The setting of this story is not long after Naruto and Sasuke's fight on the hospital roof; for the sake of story, Sasuke has not run away from the Konoha Village to join Orochimaru.
The man adjusted his headband. There were a lot of people in this world, most he had never met, many he likely would never meet. Few gave him the notion to be intimidated. But this woman? Yeah. She could be absolutely frightful.
"I don't know." He said. Because he didn't know. He stuck his hands in his pockets; posture, expression, voice tone -- they spoke indifference. "He's alive. It was mostly exponential luck, but we can't complain."
She was kneading her forehead, skewing the diadem-shape located in her central brow. He considered taking a step back; she kept a cool head, but in particular moods was rather volatile. "He can't keep surviving on luck, Kakashi. None of us can."
He smiled, which was only notable through the single eye visible on his face, "Isn't luck what it all boils down to, Hokage-sama? Every good gambler knows that."
When she didn't take up the challenge to answer, he took it as signal to exited the room. Best not to tempt fate anyway...
The tingling, prickly sensation of a waking body. Fuzzy mind and... aching head... Damn. Ow. He was lackadaisical and careless, but even he knew the procedure for regaining consciousness in an unknown situation. First... and... foremost: Check for injuries.
The left side of his face was swollen (hn, nothing permanent there, no worries. Moving on)... possibly a few crushed knuckles (that was more concerning; there was implication then that he'd been fighting, then?)... Crap; his left ankle might be broken. Might. No need to panic yet. Um. He'd twisted it... running. Tree jumping, actually. No. No, no, it was roof-jumping.
His eyes slipped open to the rather familiar ceiling of the Leaf Hospital. Which meant he was safe. Or... had been saved by someone else. Crap. Beatings he could deal with. Death... well, he wasn't terribly afraid of much. But being indebted to someone -- that, he didn't tolerate very well. Yes, yes, he was remembering a bit more now, and there was a powerful voice in his mind telling him to relax and stay still so his body could heal. As he'd been doing quite a bit of lately.
... this was, what, the third time this month?
"Dammit!" He hurled his pillow across the room, where, judging from the sound, it overturned a tray of utensils. He lay there, quaking, glaring at the light above him. Silence. Crap. "Dammit!" Now other pains were taking shape from the abrupt movement. Swollen joints, rather stiff. Perhaps he'd been slammed into a few things before losing consciousness? "Dammit!" Ah, that familiar burning of flesh shredded raw. So likely he'd also had the fun of skidding across a few unforgiving surfaces (rock? tree bark? no, no, he thought he was remembering cobblestone. Or was that another time?)
He thrashed for a while in impotent rage, twisting, a fish caught up in a net of sheets, accomplishing very little aside from stripping the bed, kicking the blankets off into a huddled mass on the floor. It would have been nicer to find someone sitting there. It would have been relieving for someone to grab him by the shoulders and force him down to the bed, make him be still so he wouldn't injure himself.
No one was there, of course; there were things to be done, missions to fulfill, trades to trade, orders to be given and obeyed. For a short time, even the Genin apprentice groups had been disbanded to free up individuals for missions. Forces were spread thin. There wasn't time to visit a single lonely kid in a hospital. ... his friends probably didn't even know he was here, right? (... of the few people he was going to tentatively label friends, anyway...) It was possible... Sakura was in the next town over; the hotel district of the Hidden Leaf village. He thought she'd said that. And surely his sensei's Iruka and Kakashi were out and about on some important errand... Jiraiya wouldn't have come either way, being repelled by public places altogether (selfish bastard.)
... and Sasuke was likely still mad at him, prone to grudges as he was. For whatever reason. (They had run into each other a few times since the fight on the hospital roof, but the other had showed no feigned attempts at hospitality. The treatment was reciprocated.)
