Author's note: FAN CAKE. I HAVE FAN CAKE. Yes, I am still bribe-able, and my friend rewarded me for the last chapter in the most amazing way ever. It wasn't just cake. It was fan cake. And it was delicious. http : / / thingishness. deviantart. com / art / Naruto-Cake-Fox-Magic-205328216

To abc/jj: I didn't want to make this public, but I've begged again and again for you to sign in if you're going to leave constructive criticism. I really appreciate the feedback and I'd love to discuss it with you, and it's extremely, extremely frustrating when you give me no way to address your issues. From now on, please either contact me or sign in. There was also a review reply to you from a friend of mine on the last chapter.

As a random side-note to everyone: I might decide to retcon this fic a little bit. When I first introduced the Akatsuki into it, nobody knew much about them. Unfortunately, at this point, everyone reading this fic knows them better than I do, and they're turning into a much bigger problem than I think they're worth. It'll take some rewriting to give their roles to other characters, but I think the story will be better off without them. I'll let you know when the adjustments are complete, and I'm sorry that I had to do it. :-(

Enjoy.


Voices were hissing in and around his head, dark thoughts that manifested themselves as slender strips of black chakra that spawned from his neck and waved around his face. Their serpentine eyes glowed red within the wispy chakra. Orochimaru frowned and attempted to ignore them, gazing out a window into the rolling hills of the Fire Country. Ever since his rather illuminating discussion with the moon god, those voices—other heads of the original Yamata no Orochi, he assumed—had grown more and more insistent. Going so far as to physically manifest themselves, however, had caused him a bit of shock that morning—he'd opened his eyes only to be greeted by a bevy of swarming faces.

-How you managed to ignore us for this long is beyond my ken- one hissed disdainfully into his right ear. –We had an agreement!-

"Assuming we did have any sort of agreement in place," Orochimaru replied dryly, "I certainly don't remember it. At this point, it doesn't matter."

-Doesn't matter?- another head, this voice pitched higher than the others, snapped at his nose. With a grimace, he waved a hand to temporarily interrupt the stream of chakra. When it reformed, the head's eyes flashed dangerously. -You have cheated us out of over fifty years of consciousness!-

-Liar! Thief!-

-Ingrate!-

Orochimaru scowled viciously. "If we made a deal, then it's your own fault for letting me be reborn in charge with no memories!"

The other heads quieted in a moment of shock before the accusations began again in force. Orochimaru pressed a finger against his temple and closed his eyes.

After all those years of feeling like he didn't understand why he was here, after being hunted by hell demons and tormented his entire life, and after his endless, vain search for power, he found out that the strength he'd always craved had been lurking inside him, dormant, this entire fucking time. His inability to connect to and empathize with his classmates and subordinates was because he wasn't fucking human. He wasn't even supposed to be human this time around; the other heads had complained about that profusely. From what he could gather from their insane ramblings, when the Yamata no Orochi escaped from the underworld, he was supposed to inherit the form of another demon. Instead, they'd found the body of some human child, ousted the proper soul, and insinuated the demonic soul inside instead, promoting one head—Orochimaru himself—to prominence while they settled in. Somehow, instead of being born with the knowledge of his previous life and "siblings," his mind had been erased and the other heads were suppressed. And so he went about his youth, unable to understand why killing some people was wrong but killing others was right, unable to understand why he couldn't be satisfied with any amount of power he managed to attain. He'd always known that he deserved more, that he was better than this wretched existence.

And now, finally, it all made sense.

His scowl deepened. Although I'm glad to know why all of this insane shit has been happening, the others are out of luck. I have no intention of sharing this body, or my power! When his "siblings" fell silent, he peeled open his eyes. If I somehow learned to suppress them once, I can do it again.

The other snakes were glaring at him, all seven hovering before his face.

-You will not cheat us again.-

-You need us. We hold access to our old power, and we can be as stingy as we please.-

-We are the ones who have figured out how to regain our demonhood, not you.-

His eyes flashing, Orochimaru raised an eyebrow. "I'm listening."

Predictably, most of the other heads turned away in a huff and dissolved, hissing variants on "I don't feel like telling you." Of the two that remained, one grinned and the other scowled.

-Your pathetic human body can't withstand use of our powers for extended periods of time,- Scowly stated, contempt dripping from his voice. -There do not seem to be many demons alive in this time that would serve as a viable substitute, much less one that could be found before they manage to overcome us.-

Orochimaru's lips tightened and he glanced warily over his shoulder. The hell demons had formed a semi-circle around him. As he watched, they shifted minutely closer. A sudden bolt of black chakra, courtesy of Smiley, sent them skittering back a few paces, but they seemed to recover somewhat quickly this time. Their small, enraged faces seemed to be multiplying by the day. Unconsciously, Orochimaru folded his arms and dug his fingers into his biceps, a fresh wave of fear sliding down his spine.

"We don't have much longer, do we?" he asked rhetorically.

Smiley gave his left ear a "playful" bite. –Long enough, perhaps. The moon god's offer is promising.-

Scowly snorted. –"Offer." He offers nothing. He simply wants us to destroy Kyuubi no Kitsune. Again, I might add.-

Another head rematerialized and chirped, -I certainly wouldn't mind finding new ways to make that arrogant prick suffer. At least he hasn't spent most of the last millennium in Hell!-

Yet another joined in with a mournful whine. -Some would say he has. I certainly wouldn't trade places with him.-

Smiley snapped at both of the newcomers, then turned a wicked smile upon Orochimaru. –We have a rare opportunity here. Tsukuyomi-sama wants us to harm Kyuubi however possible. Kyuubi, unlike us, is still in possession of a demonic body. We can serve a god, which I'm certain we'll be rewarded for, AND we can solve our little problem.-

Orochimaru and the other heads stared at Smiley. "Are you suggesting that we steal Kyuubi's body?"

