Part 41

Naruto was pretending. Kyuubi had woken him up the moment the clone assigned to the front of the house had offed himself in order to relay the deadline. At first Naruto had panicked, and Kyuubi had raged, but both quickly realized that was a waste of time. Now Kyuubi was napping while Naruto played inside his head. They didn't know how they would feel once they had the memories of multiple clones having been awake all night. Naruto figured since the clones took energy, it was Kyuubi who would feel the most tired later. He didn't need his fox's commentary for this, anyway. Kyuubi either couldn't or simply refused to experiment with his energy, so that left it entirely up to him to figure something out. He used his imagination for that.

He set up a full length mirror and then pictured his energy the way he had described it to Iruka. He saw it immediately. It was thicker than he had imagined it before because he figured he had underestimated himself when he said it would only be a few inches thick. He ran his fingers through it, right over his arm, and tried to pretend he could feel it. That didn't work at all, for some reason. He could see it waft around his fingers, though. The front-yard clone had been trying to shield earlier. He tried that on his right arm now, watching the energy thicken up and darken in the spot, while the rest of the energy around his body grew a bit thinner. He pushed it down, focusing it on his hand, and tightened it up. It looked nice and solid, but when he tried touching it his hand went right through it. He guessed he just wasn't very good at imagining sensations. He had felt the heat from Kyuubi's fire that time, and the water he had tried to extinguish it with. He could feel his arm, too, just like normal. But he couldn't feel his energy. Maybe that was a good thing. He didn't have to worry about that burning sensation he usually got when he tried to make his energy move deliberately.

He curled the dark hand into a claw and yanked at the energy over his left arm. His fingers snagged and then ripped a wad of it away like cotton. He cringed at that. It looked painful. He might not feel anything in here, but was sure that if he managed to do that outside of his head, then it would hurt like a son of a bitch. He quickly patted the wad back in place, relieved when it smoothed out. He was also relieved that Kyuubi hadn't been awake to see that. He would probably have made fun of him. He curved his hand and tried pressing the energy down, lightly, and pushing some of it toward his wrist as if his whole arm was a tube of liquid. The energy caught at his wrist, bunching up there like a lumpy boil. He wondered if it would pop and spill on the floor, the way Iruka had described. The floor was clean since this was all in his head, but he didn't fancy the idea of trying to mop his energy up. He pressed very carefully until the blob of energy eased into his palm, and then pulled on it like putty so that it was stretched out a few inches past his fingers. It hung there, flopping when he waved his hand. Absolutely ridiculous looking. He couldn't help but grin. This was a lot harder than he'd thought it would be.

He held his other hand flat, keeping the flap in a straight line as he shielded all over his hand. That hardened it up. At least, it looked harder, and it didn't flop when he moved it around. It wasn't sharp, though. He tried pinching the tip into a point, but the energy bounced back into a rounded edge the second he took his fingers off it. There was no way he could puncture the bubble with that. Hell, Kyuubi's claws were sharper than that and they hadn't worked. There had to be something he could use that would do the trick, though. Sasuke had used his energy to make his hand hard enough to punch into his stomach that time. That was just shielding, right? Or was that reinforcement? Was there a difference between the two? Naruto was fairly sure reinforcing just meant using even more energy. He eyed the mirror and imagined all of his energy flowing to his right hand, like a giant fist. Then he pulled it tight, making it darker and thinner until he looked almost normal except for a brownish orange glove. If it was just a matter of condensing energy, maybe he could punch right through the damned thing. Then again, Kyuubi had been going all out, blazing with energy, and he hadn't so much as cracked the bubble when he hit it.

Kakashi had used that electrical talent to pop the bubble when he was in it. Naruto closed his eyes, imagining his energy crackling all around him. He could even hear it. But when he opened his eyes he nearly fell over laughing at himself. Instead of the fiery snapping currents he had imagined, his energy was bubbling all over. It looked a lot more like water than fire now, or gel. Yes, it looked like gel with tiny air bubbles making their way from his skin, through the stuff, and out into the air. What was he going to do with energy like that? Splash it at the bubble and hope it had a corrosive effect? Suddenly it wasn't the slightest bit funny anymore.

He closed his eyes again. He needed something sharp enough to stab with, to puncture. They had tried scratching the bubble and it hadn't worked. Slicing didn't do the trick, so it had to be pointy and strong. Spikes, blades, a needle at the tip of his fist, anything sharp at all. He concentrated so hard that his brain hurt. He had a sudden image of himself as a pin cushion and went with that. Like the spiked ball on the end of a chain. Then he opened his eyes and sat down so hard he hurt himself. Tails. What was wrong with him? He imagined spikes and he got tails. They weren't even pointy tails, they were long and fat, and rounded at the tips. He had beaver tails wagging around above his head. He dropped his chin onto his hand and squinted at his reflection. There weren't even nine of them, just three fat beaver tails. And he'd be damned if they weren't bubbly gel tails at that. He was obviously doing something wrong here.

Maybe he was just trying too hard. If all he needed was something sharp, he could grab a knife out of the kitchen. If he could get his energy to move around the blade, reinforce it the way Sasuke had done to that bandage that time, then he could put his full strength behind it and it wouldn't break. That might be enough to puncture the bubble.

