals.

In truth, Neji hadn't appreciated how many dogs the port town had, until he'd heard them all start howling, from the rubbery squeak of the toy dogs (however rat-like they might appear) to the bone-deep trumpet of the larger beasts in one chorus.

He didn't have Kakashi's talent with animals (unfortunately) nor Hinata's affinity for them (thank God), yet he'd be blind and stupid (and he was, adamantly, neither) not to notice the small exodus of furry four-legged beasts scrambling out of town. The dogs tied or fenced in (and a few cats) dug and chewed their way to freedom, while the rest paced behind glass windows or clawed their way out of the screens.

He'd noted the birds swarming. That hadn't been exceedingly note-worthy, though it had been graceful. The cats, dogs, rats and rabbits though—that was different. That was new.

He'd debated, earlier, between the benefits of wasting time going from house to house ordering people to leave (and would they listen to him? Shinobi were nearly as worrisome and despised as the monsters they hunted, since people thought that they both brought trouble, not working out the difficult bit of logic that perhaps shinobi only followed trouble for money, but didn't create trouble itself) and the alternative of wasting time waiting for the monster to make a reappearance.

Then, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly enough, as Neji had wondered what everyone else was up to, with the possible exception of Kakashi-sensei, who was likely dead) household fire alarms, some very old war sirens, burglar alarms and even one or two more expensive car alarms started blaring, screeching, or playing pop music in the southern quarter. Despite himself, Neji flinched.

Distastefully bizarre, yet effective—Shikamaru's doing, mostly likely. How effective it would prove would be something, but it definitely freed Neji's hands to get them good and bloody.

With a noise like a gunshot, concrete and asphalt alike splintered up at an angle, the few rickety buildings to the north of town creaking or collapsing or standing unmolested as the fault passed them by or passed under them.

People shouted in fear, and then regrouped outside to marvel at the damage, swear at a house just starting to catch fire or gossip about the tight-fisted nature of their neighbors and their shabby dwelling, which was now on fire.

If they noticed the dogs and cats fleeing past them, it was another oddity of dark times, a sure omen that bad things were abroad. If they heard the sirens and alarms coming from the town—and it was a small town, one could walk across it in half an hour, or twenty minutes if you were in a hurry—they probably thought it was an aftereffect of the earthquake, if they thought it all.

No one—who could?—really noticed when the same process was repeated in the east and west, with nearly the same results, until the town was hemmed in by three distinct fault lines, and the ocean on the fourth.

It didn't really occur to anyone—except possibly Kakashi out of professional interest, and Shikamaru out of curiosity—that it near impossible for Yakamura to have natural earthquakes.

One never got far by breaking under pressure—hell, that'd been what the Chuunin exams had been for, to weed out the ones who'd break themselves before risking being broken by someone else. And Naruto—even though he hadn't officially passed—had driven through those exams like a madman on PCP-laced caffeine.

Sure, maybe he'd sweated a little, but he'd never actually gotten cold feet and bolted.

If necessary, he could probably spend several hours staring down Iruka-sensei. Because you certainly couldn't all it a 'show-down', or even a 'stand-down', because neither of them had drawn their weapons yet.

Hell, Naruto didn't even need a weapon to kill. All he had to do was want Iruka dead, and Iruka would be dead, and out of the way.

Iruka hadn't been a match for him for years. Now wasn't different. Iruka, of course, knew that, and knew that Naruto knew he knew that, but that wouldn't make any difference to a man of honor like him.

Naruto found himself wondering if Iruka was going scold him, or yell. What he would do, if Iruka did.

It was minute, microscopic, but Naruto felt the floorboards tremble gently through his neon-green sandals a few seconds before Sasuke's small window panes began to clink and rattle in their frames.

He never looked away from Iruka's eyes. Neither of them had blinked in over seven minutes, maybe more.

He wondered how long they could keep this up, if someone else was going to burst through the door, who would lose patience first.

Without looking down, he knew the leather fox-skin had turned entirely red again by absorbing his chakra, healing itself instinctually of the iron and silver, healing itself of Sasuke's touch. It could protect him again; not well, but it belonged to him again. That was worth it.

Still holding Iruka's eyes--//Fuck, this is taking a long time//--Naruto rubbed his right fingers together, close to the baggy pocket in his baggy nylon shorts, and then slowly extended his arm out to his side.

A silver chain necklace—his necklace, Sasuke's collar—dangled between his fingers.

"Ninjas kill for gold," Naruto let the necklace drop. "That's his payment."

"It doesn't work that way anymore, that's not enough."

Naruto forced a grin, wondered what Iruka had gone through, exactly, and replied, "Whatever. Just make sure he gets it, wouldja?"

Then he vanished, from sight and every external and internal sense Iruka had. Melodramatic, but then that was Naruto, and—

--he didn't want to fight Iruka. Not yet.

Even after Iruka searched the room, slammed the door and raced down the hall, the windows still clinked and rattled gently. They had never stopped.

A/N: More to come, took bugger FOREVER. Much thanks to Kotori for cheering me on for the last, uh, two years? Figured I'd post what I did have.