-You fool!- Scowly tore at Smiley's neck until the head disappeared with a gasp. –How could we possibly hope to overcome him with his levels of chakra?-

Smiley reappeared, sulking. –I didn't think that far ahead, but shouldn't there be some way of crippling him? Some way of draining him until his spirit is weak enough that we can push him out?-

Whiny shook his head. –And take his place serving humans for eternity? No, thank you.-

-I'm sure Tsukuyomi-sama wouldn't make us do that if we simply got him out of the way! You heard the god. He's pissed at Kyuubi no Kitsune.-

-And he's sure to help us afterwards. Just like he saved us from Susanoo,- another replied sarcastically.

Smiley hissed at the other heads defensively. –YOU come up with something, then! At least my idea might be possible! Not like yours.-

-My plan is perfect!-

-Hah! You're both fools! My plan will grant us immortality in no time!-

As the argument around him devolved, Orochimaru retreated into his own thoughts. If it were possible to somehow kidnap Kyuubi and drain him of his chakra, he couldn't possibly ask for a better body to inhabit. And if, by pushing Kyuubi's soul of out his body, he ended up killing him, Orochimaru himself shouldn't be bound by the same constrictions when he took over. He could be the most powerful demon on earth. And if he could find a way to harness Kyuubi's stolen energy and combine them with his own…

No one on this earth or above it could stop him.

"We'll do it," he stated abruptly. The other heads quieted, and they all turned to face him. "All we need is a way to take control of him."

After a few moments of silence, nearly all of the heads rose and swiveled as one and stared out the window. Orochimaru frowned.

-Did you feel that?-

-That felt like him.-

-How is that possible? Tsukuyomi-sama said that he's in the Wind Country. He can't be here.-

-It is possible to be in two places at the same time, moron.-

While the others bickered, Smiley took on a grin that caused his wispy face to stretch just to fit it.

-We just found our ticket.-

To Orochimaru's surprise, all of the heads backed into him, swamping him with dark chakra. Their power skated over his limbs, urging him to open the window. Eyes narrowed, he obliged them—rather than test them by resisting, at least for the moment—and placed his foot on the windowsill. A wisp of black chakra hissed against his lips, curling them into a manic, tooth-baring smile.

With a leap, he was gone.


Blood was pounding in Gaara's ears as he clenched his fists, desperately trying to maintain control of his temper. The smug look on Uchiha's face and the smell of Kyuubi-sama wafting from him was making sand rise involuntarily from the gourd on his back.

The bastard fornicated with Kyuubi-sama? He dared to use him that way? His breath was coming in short bursts now, and his eyes began to sting from the sudden rise of chakra within him. It wasn't bad enough that he prances around, acting like he owns Kyuubi-sama, but now he's using him for sexual pleasure as well?

The tanuki demon blinked slowly, trying to think rationally. No, no. Kyuubi-sama said that Uchiha viewed him as a partner, not a slave. Not a slave. His fists trembled. Kyuubi-sama is an excellent judge of character.

Except when he's being blinded by his overly large heart. After all, he trusted me, and I failed him, and he refused to believe that Yamata no Orochi was turning on him—

Gaara just barely managed to avoid gripping his head in his hands, glaring at the young man with all of the venom he had in his body. He needed to know. He had to know what Uchiha thought of Kyuubi-sama. If Kyuubi-sama's impressions were correct, and not just the result of his moony-eyed infatuation, then Gaara might be able to stomach their romance, but if he was wrong and Uchiha was every bit the smug, self-centered bastard that nearly every other mortal he'd ever met had turned out to be—

He would kill him. Consequences be damned, he would rip him limb from limb.

"Uchiha-san," he managed through sharpened teeth. "I require a word with you."

Uchiha raised an eyebrow and gazed at him consideringly. Gaara was vaguely aware of Temari staring at him curiously, but her importance disappeared entirely in favor of determining whether or not he needed to rip Uchiha Sasuke's throat out. After an interminable moment, Uchiha nodded shortly and narrowed his eyes.

"I need to speak with you, too," he returned. The faintly superior ring to his tone made Gaara's right eye twitch.

With a sharp inhalation through his nose, Gaara strode past the man, ignoring his master's startled, "G-Gaara?" Uchiha wordlessly followed him to the nearest conference room, which was thankfully only a few paces down the hall. The double doors were blasted open as they approached and slammed shut moments after the pair stepped through. From his position in the center of the room, Uchiha eyed the closed doors speculatively, but he said nothing. Gaara squeezed his fists.

"What are your intentions towards Kyuubi-sama?" he immediately demanded in a low voice. His temper was leaping at the bit, straining to be unleashed, but he ruthlessly wrestled it into submission.

Uchiha immediately frowned. "What?"

"What. Are your intentions. Towards Kyuubi-sama." Sand began spilling out of his gourd and pooled at his feet.

Uchiha folded his arms over his chest, tipped his chin up, and lifted an eyebrow. "I fail to see how that's any of your business."

Sand shot across the floor and rose up into a solid wave. Uchiha flinched backwards, but the sand was moving far quicker than he could hope to. Just before he had the satisfaction of feeling it slam into the young man, Gaara dispelled it. Uchiha glared at him, raising a hand to shield his face from the thousands of tiny grains of sand that were now raining down on him. Gaara narrowed his glowing, golden eyes.

"Anything pertaining to Kyuubi-sama is my business. Answer my question."

Unfortunately, Uchiha seemed to be in no mood to cooperate. He scowled and spread his feet as if about to take a fighting stance. Gaara snorted internally; the man couldn't actually be that foolish, could he?

"I don't see why I should have to justify anything to you," Uchiha stated in a low, menacing tone. He added a mocking, "You're not his mother."

Fury rose up within the tanuki demon, and he clenched his sharpened teeth. "I am the most important person remaining in Kyuubi-sama's life." Uchiha scowled. "You will tell me what your intentions are towards him, or I will personally see to it that you are never in any position to hurt him."