He glared at the tails in the mirror until they shortened and finally went away altogether. It would be so much easier if he could con Kakashi into using the bubble on him. Then he could experiment ways to pop the thing. If he ended up getting stuck in there, then he wouldn't be able to do anything but send clones after Itachi. Even if they all managed to shield, they still wouldn't be able to take more than one or two hits. With a whole bunch of them, and Kyuubi using his energy from all over the place, they might be able to distract the guy or at least slow him down a little. If he was close by he could keep making them as fast as they were expelled. But he was pretty sure that wasn't how it would happen. Sasuke was going to stick him in the bubble the second he realized Itachi was here. Then Sasuke would lead him away from the house and he would be stuck in the bubble with no idea where they had gone. He could send his clones after them immediately, but he wouldn't put it past Sasuke to dispatch them himself. Either way, it would be over without him being able to do anything.

Movement caught his eye, and he spotted Kyuubi padding toward him. The fox stopped behind him, dropping his head onto his shoulder to stare at him in the mirror. Naruto scowled when he saw his blush being reflected back at him. 'I guess you saw that last bit, huh?'

'I never thought of you as a beaver,' Kyuubi said, humming with amusement. 'I suppose any tails are better than none, though.'

'You're just saying that to be nice...'

'No,' Kyuubi admitted. 'I was making fun of you.'

Naruto groaned, burying his face in his hands. 'I don't know what to do.'

'Start by dispelling that clone so we can go to sleep holding our mate.'

'He'll be mad when he wakes up and finds out,' Naruto reminded him.

'I won't mind.'

'Yeah,' Naruto sighed, 'me, neither.'

.-.

Sai never made it back to the house before daybreak. He had spent an hour or two arguing his case, and might have continued for longer if the taxi hadn't arrived to take the team to the airport. He was then plucked off the street right in front of the hotel by a mutant he should never have had direct contact with. Was Naruto's meddling responsible for this, too? By the time he settled into a seat in the empty waiting room, he was resigned to the fact that he had utterly failed this mission.

He should never have been assigned a recording task. Not even Tiedoll would credit his observations, and he was the one who had taught him to record in the first place. The Order clearly didn't trust his ability to monitor the situation accurately. He could place some of the blame for that on Kanda, who had convinced the entire team that the little Uchiha was useless. Kanda's past involvement with Uchiha made him extremely biased, which was painfully obvious to Sai. But he didn't have the seniority to make even Tiedoll take that bias into account. Instead, he had been accused of letting his own bias sway his opinions. In short, Tiedoll had given him the same lecture he had just received from the director, to not let anyone in that house affect his course of action. What would Tiedoll say when he learned that it wasn't just the people in the house having an effect on things? He wondered if people were fired from the Order.

He decided to make the most of the situation. The Order had nothing on the mutant who had accosted him, and very little on Uchiha's pet healer. He would draw them both when he returned to the house. He would also do his own research into Hatake, since the director continued to insist he had no need to know. He had his own suspicions as it was.

His eyes glinted appreciatively when the healer entered the room. The man was furious. Even restrained as he was, his talents were as insidious as his motives. And he was no healer at all. He was a molder, or, to be crude about it, a butcher. It was suddenly obvious to him why Uchiha continued to seek him out. He had no doubt that the Order hadn't intended him to ever realize this, either. He had to wonder what else they were keeping from him. That was yet another mistake on their part. Had he been better informed, he would never have mentioned this man to Hatake, even in passing. He wondered what other things he had unwittingly mentioned to tip the man off.

"What was the Black Order hoping to achieve with this stunt?" Kabuto demanded testily. He kept his hands in the pockets of his lab coat so he wouldn't be tempted to act on his baser instincts. "Don't bother to lie. Sasori was very quick to defend himself." Kimimaru had still destroyed his puppet. Orochimaru didn't want Sasori back, not yet, and Kabuto certainly wasn't about to trust him not to interfere once Itachi arrived.

Sai didn't bother to defend the method the Order had chosen to use. It was too overly complicated for his tastes. Most of their plans were. "We wanted him out of the house."

"And into mine?"

"We knew you wouldn't let him leave. It seemed easier to simply to hand him to you."

Kabuto's eyes narrowed. "I don't want him." He could barely tolerate Sasuke under normal circumstances. Itachi had let him run rampant until he didn't have any redeeming qualities at all aside from his talent and his face, both of which he owed to his Uchiha blood. He would have had to keep him drugged the entire time, for his own sake, and Itachi would have known the moment he saw him. That was the entire point, of course. The Order had wanted him to babysit Sasuke so that Itachi would be angry with him the moment he arrived. It was so obvious they were trying to force a fight that they might as well have skipped the plotting and contacted Itachi directly to tell him exactly who would be waiting for him here. Then again, maybe they had already done that as well. "Sasuke wouldn't be set to leave at all if your group hadn't shown up to warn him."

"I believe that, technically, you warned him first. Our team wasn't able to make contact with Umino until after your call." Sai's eyes widened as the man shifted subtly. It was quite remarkable how well he controlled the lighting, using the reflective nature of his glasses to hide the promise of violence in his eyes.