Damn. Though he loved attention, he wasn't yet willing to give up the life of one accustomed to solitude, and thus wouldn't admit so out loud, but he was severely beginning to miss the company of Team Seven. The interaction had been somewhat therapeutic. He'd never been forced to get along with others before; prior to graduation, the academy usually gave the option of teams, but he never bothered participating, since no one wanted him in their group and in all honesty he didn't exactly want to join them. But... he'd become accustomed to his fellow teammates.
Up to the point that Iruka sensei gave him his own headband, he'd accepted blindly that he was destined to be apart. He'd burned every figurative bridge available (among other more literal things -- heh, he'd gone through a short pyrotechnic stage, but the punishments had been too severe to be gratifying.) So the company of those he dared believe to be genuinely concerned about him would have been very comforting right now.
He wanted to be on a stupid mission. Not the more recent ones he'd had to do solo. He could handle people trying to kill him or kidnap him to torture on a later date or whatever it was they wanted with him so long as he was with people he could trust and talk to.
... damn. He wanted to storm across the town and slam Sasuke right in the face. Bastard, trying to ruin their comradery (since he wasn't dense enough to call it friendship exactly.)
Irritated and aching, he finally crossed his arms and sent his disapproving scowl into the world, wishing misfortune upon all.
Uh... this most recent attack... ah. Yes. Stupid renegade ninja. Akatsuki or whatever the hell they were called. It seems since that last unfortunate run-in with the older Uchiha brother (which he wouldn't be forgetting any time soon) he'd been dealing with underlings instead; Missing-nin, ferocious and determined. The Nine... he hadn't heard much from since.
So he wasn't top priority (yet? anymore? relief? indignation? bastards.) For now, he was fodder for hired Missing-nin of the Chuunin and possibly Jounin variety. And boy, was it starting to ache.
His pride was suffering as deftly and painfully the knowledge was sinking in that, clever and tricky as he was, it wouldn't have taken much for them to have killed him. His survival had been attributed to their ambition to get a hold of him still warm and alive. Or rather, still providing a warm, alive nest to house the Kyubi. It was getting unpleasantly obvious that they didn't particularly care if he was wholly in tact, however. If a broken ankle was the worst of his troubles, he would be grateful (last time they'd crushed a few ribs and both collar bones. )
Not prone to remain still (ever a body in motion) he tentatively tried sitting up. Ow. Hurt his stomach muscles but... yeah. Okay, it was tolerable. Try dangling his feet off the bed -- ooh, he felt that. Something had popped in his knee (he wasn't clear-minded enough to recall where each of these injuries came from. Terror and desperation tended to cloud the mind.) Slowly. Slooowly. He slid off the bed and onto his good foot. His shoulders and back strained under the weight of his body, and he was finding his neck rather sore.
Well! He was nothing if not a veteran to physical hardship!
Okay! Great, he could walk. Maybe the ankle wasn't broken after all -- either way, it was well wrapped. So he was mobile. He needed to go exploring. Screw sitting here and waiting for someone to come and tell him what happened (they never told him everything anyway, neglectful bastards.)
Ow, shit. Limping...
Out the door, down he hall, down a flight of stairs, another hall, possibly a little lost, thoughts jumbled...
There! Voices. Someone who could fill him in, yes?
He slowed down before pushing the door open, trying to recognize what voices were within (as, though he'd begun to trust a few people, he was still somewhat on pins and needles with the general Hidden Leaf populous and not looking forward to get a few solid cuffs and a lecture from an embittered villager in his current state.)
Oh! There was Iruka sensei's voice! That man above all others he would follow like a sheep and trust entirely with his life and safety... but still he held back. There was tention in his former instructor's tone; tension tempered by a pinched tone of respect. As dear as the man was, he was only a Chuunin, a young one, and thus had a good few superiors to defer to.
He held his breath and pressed his ear to the door; there were many people in the room and all of their voices were overlapping, and somewhat hushed. Complete statements were hard to make out.