"And how, exactly, do you plan to do that?" Uchiha ground out. "In case you haven't noticed, your darling Kyuubi-sama is pretty damn fond of me. If you hurt me, he'll be pissed, and if you actually manage to kill me, he'll end up back in his box for the rest of fucking time. Is that what you want?"

And now he was taunting him? With a growl, Gaara stepped forward. "Kyuubi-sama will forgive me for maiming you. I'm certain that I don't have to kill you to get my message across." The sand on the floor formed low spikes that were all pointing towards Uchiha. The young man dropped his gaze to them, then raised his abruptly red eyes.

"What, exactly, is your problem with me?" Uchiha asked stiffly. "I haven't done anything to you."

"You have fornicated with Kyuubi-sama." Gaara's eyes flashed. "That is reason enough to take issue with you."

"You're upset because I slept with him?" Uchiha replied incredulously. Suddenly, a small smirk claimed the right side of his lips. "You're jealous. You just can't stand the fact that he's chosen to be with me, can you? He keeps insisting that he's never felt any romantic feelings for you, but maybe that wasn't the case on your end." Gaara's breathing stuttered, escaping in puffs through his flared nostrils. Gold bursts of chakra accompanied his enraged huffs. Uchiha's eyes glinted in triumph. "Is that what this is, then? You're tired of being passed over by your precious Kyuubi-sama, and you'll be damned if you see him with anyone el—"

The sand on the floor burst up, wrapping tightly around the young man and hefting him off the floor. Gaara raised a trembling hand and curled his fingers, watching as the sand cocoon squeezed Uchiha until the man grimaced painfully. When Gaara spoke, his voice shook with fury.

"Do not ever speak of my feelings for Kyuubi-sama again." The fact that the man would sully what he had with Kyuubi-sama, that he would tarnish their relationship so casually… Uchiha Sasuke was low even for a mortal! He squeezed the human again, adding some rough edges within the cocoon to make him bleed. "He is the closest I have ever had to family, and I. WILL. PROTECT. HIM. Even if it means protecting him from YOU."

Uchiha bared his teeth as he glared down at Gaara. "You're…a fucking…moron. He doesn't…need protection…from me!"

Gaara curled his upper lip. "Since Kyuubi-sama's intuition seems to be clouded, I will be the judge of that."

Red eyes narrowed to slits, and the young man stilled. Gaara felt a moment's satisfaction at Uchiha's submission. Now that he'd realized whom he was dealing with, perhaps Gaara could—

The tanuki demon's thoughts trailed off in shock as he felt something prodding at his chakra within the sand. Although it was still under his control, he felt something trying to bend his chakra to its will, trying to make the sand take another shape. His eyes widened as rage began to overtake his astonishment. This pathetic, puny mortal was actually trying to manipulate his chakra? As if he had any right?

With a roar, Gaara detonated the sand cocoon, throwing the young man back into a wall and encapsulating him in a new one before he could drop to the ground. Uchiha gritted his teeth, trying to swallow a groan that Gaara's sharp ears picked up anyway. Furious, he shook the human like a rag doll.

"How DARE you try to manipulate my chakra! Who do you think you are?"

Uchiha peeled open his eyes, glaring murderously at Gaara. "Someone who doesn't fucking lose."

In the next moment, Uchiha Sasuke erupted with countless arcs of achingly familiar, unbelievably powerful red chakra. The tiny blades sliced through his cocoon, shattering it, and tore into the room. The walls, tables, chairs, and windows were destroyed in a deafening maelstrom of power. When the blades reached Gaara, he ducked down and pulled up as thick of a wall of sand and chakra as he could, buffing it up with all of his might. He could feel most of the blades pinging off his defensive wall; some of them nicked it, but two managed to cut through and caught him high in the shoulder and in his calf. He hissed in pain, clamping a hand over each of his wounds and trying to heal them.

The barrage ended as quickly as it began, and he tentatively opened a small hole so that he could see. Uchiha was on all fours on the ground, breathing heavily, and thin streams of blood were working their way down his arms and legs. Abruptly, he snapped his head up and rose to his feet. A swirling blade of red chakra spread out from his right fist, solidifying into a giant broadsword that he quickly pointed in Gaara's direction.

"If it weren't for the fact that Naruto is so goddamn fond of you, I'd take your fucking head off," the young man hissed.

Kyuubi-sama's chakra. Uchiha was wielding Kyuubi-sama's chakra as a weapon. Against him. Gaara found himself caught between equally strong tides of fury, indignation, horror, and extremely reluctant admiration. The negative emotions won.

Casting aside his protective shell, Gaara straightened and stared daggers at the young man. "First you use his body, and now you use his chakra? Is he nothing but a tool to you?"

Uchiha flinched. "What the fuck? Who the hell said I was treating him like a tool? For your information, you obsessive bastard, Naruto was begging me to use his chakra if I needed it." A dark, humorless smile flitted across his face. "I guess we'll see what his reaction is to my needing to use it against you. I highly doubt he missed this."

A faint spike of fear shot through Gaara's heart. Now that he'd been shocked out of his initial rage, it occurred to him that Kyuubi-sama would be angry with him. He would also be forgiven at some point, he was sure, but… He didn't truly want the other demon to be upset with him. Not now that they'd found each other. While Gaara frowned at the thought, Uchiha hissed and used his free hand to pluck at a chain around his chest. He pulled a small crystal out from the sagging folds of his yukata; red light spilled from it like a tiny lantern. Gaara's eyes widened.

He gave him his heartstone? The tanuki demon swallowed with difficulty. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, then flung a hand back towards the doors. A thick wall of sand rose up and hardened against them, sealing the two men inside. After a deep breath, he opened his eyes once more.

"I don't want to be interrupted yet," he explained grudgingly. "Kyuubi-sama will not be far behind now that you've used his chakra." If I'd known that you could do so in the first place, I might have planned this a little differently.