"Let's get back to Sasori," Kabuto said quietly. "Were you hoping we would take him out in retaliation and save you the trouble?"

Sai shrugged. "That would have been nice, but we weren't counting on it. As I understand it, they chose him because he was convenient. He had motive, means, and a desire to prove his continued loyalty to Orochimaru."

Kabuto couldn't argue with that much. Sasori had a far-reaching talent that allowed him to remain undetected by most mutants. Even Itachi might not have noticed him. But Sasori also had a dependent relationship with Deidara, who was obsessed enough to make Itachi appear sane. The Order might have put the idea into Sasori's head, but it would take more than smooth words to convince Deidara. Itachi didn't consider Deidara's talent impressive enough to set him against Sasuke, and Deidara wouldn't be satisfied until he had proven otherwise. He would never get the chance if anything happened to Sasuke now. Kabuto could easily imagine him being involved in a flashy explosion, just close enough to Sasuke to get Itachi's attention and bring him running. But drugs weren't his style, and modeling a golem after one of Orochimaru's snakes was beneath him. Sasori was convinced Deidara had sent the creature to him, and that he was fully aware of the plan. Kabuto had his doubts about that. Deidara was just as likely to retaliate against Sasori for taking part in this stunt as they were, all orchestrated by the Order, of course.

He slowly cooled his temper. Itachi had told him all about this particular boy's talents. He would sooner believe he had created the thing, modeling it after Deidara's golems in order to fool Sasori, and Orochimaru's snakes in order to fool Sasuke. The one thing the Black Order excelled at was playing mutants off each other so they didn't have to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately for them, he was out of their league. He had spent his entire life around manipulators and considered himself on par with the best of them.

"And Deidara?" Kabuto inquired. " Was he intentionally directed to that research facility, or was that an unfortunate coincidence?"

"I don't know," Sai admitted. "I don't think we had anything to do with that. There were too many wild cards involved in that incident for us to see anything." As far as he knew, the Order wasn't aware that Deidara had even been there. There was at least one other mutant they were aware of who was capable of causing the sort of explosives that had taken the place down. If Kabuto thought Deidara had been responsible, then he would have to be sure to include that in his report. They had been aware that someone working for Orochimaru had infiltrated that facility, but not why or how the place had been breached. They had blamed most of that on Umino's presence there obscuring their visions, but if Deidara had been involved then maybe Itachi had as well. Was it possible there had been another meeting of S class mutants, with Umino right in the thick of it, and they hadn't even realized it? This meeting was turning out to be quite useful. Since the man was being so helpful, he supposed he should offer something in exchange. "I do believe the Order made an effort to include Deidara in their plans here, but they were unable to locate him due to his frequent proximity to Uchiha."

An open admission was more than Kabuto had expected. It was good to know that Deidara hadn't been involved in this plot with Sasori after all. Deidara was uncontrollable for the most part, but he didn't like to think that he might have misjudged him so badly. He did note, though, that the boy didn't take credit for creating the creature itself. That was a shame. He wasn't willing to offer any more information without knowing that the information the boy had to give in return was worth it.

Kabuto stared at him, taking in every aspect of his body language. Either the boy was lying about what had happened at that facility, or the Black Order wasn't as well informed as his sources said they were. He didn't appear experienced enough to lie to his face. Which meant they had no idea. That much was a relief. Orochimaru wasn't taking them seriously at the moment, so it had come as a rude shock to think they might be that many steps ahead. Although he considered their classification of strong mutants as 'wild cards' to be ridiculous, he had to concede that Deidara fit the bill. If Deidara hadn't been tipped off by the Order, then he must have realized on his own that Orochimaru and Itachi were both after the same prize. He had snatched it up beneath both of their noses, drawing Itachi straight to him. Itachi had it now, and if the Order was still unaware of that, then those little 'predictions' of theirs were going to be even further off than they realized. They were so focused on playing Orochimaru and Itachi off each other that they were missing the big picture entirely.

"Does the Order have any more surprises to spring here?" he asked, his eyebrow rising.

Sai raised his own eyebrows in surprise. "Would you expect me to tell you if they did?"

"If you'd like to live." He had been looking for an excuse to experiment on one of their people. Orochimaru would likely complain about him interfering with his plans for them, but it would be well worth it, especially if he had been the one to create that golem. Even if the boy hadn't created it himself, he would be able to give him the name of the person who had. Having someone with that ability could be very useful in his research. He was growing very tired of corpses, and Itachi wasn't leaving them much else to work with.

Sai smiled, pleased to have garnered an outright threat. "As far as I know, they have no more surprises in store. Now we have only to wait and see how things turn out."

"If things turn out the way you want, then your Order will be the next target on Itachi's list. You can be sure of that."

"No," Sai shook his head, "it isn't a question of what I want. The Order isn't interested in my opinion on the matter. I just work for them."

"Oh?" Kabuto gave a slow smile. "It seems we have something in common, then."

.-.