"-n't know for certain it was the Akatsuki-"
"-the issue isn't who it is, it's what do they want with-"
"-whether he's a boy or not doesn't matter. If they do get ahold of him and harness the power of the Kyubi-"
"-it's a valid point; perhaps it was sentimental folly that he's been allowed to live-"
"-should all lower your tone; this is a private-"
"-not really interested in who is at fault; I've said from the begining we were making a mistake in not ending the spirit's existance the instant it was in a body that could actually be ended-"
"-'s true, though he's still young and petty now he's obviously still interested in destroying our happiness and peace-"
"-those horrible, destructive pranks of his-"
"-'re all being absurd -"
"-painted obscenities on the wall of my bathhouse-"
"-switched the road signs-"
"-have my full confidence that he's entirely harmless-"
"-maybe at first, but he's becoming more dangerous. In these desperate times can we afford an unstable element to the machinations of our society-"
"-look what he did to the Hyuuga boy! A genius amoung even the advanced bloodlines-"
"-could only be a short time before he starts-"
"-we've had this discussion millions of times before, you can't-"
"-this is different! Think for a moment, even if he is truely innocent-"
"-do you think they will do to him if they catch him? They'll try every means possible to remove that seal-"
"-one small body can't take a series of anti-seals, plus they'll likely try adding a few of their own for safety-"
"-worse than torture; his mind and body would be ripped to shreds-"
"-couldn't it be more humane to simply-"
A hand clamped down on his shoulder, another quickly covering his mouth firmly to prevent the startled yelp forthcoming. His hand was already going to his thigh to retrieve a knife, which weren't there of course, since his weaponry had been removed along with his outter layer of clothes as standard procedure for patients in the hospital. Getting dragged down the hall, heels scraping on the hard ground. Damn it all to hell!
He'd resolved himself to bite when he was released on his own; he spun, curled little fist arcing along with him--
Of course he did no damange. He never was very good at reacting to surprises.
"You scared the hell out of me, Kakashi sensei!" He pulled his hand free from his instructor's, where it was being held stationary.
The single eye conveyed uselessly little, "It's unbecoming to eavesdrop, Naruto."
He wondered if there was someway to escape the man. He knew which pouch Kakashi kept his smoke bombs; if he could just snag one... Yeah right, and somehow escape on his mangled foot, already aching, from a Jounin level ninja. So he spat, "I think I should be allowed to hear when they're talking about me. Do you know what they were even saying? They want to kill-"
The angular man only rubbed his chin disinterested, gaze slipping off to examine a poster encouraging hygene, and said bluntly, "They've been having debates like that for the past twelve years. It's not even an official meeting, so stop worrying." He offered a irritating smile, "Besides, even if they did manage to rally a meeting, it would be... a very large debate. It would mean involving every competant Leaf Ninja's opinion, and you don't just have Iruka and me in your defense. They won't dare act on anything without the Hokage's consent."
There wasn't much one could respond to that with. He wasn't terribly happy, but in all honesty not entirely surprised to know there were also conspirators against him much closer to home. Thank goodness the Third and now Fifth Hokage spoke in his favor...
"Come on, then, if you're well enough to be up let's get your things. I'll walk you home."
He jerked his shoulder out of the man's reach, "I can get home by myself."
"... Oh." It took valiant effort to keep his shoulders from slumping. It wasn't a matter of company. It was a matter of insuring he actually reached home, for the safety of the village. Kakashi... you... can kiss my ass.
The damn Jounin didn't bother to respond; useless mass of flesh and bone. He wondered sometimes about this man; wondered about his motives -- attached as he'd personally gotten, there was an eternal air of formality that left him distanced. It wasn't blatant disreguarde, just... a reminder, through ever word and action, that he was nothing more than a student. On a good day, maybe a comrad. On a bad day: little more than a responsibility. But in all cases, not a friend.
Well. He could just go to hell, anyway.
Fists balled in pockets, he marched appropriately down the hall, doing his best to ignore the rather silent echo of his footsteps behind him. He would have muttered but didn't want to open an invitation for his escort to try talking to him. Crap.