Uchiha snorted, brandishing his chakra sword at Gaara. "He's probably seconds away from that door by now." His red eyes swept up and down the tanuki demon. "Are you going to attack me again, or just throw more baseless accusations at me?"

Gaara bristled. "They are not baseless. You humans have a history of—"

"You don't know me. You know nothing about me. I am the last fucking person who'd think of Naruto as a tool, and implying that I of all people would try to abuse him sexually!" The human let out a mirthless laugh. "He was the one who kept coming on to me. The only reason I fucking gave in was that I realized that I—" He cut himself off abruptly, shook his head, and started over. "The last thing I wanted was to hurt him. That's why he gave me this thing: I asked him for a way for me to feel his pain if I hurt him unintentionally."

Gaara inhaled sharply. "You wanted to feel his pain?"

Glowering, Uchiha finally lowered the sword and dispelled the chakra that held it together. He turned his face away, running his fingers over the stone.

"I wanted to be equal, not that I think it's any of your fucking business. I never wanted a slave."

Equal? Gaara stared at him. Even knowing what Kyuubi-sama had said of the young man, hearing Uchiha Sasuke actually admit that he didn't care to be the master of a demon with infinite power was something else entirely. Was it actually possible? His golden eyes narrowed.

"What do you want from him, then?"

Uchiha glared at him, but he answered anyway. "I want his help. I need him to help me…solve a long-standing problem."

Gaara cocked his head to the side. "And once this problem has been solved?"

The young man looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, before you decided to attack me for no reason, that was actually what I wanted to talk to you about."

Gaara stared at him for a long moment. He felt like he'd been hit between the eyes. "You—" His voice cracked. Swallowing, he tried again. "You wish to free him?"

Sasuke pursed his lips and averted his eyes with a huff. "It wouldn't make sense to make him follow me around forever, and if something happened to me, I wouldn't want him to spend the rest of eternity in some box in my basement. Can you imagine him, of all people, being able to handle that?"

For the first time, Gaara could hear the emotion hiding behind the words. That feeling of having been struck intensified. "You care for him."

Sasuke's eyebrows furrowed. Folding his arms over his chest, he grumbled, "Isn't that much obvious? I'd be one hell of a stiff bastard if I didn't care for him at least a little by now."

I misjudged, he realized suddenly. He isn't using him at all, is he? His eyes widened. And the reason he's not using him is that

"You care for him a great deal." Gaara frowned musingly. This certainly put a new spin on things. With a wave of his hand, his sand rose up around Sasuke once more. Before the young man could protest, Gaara used his chakra to heal the wounds he'd caused. When his sand retreated, Sasuke glared at him.

"That won't get you off the hook. And I—" He growled. "Stop speculating about me. All I need to know is how to go about freeing him. The master scroll I have won't cough up the information, and I know he can't tell me a damn thing."

"We cannot speak of such things to our masters."

"But can you speak of them to other masters?"

The thought gave him pause. From the rules he'd laid upon them, Tsukuyomi had certainly assumed that if rival masters were to meet, they'd be fighting rather than discussing. It was possible that he didn't put a proviso in their enslavement for this.

Tentatively, he tried, "I may be able to. In order to free Kyuubi-sama…you must do three things." His ring began to sting, but he soldiered on. "You must call out his true name, his birth name; you must declare your intent to free him; and you must sacrifice something of equal value to the bond you carry."

As soon as the words left his mouth, Gaara felt like a cool, soothing breeze had removed a tremendous weight from his shoulders. He'd done it. He'd actually given Uchiha Sasuke the key to Kyuubi-sama's freedom. The ring on his finger was glowing red, biting into his skin and tearing at his chakra. His eyes tightened imperceptibly at the corners, but he refused to outright wince. If his informing Sasuke actually led to Kyuubi-sama's release, he would happily endure anything.

The brunet frowned. "His true name? How am I supposed to know what it is?"

His ring grew more painful by the second. Clearing his throat, Gaara replied, "Kyuubi-sama told me that he has actually mentioned it to you already in the only way he could." His lips curled up at the corners. "He has the strictest restrictions upon him, but he is a very clever man."

Sasuke ran a contemplative finger across his lips. "Fine, so I have to figure that one out myself. But something of equal value…"

Abruptly, a series of dull thuds erupted on the other side of the barricaded doors.

"Sasuke! Gaara! What the hell is going on in there?" Naruto yelled out, his voice muffled by sand and wood. Gaara glanced back at the door, then met Sasuke's eyes.

Which were narrowed. "Don't tell him about this."

Why the hell wouldn't he? "I see no reason to withhold this information from Kyuubi-sama."

Sasuke scowled. "I don't want him thinking that… He should hear it from me. Not from you. I'll tell him in my own time."

Gaara's eyes narrowed in turn. "But you are planning to free him, aren't you?"

The young man grimaced, but he nodded. "Just let me tell him my way." He suddenly smirked, adding, "If you keep my secret, I won't tell him the details of your little attack."

Sneaky little mortal. The tanuki demon scowled. "Do not presume to understand everything about my relationship with Kyuubi-sama. To use your own words, you do not know me. Nor, for that matter, do you know him."

"I know him well enough," Sasuke returned, glowering. "It's not like he can talk about his past."

Gaara shook his head. "He can't talk about the war. Have you even asked him about his past?" In the silence that followed, he turned and raised a hand towards the door. His sand rushed around the room, repairing the nicked walls and furniture. "You know nothing of his hopes, his dreams. You know nothing of why he is the way that he is, or why he's even capable of considering a mortal like you as his equal. These are all things that I know."

He could feel the young man's scowl burning into his back. The sensation nearly made him smile.

"You've been around him longer. I know enough to know that he's a good man," Sasuke snapped.

Gaara turned to glance at him over his shoulder. Against his will, his eyes softened slightly.

"Yes, he is."

"Will you keep my secret?"

Gaara paused, then brought his hand down. The wall of sand crumbled and funneled its way back into his gourd.

"For the moment, yes."