Kakashi had turned Iruka's alarm clock off last night, while lying in wait in his room. He was glad for the forethought when he entered the kitchen the next morning and found himself interrupting a huddle. Ino, Sakura, Lee, and Kiba were at the table, leaning in and whispering heatedly. Upon sight of him, they grew silent and stared. It wasn't until Akamaru put a paw over his head and Kiba dropped his eyes with a blush that Kakashi realized the gossip hadn't been about him. He promptly smiled and lifted a hand in greeting. "Morning."

Kiba didn't look up, telling him that the boy had sniffed him out just as the dog had. As long as he wasn't chatting about it with the others, Kakashi didn't mind that. The others were still staring at him, following him with their eyes so that the short walk to the coffee pot suddenly felt much longer. He ignored them until he had his cup, and then hopped onto one of the stools, leaning against the counter as he perused them. He had expected Ino or Lee to be the first to break, so he was surprised when Sakura was the one to speak up.

"Is this another misunderstanding?" she demanded. "Ino and I both heard what Naruto was screaming last night. You can't tell us they were just 'sparring' when it took both you and Iruka-san to break them up."

"I never took him for a biter," Kiba muttered. He kept his head down, his face still quite red.

"I still say there has to be a rational explanation," Ino said stubbornly. She scowled when Sakura rounded on her.

"I'm not saying there isn't," Sakura reminded her. "But the explanation Naruto gave is not cutting it, not this time." She promptly turned back to Kakashi, looking at him expectantly. "Well?"

Kakashi thought about it for a moment, and then offered, "Sasuke got hungry in the middle of the night and decided to snack on Naruto's hand?" They must not have liked that explanation, because both girls jumped to their feet, Ino snapping at him for defaming Sasuke and Sakura jumping on him for making light of the issue. He looked past them to the boys, noting that Lee was the only one of the kids who seemed to be taking this all quite calmly. That couldn't be good. He sighed and stood, forcing the girls to back up. "If you want to know, I suggest you ask them yourself. I know how much you ladies like your gossip," he smiled at the immediate denials, "but I think you're going about this all wrong. If you continue to jump to the worst possible conclusion, then neither of them will want anything to do with you." Not that Sasuke did, anyway. "I'm sure you have things that you haven't shared with them. And, if you don't, then you really need to consider getting lives of your own to entertain yourselves with."

Sakura took insult at that. "There's a difference between being nosy and being concerned!"

"Yes, there is," Kakashi agreed. "You can get back to me after you've learned the difference."

"I don't believe it was a domestic quarrel," Lee said suddenly, his calm tone cutting right through Sakura's gasp of outrage. "Perhaps it has something to do with Sai sneaking out last night."

Kiba winced, shooting him a pained look. "We weren't going to tattle, remember?"

"You said we shouldn't 'tattle' to Iruka-san. You never mentioned we should say nothing to Kakashi-san, either."

"Both are just as bad," Ino huffed at him. "Telling any adult is tattling, no matter how irresponsible he might be. Besides, he didn't actually sneak out since we were never given a strict curfew to begin with. And he certainly didn't sneak back in."

"Yeah," Kiba waved, "but you know he was doing something he wasn't supposed to or he wouldn't have been so rude when he came in."

"Not necessarily," Lee argued, his brows drawing together stubbornly. "Naruto-kun specifically said that he was here to spy. Naturally he would need to report his findings. Whatever happened last night would surely be something worth reporting on. If he were merely doing what is expected of a spy, then there is no issue of 'tattling' at all."

"No, Lee," Ino said sharply, scowling at him when he continued to frown back at her. "It's still tattling. You're a tattle. Accept it so we can move on."

"Get off him," Kiba scowled. "At least he's finally grown a pair. I'd rather have him be a tattle than your stooge."

"I'm sure! What next, are you going to have him biting his nails and playing with the dog? I'll bet you'll have Shikamaru teaching him to pick his ears in public, too. Don't think I haven't noticed the way you've been trying to get him to hang out with you when I need his help around the kitchen. Just because you're a useless male doesn't mean he has to be!"

"You guys," Sakura groaned, "don't start on that again. We're supposed to be finding out what-" She glanced over and stiffened, going from pleading to dangerous in a snap. She caught Kakashi just as he was pushing through the door. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?"

Kakashi shrugged at her, "I have better things to do than listen to this. Finish making breakfast and try not to tear the house down while you're at it. Later, if you kids are feeling mature enough to behave yourselves, one of you can go up and ask your questions. Or you can stay down here and speculate and bicker until your mouths go dry. I honestly don't care which option you choose."

Their voices started up again the moment he was out the door. He shook his head. Iruka should have sat them all down and explained what Sai was doing here. Better yet, he should have had Sasuke explain what Sai was doing here. It was no wonder they were frothing at the mouths after hearing Naruto screaming at the top of his lungs about Sasuke chewing his fingers off. He didn't envy Naruto trying to explain away that one. And Sai was every bit the amateur he had thought he was if he couldn't even sneak back into the house without being caught. He tapped lightly on Naruto's door, but didn't wait before pushing it open.

Naruto scrambled out of the bed so fast his legs got tangled and he nearly fell on his face. Kakashi winced when Sasuke didn't so much as twitch at the commotion. He shut the door behind him and went to the desk, pushing things aside so he could set down the coffee he had brought up with him. "Relax," he said to Naruto, who still had a furious blushing 'caught' expression on his face. Considering how he had spent the night, he wouldn't say a word about the two of them. He did consider saying something about the mess in the room, but decided Sasuke would give him an earful about that when he woke up and realized he had spent the night in a sty. His kid had serious issues with bugs and this place looked like it could be crawling with them. "Here, have a drink while I take a look at him."