Through the trees, at rapid speed; higher, above the branches, sailing through the air, now. Up, up, until it's all a long field of broccoli below. Faster, still; breaking all known records of traveling the Earth, and then still within the life-giving reach of the atmosphere. Land and water rush by, for miles and miles.
Finally, far beyond the lush reach of the Hidden Leaf shinobi, over a chain of mountains that form a natural barrier against potential rain, is spread a vast, wide desert of sun-bleached sand. Perhaps at one time it had been a sea, leaving behind a glittering of salt that burns the eyes of an ill-preparted traveler. The terrain changes little as it whips by, the endless rise and fall of unforgiving dunes until...
There. A large, abrasive stony wall of cliffs. Scale the outside and stop before you plummet to your death -- look down at a very sudden, devastating drop. It's a naturally made wall, and nestled deep down, as far as the eye can see, partially protected by the rocky shade for most of the day, is the colony of Those Hidden in the Sand.
A more gradual descent down the inner slope; where long series of stairs have been carved -- archers could stand along the rugged wall and easily pick off approaching attackers.
Lazily drift by over the clay roof tops of the dwelling, look there: a well, with a thick lid to pull over it when the sun hits its scorching zenith. The village, warped in vision by the heat rising from the streets, looks abandoned. Most have retreated indoors for this excruciating portion of the day. A dog, it's flanks hot, lays on its side in the meagre shade of a house.
Travel these forsaken streets, hearing snatches of lazy voices drifting through windows thrown vainly open, hoping to coax a breeze inside.
At the center of the village now; a tall structure, pillars supporting its four corners. Here sits the new Kazikage, leader of the Sand, and he is trembling.
"We... have confirmed in... every way possible..."
Cold, red eyes staring into his.
"... that your father... is..."
"Dead?" Though he lacked eyebrows, the ridges where they would have occupied rose. The black bags around his eyes, product of unnumbered sleepless nights, did not make him look vulnerable or exhasted.
"I'm... afraid so."
There wasn't as much reaction as was expected. "Oh."
The Kazikage squirmed in his robe, pulling his overhanging hat a fraction lower. Hiding behind it.
It was duly noted.
"What else are you afraid of?"
A hesitation seized the older man, so powerful that his mouth was stuck open, like a dying man failing to suck in his last gasping breath, "Defeat."
He was studied.
"Currently, we have surrendered to the Konoha Village for... I suppose I can call it 'accidentally' attacking them. We were manipulated by Orochimaru but... it has currently left the Leaf in a vulnerable position. Soon, we will attack on our own command. Will you join us, and help us win?"
But thoughts had gone elsewhere. To the Leaf shinobi. To the warriors there. To the blood he'd extracted there. To the giant toad he'd fought there.
To the boy who defeated him there.
He shrugged, "I don't care. I don't want to fight the Leaf anymore. Whatever."
He departs, a great shadow of golden sand overlapping his head to protect him from the scalding sun. He hissed up at it, and it did not respond.
In his absence, the Kazikage muses. He is old; not much younger than the recently deceased Third Hokage. His memory is long, his mind is sharp, and his ambition is restless. The uncle to the Sand's own recently killed Kazikage, he stares out at the heat stricken village and taps fingertips together. More than any other shinobi, the Sand and Leaf had the most dealings together. They had the most trade, the most shared resources and the most competition and, though it had been difficult to keep up with the Leaf's inherent power (they were one of the only villages that continuously embraced and encouraged the growth of Enhanced Bloodlines), Those Hidden in the Leaves were also the village most notorious for bad luck.
They were a closely knitted village of single parent families; orphans buried their siblings, a father is known to outlive three or four of his children.
Look back for just a moment, over the long distance traveled to reach this secluded enclosure, back through the trees and look through a window with a view of the mountain bearing the four faces of the great Hokages. Sit inside the academy teacher Iruka's office and note a sparse series of photographs, their edges burned, suffering water damage, bent and folded. This is a man who not only lost his parents but also his childhood home, which had long ago collapsed under the great typhoon of the Kyubi's tails.