He barely had time to hear Sasuke release a low breath before the doors slammed open and a flushed, concerned Kyuubi-sama came barging into the room. His blue eyes swept over the two of them.

"What the hell is going on in here? Were you two fighting?" Kyuubi-sama frowned at Gaara, then at Sasuke. "Are you both all right?"

The tanuki demon and the human locked eyes. Eventually, Gaara replied, "We were having a discussion, Kyuubi-sama. It has concluded."

The blond's eyebrows furrowed. "But—"

"And for the record, Uchiha Sasuke," Gaara continued, narrowing his eyes. "I do not like you."

Sasuke folded his arms over his chest. "The feeling is mutual."

With a short nod, Gaara walked past Kyuubi-sama and exited the room, cradling his pulsing ring with his free hand. Temari was waiting for him outside the door, looking confused and concerned.

"Wait just a—Gaara! What the hell is going on here?"

As he reached Temari's side, Gaara glanced over his shoulder at his friend. Kyuubi-sama looked distinctly worried about him, and his red chakra stole across the floor to tangle with Gaara's. The tanuki demon smiled and gave the other man's chakra the equivalent of a reassuring pat. Kyuubi-sama's shoulders relaxed.

"Nothing you should worry yourself about." Oniisama. The spontaneous thought made something warm and content pool in his stomach. Nodding at the older demon, he began to walk. Temari followed closely, gazing at him curiously.

"Are you alright?" Her eyes dropped to his still stinging ring. "Is there something I can do?"

Gaara shot her a look out of the corner of his eye. So she was still in her oddly supplicating mood. He tilted his head.

"If you wouldn't mind."

Shaking her head, Temari extended a wrist towards him. Sand slipped out of his gourd and wrapped around her wrist, initiating a small chakra transfer that immediately lessened his ring-induced pain. He relaxed, flexing his fingers. Temari gazed at him.

"Would you like to talk about—"

"Ah, Temari. There you are."

The Kazekage's voice caused both of them to come to an abrupt halt. Temari dropped her wrist and straightened her back instinctively, her face paling as her father slipped out of a connecting hallway. She swallowed visibly.

"Yes, Father?"

His dark eyes flickered between the two before settling on his daughter. "I have something to discuss with you and your…brother. I trust you will be available this evening?"

When Temari hesitated, the Kazekage's eyes narrowed dangerously. She lowered her eyes, raising a hand reflexively to her neck.

"Yes, Father." Her tone held a hint of defiance, but when she kept her head lowered, the Kazekage eventually nodded.

"Good." He lifted a hand and placed it on her shoulder, smiling at her resulting flinch. He leaned closer to her. "Don't forget your promise, daughter."

"I won't, Father."

The Kazekage released her shoulder and nodded with satisfaction. "Excellent. This evening, then."

Gaara watched curiously as the man left, then turned to his master. Her hands were trembling faintly, though her eyes were filled with anger.

"Why do you fear him?" he asked eventually. She closed her eyes for a moment before lifting her head and dropping her hand. There was a bright red mark the shape of a diamond in the hollow of her throat. She grimaced.

"Because when I was little, I trusted him." Her fists clenched. "And that turned out to be a very big mistake."

The tanuki demon said nothing, staring at the red mark. He recognized a curse seal when he saw one. Lips tightening, he turned to stare after the Kazekage.

An interesting set of developments indeed.


After watching Gaara leave, Naruto turned to Sasuke and raised his eyebrows. "Sasuke, what the fuck is going on here? Why did you use my chakra against Shukaku?"

Sasuke straightened his yukata, a small smirk curling his lips. He couldn't tell Naruto that his little comrade had attempted to kick his ass, but the fact that he'd held his own made his smirk grow into a grin. He'd fucking measured up against a demon. Just let Itachi try and take him on now. Sasuke was un-fucking-stoppable.

"We had an interesting discussion," he replied dryly. Naruto stared at him.

"Did you two fight?"

Sasuke hesitated. How could he rework this situation into something believable? After a moment, he shrugged.

"I wanted to see how I might stand up against someone of his power level, and god knows that fighting you has been established as a bad idea. He obliged me."

Naruto looked at him like there was something growing out of his forehead, and whatever it was had decided to make faces at him. "You, um. You don't look hurt."

He doesn't have to know that Gaara healed me. And besides, that was after I sent him running. "I managed to keep up."

There was a pause. "You fought Shukaku and held your own against him?"

Instead of replying, Sasuke simply let his smug smile grow. Naruto swallowed hard.

"Using, um. Using my chakra, no less."

Sasuke began to feel slightly wary. After all of Naruto's fussing, was he going to be angry about Sasuke using his chakra? Granted, Sasuke had used it against his long-time best friend, but it was necessary. Naruto's face contorted strangely, his cheeks turning faintly red.

Sasuke took a hesitant step forward. "Naruto—"

"That might be the hottest thing I've ever heard," the demon choked out. Sasuke blinked, pierced by Naruto's suddenly red gaze. "What did you do? How did the fight go down?"

Sasuke stared at him. "You're a horny bastard, you know that? You're actually getting off on the fact that I was fighting your friend?"

"Shukaku is a very strong warrior. And you weren't losing." Naruto's lips gradually curled up into a predatory grin. "Yes, Sasuke. That's fucking hot."

The Uchiha heir rolled his eyes, but internally, he felt a little thrill that mixed with his self-satisfaction. He loved proving himself, dammit, and Naruto's reaction was pushing the right buttons. Maybe someday he should challenge Gaara to a real fight. At this rate, if he managed to win, Naruto would probably tear off his clothes and humiliate himself in public. The very idea made Sasuke smother a chuckle.

Clearing his throat, Sasuke replied, "Down, boy. This isn't the time or the place." Despite himself, he smiled at Naruto. "If you just came to rescue me, though, you might as well go back to the room. As you can see, I'm perfectly fine."

To his surprise, the grin faded from Naruto's cheeks, and a troubled expression replaced it.