One gulp of scalding black coffee was more than enough to wake Naruto. He took a second gulp, just to be sure. Then he turned and leaned against the desk while he watched Kakashi. The man pushed the band off his eye and looked at Sasuke for a long time in silence. Naruto's stomach twisted a little. All of the clones had poofed during the night, each one waking him for a few minutes before he could doze off again. As far as he knew, Sasuke hadn't moved all night, not even a little. He tried prodding Kyuubi awake enough for some reassurances, but the fox batted him away grumpily. He guessed all those clones had worn him out, after all.

"How is he?" Naruto asked quietly.

"Empty," Kakashi said flatly. He had been afraid that might happen. Without the sharingan activated, Sasuke didn't have much base energy to speak of. What little he did have had been smothered completely by the drug's shadow. "He might have trouble using the sharingan when he first wakes up. Tell him not to try using it. It will wear off in a few hours." It wouldn't, of course, but Iruka would be awake by then. "Don't let him sleep much longer. Shake him awake, if you have to."

"What if he's still hallucinating when he wakes up?" Naruto asked worriedly. He didn't want a repeat of last night.

Kakashi covered his sharingan and turned a droll stare on him. "Are you really incapable of restraining him on your own? I thought strength was one of your natural talents. I was surprised by how much trouble you seemed to be having last night."

"I didn't want to hurt him," Naruto scowled. "Yeah, he was struggling like hell, but he wasn't shielding or anything."

So he had learned that lesson. Kakashi smiled at him. "I doubt he'll still be hallucinating. Just wake him up and keep him awake. That drug was designed for Iruka, not him. The longer he sleeps, the harder it will be for him to wake up. I'll send Iruka in as soon as he's up and lucid. If you're hungry, have one of your duplicates bring something up for the two of you. He won't want to be around the others this morning. They're already talking about how he was chewing on you last night. You might want to just tell them the truth before they decide to hold a lynching party."

"Oh, God," Naruto groaned, his stomach rolling. He had wailed. Loudly. And they'd been standing right outside the door by the time it was over. He rubbed a hand over his face, not even looking around when Kakashi left the room. What was he supposed to tell them? This was Sasuke's business, and if Sasuke didn't want them all to know, then he didn't have any business telling them. Then again, telling them might be the lesser of two evils. Sasuke would probably be just as mad if he found out they all thought he was some kind of sexual sadist.

'He'd make a good one,' Kyuubi admitted. 'His teeth aren't sharp, but he sure knows how to use them.'

'You're awake! I thought you were being grumpy because using those clones wore you out.'

'That was nothing. It would take a lot more than that to wear me out.' Kyuubi wrapped a tighter block around his thoughts. He wasn't grumpy, he was jealous and horny as hell. The nerve of the man to come in here reeking of Iruka that way. Meanwhile they had spent hours in bed with Sasuke without getting so much as a grope out of it. The scent, the feel, the sheer proximity of him had invaded his dreams. But Naruto had been too worried to even contribute with a few fantasies of his own.

Naruto shifted uneasily. His fox was letting off peculiar vibes. 'Kyuubi? What are you thinking about?'

'He said to wake him up,' Kyuubi reminded him, his tails curling as Naruto followed his gaze. 'I know how I'd like to wake him.'

Naruto's face flushed as the fox gave him lurid visuals. Kyuubi certainly knew how to put those clones to good use. For a moment he was completely caught up in the fantasy, Sasuke restrained and writhing, biting out threats in between gasps of pleasure. Then Sasuke cried out, and it was Kyuubi's name on his lips. Naruto exploded into his head in a fiery rage. Kyuubi hightailed it straight into the cage, where he turned, grinning his sharp teeth and lashing his tails. 'That would never happen!' Naruto hollered into the fox's smug face. 'Never! My name, not yours!'

'My fantasy, my name,' Kyuubi hummed, taunting him with a few more lurid images that didn't include Naruto at all. 'You had him on his hands and knees in that bathroom and didn't even take advantage of it. I would have...handled...him much better.'

'You are so sick,' Naruto cringed. He didn't want to be aroused by what Kyuubi was imagining, but he couldn't help it. 'He was crazy! He didn't even know who I was in there!' He knew he had to put a stop to this. Right now Kyuubi was at least using his body in the images. If he had to picture the two of them together while Kyuubi was in his fox form, then he would be the one to go crazy. 'Do you want me to go nuts? Why are you doing this?'

'Because I'm horny,' Kyuubi snapped. 'Obviously.' Even in the back of Naruto's mind, he couldn't get the reek of sex out of his nose. If he imagined Iruka right now, then he wouldn't be able to keep Naruto from catching glimpses of it. He was being very considerate by turning his attentions to Sasuke instead. The least Naruto could do was molest Sasuke for him. He wasn't even asking for a bite. A few good licks would be enough to get the scent of Iruka out of his mind.