This man is not so significant. For two houses down is another man who lost a mother and two brothers to the same creature, only he also has lost one arm.
Across the ally is a father who had two lungs punctured to save a daughter from a caving roof, caused by the same tragedy. Few were left untouched by the destruction of the creature and the first few years after its disappearance were devoted to dragging the almost destroyed civilization out of poverty and despair, out of times the few Jounin left were all that stood between the hovering, vulture-like shadows of smaller, ambitious shinobi settlements looking to pick off competition. With their old generation nearly lost, pressure was placed upon the surviving children to excel, to train, to fight and become powerful.
Sweltering heat. A dry, arid breeze, chapped lips like peeling pain.
The Kazikage knows the situation of the Leaf shinobi. He had been a spectator in the third round of the Chuunin exams, and he had seen the power of their barely graduated Genin. These children were barely rookie class, and most did not even have a full year yet to get accustomed to being called 'ninja'. They were twelve, thirteen years old.
And they had reached the final rounds.
That... was not comforting to the Sand. A village nearly crushed into oblivion a decade ago was now producing a race of super children.
Thank the gods for the absolute genius that created Gaara.
He was the previous Hokage's jewel, and his bane, his greatest weapon and his hated creation; not his son, not even his blood. Sealing . The absolute power and absolute efficiency of the boy was soul shattering. ... If only he were actually controllable.
While retreating to an indoor area, the man was considering the creation of the monster boy -- it was also been to compete. The rumors that the Fourth Hokage had managed to seal a demon into an infant couldn't be left unchallenged after all... And if the Leaf could do it, so could the Sand. Had to keep up. First and formost, always, always keep up.
Well. Once they had smashed their rivals, they could take the next few years dissecting the children to figure out just how they had gotten so powerful...
To boil it down, what he disliked most about having a social life was letting people get away with things. A stranger he could ignore. A contemporary, he could deck full in the mouth. A superior he could sass.
But a person he'd spent days in the presence of? They... got away with things. The time spent with someone, for him at least, merited some sick obligation to tolerate their antics, even when you didn't want to. Even when you wanted to crawl into the knot of a tree and meet every curious face with a kunai to the eyeball. Just to piss him off, Kakashi insisted on putting a hand on his shoulder as he walked. What, to be... supportive? Like hell. It was the touching that nettled him. Ill-accustomed as he was to the unfamiliar sensation of physical contact, and already somewhat humiliated about once again finding himself hospitalized...
It was times like these that he could really stand to be hidden away in his stuffy little apartment.
The lighting to the receptionist's desk was dim and useless. He carried his jacket slung over an arm, wrapped inside was his headband. Over a shoulder he kept his belt and weapons pouch; it wasn't particularly heavy, but at the moment it was a little cumbersome -- it was full of metal weaponry. For just a moment, he wondered what he would have done were his sensei to offer helping him carry his things. Die of shock, first. But he probably wouldn't let him do it anyway. So he dismissed it.
He was in a ripe bad mood. He would deal with it.
"Naruto!" Startled, he refocused on the world, taking a moment to comprehend that a powder pink shape was moving towards him. And talking, "What happened? I heard you were attacked-"
"Nothing I couldn't handle." He spread his face wide with a semi-artificial grin. If he wasn't smiling, no one else would either. Except Kakashi, but he didn't count. Crazy bastard.
So someone had come to visit him. Odd how life turns out; two years ago, a pre-pubescent version of himself would very skeptically ask what she wanted. Last year, in the first budding throw of hormones, he would likely have back flipped into Kakashi's arms and started singing. What... was he feeling now? Touched. Glad to see a face of someone he had confirmed more than once at least worried about him sometimes.