"Actually, there's something I have to talk to you about. We have a slight problem."

Sasuke frowned. He still felt disgusting from before, and now he had bits of sand clinging to him in uncomfortable places. Tipping his head, he gestured towards the door.

"Tell me in the baths, then." When Naruto opened his mouth, Sasuke quickly added, "And behave yourself."

The fox demon pouted. "Fine. Spoilsport." For some reason, he looked uncomfortable again, but he didn't comment on whatever it was. "After you."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and made his way into the hallway and headed back to the baths, Naruto on his heels. Once they ducked through the hanging flaps that segregated the public men's bath from the women's, they found the changing room to be deserted. Shooting Naruto a significant look, Sasuke perfunctorily disrobed, unwrapped his hands, grabbed a small bucket, and entered the steamy bath area. A tremendous stone-lined pool took up most of the monstrous room, and several rows of showering stations were squeezed in on the far left. Arching windows rimmed with blue tiles showed the desolate desert and stark mountains in the distance. The bath was empty.

The brunet sat on one of the low stools in front of a shower station, unsurprised when Naruto quickly materialized next to him. Despite himself, Sasuke took a surreptitious glance at the other man through the corner of his eye. The last time he'd had a chance to look, he'd been a little distracted and a lot in denial, so he hadn't really absorbed any details. Naruto really was an attractive man, with his broad, well-muscled body, and his large hands, and his high cheekbones, and— Shaking his head to cut off that train of thought, Sasuke tore his eyes away before his body could start to respond and started the timed showerhead. He frowned as he doused himself under the lukewarm spray.

I'm starting to act like Naruto. Not good. He reached for the body soap and squirted some into his hands. Without looking, he questioned Naruto.

"You made sure that no one else would come in here, right?"

"…Hm?"

His eyebrows furrowed, but he refused to look over. He continued lathering himself and replied with a mildly irate, "You made sure that no one will hear what you're about to tell me, right? No one will come in, and there aren't any surveillance systems going?"

"…Huh?"

Dammit, Naruto. With a suppressed sigh, Sasuke reached up and removed the showerhead from its holder. In one swift movement, he cranked it up to full blast, set the temperature as low as it could go, and pointed it at Naruto's lap.

"AAAAAAAHHH!" Naruto's pained cry reverberated in the large room. When Sasuke finally turned to look at him, Naruto was curled protectively over his groin and desperately trying to shield himself from the freezing water. He glared at Sasuke through the spray. "You son of a bitch, that's fucking unnecessary!"

The showerhead turned itself off automatically, and Sasuke replaced it into its holder. He raised an imperious eyebrow at the fox demon.

"Maybe now you'll actually listen to me. Did you secure this room or not?"

Naruto was still wincing, and he reached for his own showerhead. He set the temperature high and aimed the nozzle at his abused privates, sighing with relief. Lips pursed, he shot Sasuke an affronted glance.

"Yes, you bastard, I did. No one will interrupt us, and nobody can hear us. Fuck, that hurt."

Sasuke's lips twitched with amusement. "Good. Now tell me, what's this issue of ours?"

Naruto sobered in a hurry. "Well… The thing is…" He sighed, running a wet hand through his hair. "Somebody managed to break into my shrine, and they took something of mine. I felt it in the Fire Country, and it's heading our way."

What the fuck? Sasuke stared at him. "How the hell did someone manage to break in? Nobody even knows what you are!"

Naruto shook his head. "I know. I don't think anyone suspected anything when we left, so I didn't… It didn't even cross my mind that I should shore up the defenses on my shrine before we left. I mean, I've never even had to worry about it before, since before you came along I was always confined to either the house or my shrine anyway." He sighed. "I don't even know who it was or what they took."

Sasuke's mind was racing. "Why weren't your defenses powerful in the first place?"

The demon gave him an uncomfortable look, then dropped his gaze. "You remember that I was locked away in there for a long time, right?"

"Yes…"

"Well, I did something…very bad to deserve it. Very, very bad." Naruto's eyes took on a distant, dark glint for a moment. He shook his head. "The entire time I was in there, I was being slowly stripped of power. It was bleeding out of me, and since the shrine is kind of a reflection of me, it was losing power, too. By the time you came along, there wasn't a whole lot of me left."

Sasuke frowned, thinking back to the day he'd released Kyuubi. That incredible presence, that heat, that fury…

"How could that have been just a little bit of you? You nearly killed me!" he declared incredulously.

Naruto glanced at him, lips curling up into a wry smile. "Ever heard of a burst of adrenaline? I was more than a little desperate at the time. And if you'll recall, my fox form was awfully small back then. I mean, you've seen my real size before."

The demon tapped his own forehead. Sasuke grimaced.

"Point taken. So your shrine didn't retain much of your chakra either?"

Naruto shook his head. "Bled right out. To be honest, if you hadn't come along when you did…" He trailed off, hesitating. With a sigh, he finished, "I might not have been there to be released."

Sasuke's eyes widened, and his blood ran cold. "The ring would've killed you?"

Naruto stared at the ground for a long, tense moment before nodding. Sasuke grit his teeth, tamping down on his sudden burst of anger. That son of a bitch Tsukuyomi. He nearly killed Naruto, and for what? To teach him a lesson? He took a long, deep breath. Thank god he won't have to put up with that bullshit again.

"Well," Sasuke began stiffly, "your shrine's defenses weren't the only thing an intruder would have to deal with. My home has plenty of defenses of its own, and the only person who would know how to disable those—" Abruptly, his eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline, then furrowed over his rapidly darkening expression. "—Is also the only other person who knows what you are."

Naruto finally raised his head, gazing at Sasuke in surprise. "You mean Itachi?"

Fists clenched, Sasuke scowled and nodded. "Of course it was him. Who else would have any motive to take something of yours? He must have some sort of plan." His fingernails bit into his palms. That bastard is always a step ahead of me. Now he's got something of Naruto's, and he's on his way here? His scowl deepened. "It must be something that could influence your Choice. Can you figure out what he took?"