'I don't even want to know how you could possibly be horny at a time like this,' Naruto sighed, throwing his hands up in exasperation.

'No, you don't want to know,' Kyuubi confirmed sullenly. 'If I told you, you'd probably be sick.' Or, more likely, he'd storm straight to Iruka's room. Either way, he didn't want Sasuke to be left alone for even a minute. No matter how Naruto reacted, it would take him a long time to calm down and Kyuubi didn't feel like dealing with it right now. What he felt like doing was molesting the hell out of their little sleeping beauty. He quickly sent another image at Naruto, a sickeningly sweet and tender one that had the blonde blushing his fool head off. Now that fantasy definitely tempted him. Naruto was such a closet romantic.

'Stop it,' Naruto said weakly, backing away from the cage. 'You just stay in there until you...' He winced, turning his back and walking away quickly. 'Just stay in there until you've gotten it out of system. And keep it away from me, okay? I don't need that kind of distraction right now.' There was no way he could wake Sasuke up with a hard-on and there was no telling how long it would be before he could sneak away to the bathroom to take care of a problem like that.

He finished off the coffee Kakashi had left, using the nasty flavor to get him back into a gloomy mood. Damn Kyuubi for being such a hornball. As soon as he felt a little more normal, he went over and sat on the bed. The moment his eyes fell on Sasuke, he felt a rustle in the back of his head and knew Kyuubi was watching. As long as the perverted fox kept his thoughts to himself, he would do his best to ignore him. He was reminded of the first time he had put Sasuke to bed. He hadn't done anything bad then and he wasn't about to now. He wasn't that kind of person. There was nothing wrong with looking, though. He was staring at Sasuke's lips when he noticed the blood. He had wiped his face off last night, but only a little because he'd been worried about waking him. There was a little bit of blood still crusted on the corner of his mouth. His blood. He wondered if it would be okay to tease him about chewing on his fingers. Not right away, of course, but that had to be something they could joke about someday. He licked his thumb and rubbed the spot clean. Sasuke's arm promptly rose to wipe at his mouth. They both tensed at the exact same moment.

"Hey," Naruto said quickly, resisting the urge to move away from the bed. "Are you feeling sane this morning?"

"...Naruto...?"

"Yeah." Naruto was just about to heave a sigh of relief when Sasuke groaned and pulled the blanket up over his head. "Hey! Don't go back to sleep!"

"Go 'way," Sasuke grumbled. He growled a little when Naruto tugged on the covers.

"You have to wake up." Naruto frowned at the blanketed lump. Finally his jaw tightened and he yanked the blanket away entirely. Sasuke shot into an upright position and glared at him. He had a flash of two mismatched red eyes, one with a single black mark in it, the other with two, and then Sasuke cringed, his hands grabbing at his head. Naruto cringed himself. It must have hurt like hell for Sasuke to actually cry out. "Don't use the sharingan! We had to drug you last night and Kakashi said not to try using the sharingan right away. It'll wear off in a few hours, but you need to stay awake until then."

Sasuke leaned his head on his raised knees. He had a horrible taste in his mouth and just sitting up had taken an enormous amount of effort. None of that mattered, though. "I don't have any energy..." What could he have done to wipe himself out that much? He shot a quick look at Naruto and his eyes immediately teared up. He wiped them furiously. Just one flash of the sharingan was enough to make them throb and burn. "Are you alright? What happened...?"

"I'm fine," Naruto assured him. "You were bitten by a snake lizard thing and you started having hallucinations. Do you remember that?"

He remembered the bathroom. They had been in the bathroom and it had been crowded with people and things that weren't real. Suigetsu taunting him. And then Naruto had... He scrambled away until his back slammed into the wall. His eyes were so wide they burned and blurred, but he couldn't tear them away from the blonde sitting across from him. "We..."

Naruto stood up in alarm. "What? What's wrong?"

"We had sex?" Sasuke demanded, his throat closing so tightly it came out as a hiss. "In front of Suigetsu?"

"What? No!" Naruto gaped, stunned both by the tears in Sasuke's eyes and the horribly affronted look on his face. Was the prospect of them having sex that horrifying to him? "That guy wasn't even here! That was just a hallucination you had!"

"No," Sasuke said tightly, his eyes narrowing into slits. "Hallucinations come from the mind of the person and I don't think things like that." He had never had an erotic fantasy in his entire life. The very thought that he might have hallucinated something sexual was insulting. "There was nothing sexual going on in that room until you grabbed me." He did recall Suigetsu making nasty insinuations about those squirmy things, but he discounted that. He vividly recalled Naruto intruding, coming out of nowhere amid all those things, the only real thing in the entire room. And he had known it was real because it was sexual and he would never have hallucinated something like that. He remembered that. And Suigetsu had told them to go ahead and fuck and had they? It was all hazy after that. They could have done anything. He wiped his eyes, but they were still too blurry to make Naruto out. "Don't lie to me."