But in all honesty... what was Sakura to him these days? Outside of Iruka-sensei, he could call her the person he trusted most. Without question he would (and had before) willingly enter a fight to the death to protect her. She talked to him; confided maybe even. She listened to him if he was trying to be serious (which was rare, thank god. There were too many miserable people in this world and he was determined to not be one of them.) She got on his case. These past weeks when they were required to accomplish missions on their own, she would nag and remind him to write his report summary. Did he still want to kiss her? Well, yeah, but... how to word it? It was in the same way he wanted to hug Iruka sensei. And throw Sasuke through a wall.
He'd never had a sibling, never had any sort of relation by blood, or close ties to refer to from his childhood. She was Sakura. And were he more comfortable with the word, and more concrete in understanding its definition, he would say she was like a sister. A part of the small, patch-work quilt family he was putting together for himself.
"What are you doing with your things?" She was moving closer and, despite his extra level of tolerance allotted to her, he was feeling penned in with her in front of him and Kakashi still unmoving behind him. Being around a lot of people was scary sometimes. "You're still covered in bandages -- you can't have been here more than a few hours. Get back into bed right you, you moron!"
"Sakura, if Naruto wants to go home, he can go home," their sensei assured her.
The girl didn't seem mollified and called to the doctor behind the desk, fat and riffling through his papers like a pig rooting in a trough, "Hey! Tell him he has to return to his room until he's recovered!"
It took only a second, a gleam of comprehension. Just a matter of looking at the doctor, and the doctor looking back. A twitch of an eyebrow. A silent understanding. A recognition. A comprehension. An inert curiosity: had this man lost someone to the Kyubi? Was he a doctor, treating victims of the monstrous fox's attack? Ponder, ponder...
"If he wants to leave, he can leave." Was all the doctor said, and returned to his grunting, snorting, ruffling of paper.
Kakashi pushed him along from behind, "See? Nothing to worry about."
"Thanks for trying to visit me!" He called over his shoulder as he was ushered out, "Hey, stop by later and tell me about the hotel district-!" The door was shut behind them.
Now out in the open, to the friendly smells of a close-living community, they walked in silence. And observed. It was night, and the stars and moon cast more than enough light to see by, and the larger streets had lamp posts to guide the way.
Most of the town had been repaired from the battle with Orochimaru and his allies. The bodies had all been buried within the first week, once they had been identified and claimed by grieving families. It was times like these he felt both regret and relief that he would never have to identify the body of a brother, an aunt, a grandfather. Loss was part of what being a shinobi was all about, and this was not the first, the last nor the greatest loss of life the Hidden Leaf had suffered. (Um... though perhaps the battle with the Kyubi had the largest body count to date.)
The majority of property damage had been patched up with strips of sheet metal and the broken windows at least had boards over them (supplies were slower in coming these days; already the neighboring towns were skeptical in getting involved with shinobi on the potential edge of war.) There were still deep pocks in the streets, where maybe exploding notes had detonated, or perhaps a skilled Jounin had done some impressive feat with a good portion of Chakra.
The towering walls of the buildings ran in asymmetrical directions; streets made little impact to a people accustomed to leaping from one root top to another. Not wanting to expand the boundaries of the great wall surrounding the village, the natives were quite content building upward, in whatever direction they could, and not often in a tidy way. Alleys ran for miles sometimes, only to stop at a splintery wooden wall; some slender walkways narrowed out until only the residents of slighter stature could glide through sideways (an amenity he was still able to enjoy.) There were many stripes of shadow on the ground as different levels of elevated paths, sometimes just planks of wood, allowed villagers to travel across the street without having to set foot on the dirt.
Unlike the neighboring commercial districts, it was more silent here. Ninja moved with stealth by instinct, and habitually watched their surroundings -- more so than ever now, in these darker days. Children were kept indoors at night. Some even during the day. With the academy temporarily closed to free up instructors for missions, parents were now pressed to home school. To keep even the youngest prepared. Just in case. Always just in case.
In the distance he saw the top-heavy building where he lived; on a blustery day, it looked like it was on the eternal edge of blowing over; his back patio was precariously suspended by randomly placed pipes and planks of wood. He would know; he'd built it himself a few years back, after begging permission from the landlord.