Naruto frowned. "I think so, if I meditate on it."

Despite his dark mood, Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Are you capable of meditating?"

"Oh, shut up." Naruto partially stood, moved the little stool aside, and sat on the floor with his legs folded beneath him. He closed his eyes and folded his hands in his lap. As his breathing slowed, Sasuke grudgingly turned away from him and finished washing himself. A quick shampoo and rinse later, Naruto was still deep in his trance. Frowning, Sasuke got up and sank into the hot waters of the large pool. The demon continued to sit quietly.

Sasuke tipped his head back and closed his eyes, his frustration too strong to fully relax. What the fuck was Itachi after this time? Why would he take something of Naruto's? What could possibly influence Naruto's decision after how close the two of them had become? He resisted the urge to slam his fist into the rim of the pool. And why the fuck does everyone know more about this than I do?

"You know nothing of why he is the way he is."

Sasuke opened his eyes and turned to look at the meditating demon. He frowned. He knew that Naruto was an eternal optimist with a strong taste for bad TV shows. He knew that despite being treated like shit for a thousand years, Naruto still managed to be upbeat and have faith in people. He knew that the man had a terrible, mischievous sense of humor and a horrible temper, and that he had a tendency towards romance and affection that he couldn't seem to repress despite his best efforts. He knew that the demon could get awkward and embarrassed one moment and be utterly confident the next.

But he didn't know why.

Sasuke had no idea what had shaped the man that he knew. And if he did manage to defeat Itachi and avenge his clan, and he had to let him go, shouldn't he know that much, at least? He shifted with discomfort.

And what exactly will I be asked to sacrifice to free him? Something equal to our bond… A headache began to bloom at his temple. He shook his head, dismissing the thought. I'll worry about that later. First and foremost, I have to figure out what the fuck Itachi is up to—

At that moment, Naruto opened his eyes with a gasp. He looked around for a second before turning around and spotting Sasuke in the pool. He looked extremely troubled.

"Sasuke, he took my ball," Naruto nearly whispered.

Sasuke frowned. "Your 'ball'? Why don't you just take it back?"

Naruto shook his head in despair. "It's my Hoshi no Tama. My foxfire. I can't take it back. I have to bargain for it."

"Your—" Sasuke cut himself off. He vaguely remembered those old fox legends he'd heard growing up. Fox demons would carry around a small bit of their power in the shape of a white orb. And if someone else got their hands on it, they could demand damn near anything in exchange for it. Why the fuck would Naruto not take something like that with him?

At his infuriated glare, Naruto grimaced. "Look, I haven't needed that damn thing in a long time. It's like…it's like having a spare battery when I'm using a thousand pairs of rechargables that never run dry. I practically forgot I even had it." He frowned pensively. "In fact, I'm so far along now that I'm not even sure I need to get it back. I might be able to let Itachi keep it."

"That's a terrible idea," Sasuke snapped. "What if he uses it as leverage to get you to choose him over me?"

Naruto opened his mouth to protest, winced, and shook his head. "I…I don't think that would work…"

"But you're not sure, are you?" Sasuke rose from the pool and stormed over to him. "How could you not make sure something like that was properly defended?"

Naruto scowled and rose to his feet as well. "Hey, we agreed that there was no fucking way I could've expected somebody to break in. Excuse me for being a bit distracted at the fact that I was going to leave Konoha for the first time in a fucking millennium! You try having something be a complete non-issue for that long and see if you remember to bring your lock-box's defenses up from 'Definite Maim' to 'Outright Fucking Death'!"

Sasuke wanted to argue, but he felt his ire deflating. Naruto was certainly at fault, but…it was hard to blame him under these circumstances. Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Alright, alright. Let's just focus on what we should do now. If Itachi made it here with your foxfire, what could he do to you with it?"

Naruto frowned. "Honestly, not much. All he can do is withhold it from me, and I've managed to go on for this long without it. It's connected to my chakra, but it'd take an extraordinary amount of power to manipulate it without my consent. There's no way he can pull that off."

"Even though you share a small bond with him?" Sasuke pressed. The demon shook his head.

"At this point, it's miniscule. I deliberately avoid touching that thing." When Sasuke looked askance, he added, "Any time I concentrate on or access my bonds, I share my chakra. Between Itachi hating my guts, my ignoring him, and his being so far away, my bond with him has withered to practically nothing. And if he tried to access my chakra now, I'd resist him tooth and nail. Unless I went and opened the door for him, he'd need something incredible to power himself up enough to access it." He eyed Sasuke worriedly. "Even with my foxfire, if Itachi shows up and challenges me, he's probably going to lose."

Sasuke hummed thoughtfully. Could this be the last act of a desperate man? Does he know that the foxfire won't guarantee him victory? He placed a finger against his lips. And why would he ensure that I released Kyuubi if he wanted control of him all along? It just doesn't make sense. What's his game plan?

Sasuke pinned Naruto with a firm glare. "You're positive that he can't influence you through it?"

The fox demon shook his head. "Unless he managed to spontaneously turn himself into an upper-level demon, the worst he can do is try to bargain with me over it. Even then, he'd have trouble considering how much power I've tapped into. And if we make sure that you get a chance to kick his ass before then, I can just take it back once he's dead."

Startled, Sasuke raised his eyebrows. "You're that convinced that I'll win?"

Naruto looked at him in disbelief. "You managed to tangle with Shukaku without breaking a sweat. Yes, I'm pretty damn sure you'll win."

Warmth unfurled in Sasuke's stomach, and to his horror, he felt his cheeks begin to heat up. Uncomfortable with Naruto's confidence in him, he glanced away and cleared his throat.

"Yes, well. You'll know it when Itachi crosses the border with it?"