"I'm not lying," Naruto said sharply. He took a deep breath and sat back down on the edge of the bed. Sasuke's eyes were watering, he realized. He was so relieved those weren't tears that he had to remind himself to be insulted by what Sasuke was suggesting. "You were out of your mind, Sasuke. Messing around with you like that would have been like doing it with a perfect stranger. Not to mention that Iruka-sensei and Kakashi were right outside the door. I did grope you, but only to get your attention. You were chewing through my fingers." He held the hand up. "I mean that literally. You got all the way to the bone and I didn't know how to make you stop without breaking your neck or your teeth. I was screaming so loud I woke up everyone upstairs. We're going to have to explain that to the others because they're already jumping to all sorts of awful conclusions. Anyway, Kakashi suggested I try groping you, so I did. But just to get your attention! And that's all I did. I grabbed you and you came to your senses for a second. I did end up squeezing you once, but only because you were trying to do another nosedive into the tub. After a while even groping you didn't snap you out of it, so Kakashi used that weight talent of his and we drugged you. Oh! I also kissed you to get the pills down, but it wasn't sexual." His nose wrinkled. "You thought the pills were maggots."

Sasuke closed his eyes with a sigh, rubbing his throbbing temples. "I'm sorry for accusing you. It was very confusing and that was one of the few things I remembered clearly. I should have guessed Kakashi would be behind it somehow. Sex is his solution to everything."

"To be fair, it did work for a few seconds," Naruto conceded. "But then you got angry again. What was that guy saying to you? I've never seen you so mad."

"Taunts. It all came from my own mind, so it's only natural that he knew exactly what to say." He propped his forehead up on one arm, not bothering to open his eyes. "I probably hallucinated about him because we were talking about him last night." He supposed he should be glad his mind had thrown Suigetsu at him. If it had been Itachi, he might have reacted with fear. He would much rather Naruto see him insanely angry than afraid. "Is that all that happened last night? I didn't hurt anyone else, did I?"

"Nope, just me." Naruto waited expectantly for a moment, and then frowned when he didn't get an apology. "You chewed my fingers down to the bone," he reminded him.

Sasuke wasn't about to apologize. "You shouldn't have kept me here. I could have killed someone."

"No, you shouldn't have tried to run. The guy who sent that thing was waiting for you, just like I said. Well, he wasn't waiting himself, but he had some sort of puppet or zombie or something out there, waiting to get you. Do you know a guy named Sasori? Or Deidara?"

"Neither," Sasuke frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, I sent clones out to look for a scent or track, to find out where the snake-lizard came from. When that didn't turn anything up, one of them went and ended up talking to that doctor guy, and he said-"

"You what?" His eyes flashed open and he grabbed Naruto's shirt, but he had to hold off on yelling at him. He clenched his eyes, holding his breath for a long dizzy moment. His eyes felt as if needles were being inserted directly into the center of them.

"Do your eyes hurt that bad?" Naruto asked worriedly. He leaned forward, brushing the hair away from Sasuke's face. "Be still for a minute."

Sasuke grimaced as he felt Naruto's tongue on his right eyelid. That didn't hurt as much as scrubbing his hands over them had, but it still hurt. "What are you doing? Do you really think that's going to help? You said the drug would wear off in a few hours. There's no point doing that." He didn't want Naruto's orange all over his face.

"It can't hurt."

It did hurt, but Sasuke didn't bother telling him that. He curled his hand in Naruto's shirt, pushing him away when he tried to lick his cheeks. "You talked to Kabuto? After I told you to stay away from him?"

"It was just a clone. And he seemed really worried when he thought something might have happened to you."

"I'm sure," Sasuke muttered darkly.

"Anyway, he thought it was the work of some guy who uses puppets, and another guy who makes things explode, but since this thing didn't explode it might not have been him. I'm not sure about that part. He said they had a grudge against Itachi, and that's why they did it. Kyuubi kept an eye on him and that Frankenstein flunky of his after the clone left. He caught the flunky heading into the fields, aiming for the mountains, but then he lost him. The doctor-guy said he had an earth affinity, so he might have gone underground. Kyuubi has been having trouble reading him when he's buried."

Sasuke shook his head. "You knew for a fact that I didn't want you near them. Yet you intentionally sought him out. Your meddling is going to get you killed. I don't want to be responsible for that!"

"It was just a clone."

"You drew attention to yourself. He might never have even noticed you if you hadn't-"

"He already knew my name," Naruto interrupted. "He said he knew more about me than I did. And he knew about Kyuubi, too. He called him my fox demon. How would he know that much about me?"

Sasuke didn't like the sound of that. "He's a voyeur. He watches people. He knows things because he watches and listens. It's his business to know." But why Naruto? Kyuubi's story had convinced him the snake had nothing to do with Naruto's past. But even Kyuubi didn't know where Naruto had been before he ended up in that alley. Was he the 'failed experiment' Kabuto had mentioned, then? Kyuubi had said that he considered the attack on them to be a test, which he had failed. His stomach clenched fitfully. No, he didn't like the sound of that at all. If the snake had been interested in Naruto when he was that young, then maybe Itachi would be interested in him now. He couldn't even protect himself from Itachi. How the hell was he going to protect Naruto if Itachi actually targeted him? "What else did he say about you?"

"Nothing. I went there to talk to him about the attack, because I thought that flunky of his was behind it. We mostly talked about you. He said your brother-"

"Itachi."