Oh, crap, the landlord. His rent was due this week. When he was younger (far back as he could recall, actually) he paid for living through labor; between studying for the academy, practicing his jutsu and running laps around the village, he would sweep and scrub and feed animals while the other tenants were away. He tended the small flower boxes jutting out of windows, as though the building itself had acne. He was even pretty decent at mending, and had made a few extra bucks by darning socks for the busy women when in a pinch.
That was the plus side about being a full-fledged Genin -- it was a real job, with real wages. He was even finding himself with enough extra money to buy frivolous things like pictures to hang on his walls and a carpet to decorate the wooden floor. (Though having money was also teaching him the value of not flashing it around; more than once Jiraiya had weaseled his cash away from him. Bastard.)
Finally, he was home and, holding his weapon pouch in his teeth, he searched his pockets for the key.
"Well...," his escort said, eyes wandering as though anxious to leave. "Looks like you got here safely."
He let his door swing open, showing a long narrow flight of stairs leading up to his studio-style flat. When he felt the other turn to leave, he found himself saying, "Ah... Kakashi-sensei?"
The man paused. "Hm?"
He was speaking to the stair case, not sure what expression was on his face, "If for some reason... Tsunade-Hokage did agree with those guys about... not letting the Kyubi fall into the hands of the enemy...," he was speaking quieter now; the taboo on the topic still pressing in on him despite his growing accustomed to it, "Would you, ah, y'know... If she ordered, um, that... would you, if you were ordered to, y'know, kill-"
A hand ruffled his hair, and he didn't have to look to know the Jounin was smiling, "Let's just hope it never comes down to that."
Sometime later he found himself in his apartment, going through and making sure all the windows were locked, setting up a few noise-traps to the latches to alert him if anyone was trying to break in over the night.
He didn't even bother feeling paranoid; a kid living alone had to take care of himself.
Changing into pajamas, he pauses to finger the pendant around his neck, wondering. Always wondering.
He stuffed a few extra pillows beneath the blanket of his bed to look like a human shape was beneath.
And then he went to his closet, where he already had a extra clothes and towels piled up inside to make it softer and, after nestling into them to get as comfortable as possible, he made sure his leg pouch was secured to his thigh and full of shiruken and kunai. And then he closed his closet door, and fell promptly asleep.
There was something utterly astounding and eternally unpredictable about the boy's thought process.
It was... the only explanation for it. The only plausible reason a Jounin and two Chuunin could fail to capture a rather pathetic, ill-trained, terrified and rather young Genin brat. He was mindlessly unobservant, which should have made him easy to subdue; somehow, it didn't work like that. His skeptical temperament had leveled out his obliviousness -- though he failed to notice a group of three men watching him from the table to his right, close enough they could have touched his elbow, grabbed his cheek, he had the mental conditioning to instantly spring off and away at the cue of a single blatantly intentional step in his direction.
And he wasn't just fast. He was little. Less wind resistance. Could fit through tighter alleys. To have him suddenly take off across the rooftops of the familiar environment of his home, it was akin to standing in a field and watching a single horsefly hover like a spot of reflected light in front of you, so close you had to go cross eyed to even fully register it, but nearly impossible to successfully swat. And the winding chases he could lead! His demon lent him endurance, and his fear lent him desperation, and his years of trickery lent him experience in running from repercussion.
Not too proud to drop to all fours in closed-in areas. Not beneath long series of transformations; first replicating shadows, and then each one taking on the form of a different person. That was something no one had warned them about; Bunshin no Jutsu they could handle. It was elementary; an intangible replication can't do much. But Kage Bunshin... each clone, each with a portion of mind to itself -- they did not have to be within sight of their creator. They were true, living creatures. And they could perform jutsu of their own, with enough Chakra.