Naruto nodded. "I should feel it." He frowned. "It's amazing, though. He made really good time from where I sent him."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and he waved a hand dismissively. "Itachi's a slippery bastard. I'm sure he has his ways." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Nothing we can do about it right now, then. Unless you can slow him down somehow?"

Naruto raised his eyebrows. "Well, I could send a bunshin out to him, but I doubt he'd bargain with it." He frowned. "And it's possible that it might trigger the Choice."

"Mm. Best not to risk it, then." Sasuke still felt uneasy about the whole thing, but there wasn't much they could do but wait. If Naruto was right, it would seem that Itachi had made his first big mistake. If Naruto was wrong… He frowned. We'll just have to deal with that as it comes.

Shaking his head, he turned towards the changing room. "Let's just go. We'll have plenty of warning before Itachi shows his ugly face, and we can figure something out."

Naruto nodded, following the younger man. "Hey, Sasuke… What if it was someone else who took my ball?"

Sasuke looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. "Who else would be interested in it? As far as everyone in Konoha is concerned, you're just my cousin."

The demon still looked troubled. "True."

"And if they did, they certainly couldn't do any more damage than Itachi. Why would anyone be trying to confront you?"

"Maybe they thought I was dangerous? Or wanted to manipulate me, not knowing that I'm bound to you?" Naruto speculated.

Sasuke entered the changing room and snagged a towel, drying himself quickly. He shook his head. "Who would have that kind of death wish if they knew what you are? The only person who would concern me in that case is Tsunade, and she's the one who sent you with me."

"Tsunade?" Naruto snorted. "That woman loves me. Nudging her to let you take me was child's play."

"She thinks you're a pain in the ass."

"That means she loves me."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, usuratonkachi. At any rate, I think it's highly unlikely that anyone from Konoha is after you. Everyone seemed to like you."

Naruto preened at that, steam rising from his body as the water dried. "It's a gift. I'm overwhelmingly likeable."

Sasuke sighed once more. "Naruto. Just shut up."

"Yes sir, Mr. Indomitable Uchiha Sasuke, sir," the fox demon teased. With a snap of his fingers, he was dressed and leaning against a low counter. "So what did you have planned for our day off?"

Well, he couldn't be seen training if he was pretending to be injured, he mused as he shrugged on his yukata and tied the belt. Can't do anything about our mission tomorrow, and I can't do anything about Itachi now. In that case…

Sasuke attempted a nonchalant tone as he replied, "I'm sure I can think of something for us to do in the city, if you didn't get enough of that yesterday."

Naruto grinned. "Works for me. We haven't had a nice, relaxing day together since we were in Konoha."

Sasuke nodded shortly. If he couldn't solve any of his other problems today, perhaps he could at least research one. When he reached for the fake bandages, Naruto slipped in front of him, gave him a quick smile, and picked up the wrappings himself. The heat of his hands seeped into Sasuke's skin as he deftly re-wrapped the gauze. He briefly locked eyes with the demon, pursing his lips at the warmth that rose in his chest again. After a quick flex of his fingers and a nod of thanks, he tipped his head towards the entry, following Naruto as the demon obligingly moved towards it. His eyes dropped speculatively to his hands, and he slowly rubbed his fingers.

Maybe I can figure out what makes him tick.


The black chakra rushing through him made Orochimaru's strides far longer than they should be. The forests were screaming by him, shadows seeming to twist towards him as he passed. His lips tightened as he ran.

In his head, his "siblings" seemed to be enjoying themselves. They hissed with excitement and impatience, pushing ever more power into his limbs. Only his years of practice kept him from wincing as his skin began to pull and strain under the influence of the demonic chakra. Soon, he mused, I'll have a body that won't even flinch under the onslaught of power.

The thought made him smile.

Reacting to his cooperative mood, the other heads cried out with dark glee. –Faster! Faster!-

-This is taking too long!-

-We want it NOW!-

Orochimaru's eyebrows furrowed as he felt the other personalities drawing upon their power. The black chakra rose up around him, covering him in a thick, swirling mist. It billowed into his nose, making him choke, and stung his eyes. It was—they were smothering him!

Alarmed, Orochimaru tried to claw his way through, but he felt the darkness growing deeper. The laughter of his siblings grew louder, ringing in his ears. Through the haze, he could hear some strange voice cackling madly with his mouth, and his body seemed to stretch impossibly high up into the heavens. The chakra tornado around him crackled and roared.

In a heartbeat, he was gone.


Kakashi fell back behind the Anbu travelling with him, his eyebrows knitting with unease. For some reason, the hair on the back on his neck was rising. Deciding to trust his intuition, he came to a sudden stop upon a thick tree branch and opened his mouth to call out to the others.

The world exploded. Something dark lashed out at the Anbu, and one long tendril of something arched towards him. Time seemed to slow down as Kakashi managed to throw his weight backwards. The tendril, glowing crazily to his Sharingan, just barely missed his head. With a gasp, Kakashi threw his chakra into his hands, concentrated it, and slashed out at the tentacle with a pair of Raikiri. To his shock, the stuff dissolved at his touch, reformed around his arms, and thrust forward.

His chest erupted with agonizing pain. Mouth working silently, he fell back against the tree trunk and placed a palm upon his wound. The black thing swirled closer to him, shrouding the area in darkness. In the split second that he had to decide between life and a second attack, he used his remaining energy to staunch the flow of blood around his wound. The next moment, that thing was upon him.

The world went dark to the tune of crazed laughter and a pair of glowing eyes.


...


8/20/11 Guys, I'm really, really sorry about the long wait, but I just have not had any time to write. The end of the semester was brutal, and as for my summer break, I've been getting up at the crack of dawn almost every day in an attempt to get out to my research locations. I've never been so busy in my life, but at least my research is going well. I have the next chapter planned out, I swear, and I just need to find a few days of peace where I can work on it. Thus far, so many people are trying to make demands on my time that I'm just too worn out at the end of the day to even try. I hate leaving you guys in limbo like this. :-( Thanks for your patience, though. You're the best. (hugs)