More than once a clone was mistakenly pursued; transforming first into a woman, and then a man, and then a rabbit, and then a stone. And, out of breath, irate, frustrated, when finally it looked like the boy was tiring... poof.
It had taken... hours... of haggard pursuit. Heading for the fish shop, going in, -- damn, it was only another shadow replication! The pat-pat-pat as sandaled feet scurried over the rusted metal roofing; out the window, after him, from roof to roof, ricochet off a lamp post, bursting through a stranger's window, darting through their house, a foreign living room, a bathroom -- where? The window too small to fit a full-grown man's shoulders through. The sounds of pursuit as others take up the chase. They catch up, they send him skidding; he should have been down for hours, but instead he's using the momentum to run up the side of a fence, vaulting over a railing into a strip of second-story porches, bursting a flair bomb, temporarily blinding them.
Wanting to kill him, to wring his skinny little neck, to jerk his arm out of its socket, to slam a fist through his stomach to squeeze his warm little guts -- where?! Three men can't keep track of a -- one shouts, "There!" The flash of an orange coat, dammit, it wasn't him; withdrawing to the shadows, scanning the people as they pass, looking for a short blonde head...
Brain-jarring impact from behind; this was the boy's only feature of consolation: if he was running, he would only do it for so long. He was mad enough to think he could fight back.
It ensued, lacking the breath to call the others; the gleaming ringed hilt of a kunai, buried in chest; the organic crunch of tree bark where the boy's little body hits. Not supposed to kill him but having long since abandoned the kid gloves -- just get a good hold on one arm, just one firm grip and then it would be no struggle, swing him into a neighboring post -- like beating out a dusty rug!
If that could just be accomplished, if that could just be accomplished--
... that had been a few days ago, now. Somehow, the quarry had evaded escape long enough to reach the densely populated heart of the city, where they dared not go.
So now, the three of them remained huddled in the treetops a few miles outside the village limits. A few strong breezes offered tantalizing hints of what the natives were cooking in their nice gas stoves, the smell of well prepared meals, of seasoned meats, of anything, anything better than ninja rations. Odorless, tasteless, textureless; so bland and useless not even insects found it interesting, marauding predators that caroused their fireless camp at night disregarded it. Wild animals, squirrels, raccoons, they would steal shiny shiruken, they would steal loose buttons but nothing, nothing outside the logic of men in hiding would consider putting a ration in their mouth.
They couldn't even kill a fish. They had to avoid killing insects. Just in case. There could be no sign they were here; they slept on moist earth without fire, they could not bathe upstream, but the town used the passing river as a means to dispose of waste, so they couldn't bathe downstream either. As a result, they had the warm, heavy organic smell of unwashed hair and the sour, rather acrid odor of sweaty body.
The village, still recovering from a previous assault a few months earlier, was on edge. They couldn't risk being discovered, but they also couldn't risk returning without results. Damn the Hidden Sand and Sound! Damn Orochimaru for his inopportune time to begin tormenting the Leaf Shinobi -- like beating a hive of bees with a stick! He could decimate them if he wanted, any other time but now! Their security was strung so tight, their sentry so active, their watchmen so alert it would be difficult to kidnap any child from within the village gates.
The other two looked to him.
They looked back down at their laps again.
The wet sound of chewing and swallowing, squishy bricks of unspecific brown and gray junk. Full of nutrients and vitamins to keep their system up.
"Well." A different one speaking, "I'm going to be grateful."
"Consider our options.We got the less-dangerous demon."
That, they could nod to. The three of them had been haunting the skirts of the village for quite a while, miserable and craving creature comforts but alive and, aside from Tomo, who was still healing from the brat's well-placed kunai, they were healthy. No, the Leaf's demon was by far the best charge they could have gotten. It was common knowledge that the Missing-nin after the Sand's demon weren't nearly so fortunate.
And the amount of money being offered for these rising demon brats... whatever the Akatsuki were planning to do with them had to be important.
"... I still hate... everything."
"... yeah." They nodded with him.
To be continued.