Naruto frowned. He didn't blame him for wanting to distance himself from the guy, but the way he said it was pretty telling. "He said Itachi used to work for his boss. Did you know they used to be on the same side?"

"No," Sasuke shrugged, dismissively. "I suspected it, but it doesn't matter to me what history they have."

"It should matter," Naruto said, frowning even more. "He also said that people are after you and Itachi, for the sharingan. So if he dies, they'll come after you. He basically said the only reason they haven't gotten you yet is because Itachi's been killing anyone who targets you."

"It doesn't matter."

Naruto growled under his breath, scowling at him now. "How can you say that? I'm telling you that it's not just Itachi who's after you. Of course it matters!"

"Why?" Sasuke peeked through his eyelashes. The room was so bright it hurt his eyes, but he could see well enough to stare at Naruto. "What difference does knowing that make? What do you expect me to do differently now that I know that? Go back to running so I'm harder to find?" Honestly, he'd rather die. He was so tired of that life. He honestly didn't believe he would ever get stronger than Itachi, so there was no goal to work toward, nothing to look forward to, just surviving one day at a time and for what? So that one day he might finally be strong enough for Itachi to get what he wanted from him? If Itachi really had been in league with the snake, and the snake really was Pakkun's body thief, then it was obvious why Itachi had made him a mutant. It didn't matter that the two had some sort of falling out. Itachi wanted him strong and alive because he would be useful to him that way. Whether he was planning to get the death he wanted or to do a body-hop of his own, it made no difference in the end. "The only thing I can do is get as strong as possible as fast as possible. I'm already doing that. I've always been doing that. If it's not enough, there's nothing I can do about that. And if Itachi wants me strong, then the best way to spite him would be to kill myself right now. Or stay weak, which is the same thing as killing myself."

Naruto was shaking his head. "That's passive-aggressive bullshit."

"Do you even know what that means?" Sasuke sneered.

"Kyuubi does," Naruto snapped. "It means you're giving up without even trying."

"No, I'm being realistic. What good does it do me to know that people are after me? If they're stronger than me, then there's nothing I can do except hide or die. Which of those choices do you suggest I go with?" Sasuke scoffed at Naruto's expression. His face was a mottled picture of anger and denial. "Neither, right? The only other option is to go on as I have been. I can't make myself age faster and that's the one thing holding me back. All I can do is continue to survive until I'm strong enough to fight back. I do that regardless, so what difference does knowing any of that make?"

"You should want to know. If you at least understand why it's happening, then..."

Sasuke shook his head, suddenly feeling sorry for him. Even as naive as he was, Naruto was reaching the same conclusion Sasuke himself had reached years ago. "It won't make me feel better. Knowing his motives won't change what Itachi does. It won't make it any easier to accept. If anything, it might even make it harder." He had a strong will to live. If this got any harder than it already was, he might lose even that. Everyone had a breaking point. He had already been nearing his back when Kakashi had clipped him in that alley. If he hadn't gotten out of Japan then, he doubted he would be still be alive today.

Naruto dropped his eyes. He couldn't understand why Sasuke was so resigned. He didn't even sound angry. How could he have survived so long if he had such a defeatist attitude? And not wanting to know why his own brother was doing this to him? He should want to know. He should need to know. Naruto would have. He wouldn't have rested until he finally understood why it was happening. Understanding motive was important to defeating an enemy, wasn't it? And how could knowing possibly make it worse?

'You wouldn't want to know, either,' said Kyuubi. He had approached enough to be a warm spot at Naruto's back. Naruto was so forlorn and pitiful, he felt obligated to wrap a few tails over his shoulders. 'Can you imagine Iruka suddenly torturing you in order to make you stronger? Would it matter to you why he was doing it?'

'That's a bad example,' Naruto sighed.

'We don't know that. He may have been a kind brother before he went insane. If he has been protecting him, then he's doing it for his own reasons. It doesn't matter what those reasons are. They don't change the fact that he's been torturing him and will continue to do so until he gets what he wants out of him.'

'I hate it when you two are on the same wavelength and I'm not,' Naruto admitted. He smiled weakly, feeling as pitiful as Kyuubi was taking him to be. He knew exactly why the fox was patting his shoulders like that. 'I'd still want to know. Even if it were Iruka-sensei doing it all of a sudden, I'd still want to know why. I'd never be able to just accept it without knowing why and being absolutely sure that there's nothing I can do to help him stop being that way.'

'That's the difference. He was a child when it started. He never had any hope of changing anything. Now it's been going on for so many years that not even a determined softie like you could get through to this guy. Give it up. You can't save him. The only way to stop him is to kill him. Don't let what that doctor said sway you in that. Regardless of his motives, what he's done is unforgivable.'

'Yeah,' Naruto said softly, 'but you know, I'm really bad at giving up.'

'I know,' Kyuubi sighed in resignation. 'Luckily for you, I'm here to make up for that flaw.'

"Naruto..."

Naruto blinked rapidly, wincing a little when he realized he had gone too deep into his head. He glanced up to find Sasuke staring over his shoulder. His eyes were bloodshot and watery, but wide open. And his upper lip was curling in revulsion. "Huh?"

"Where are we?" Sasuke demanded. There was trash all over the place. Dirty clothes, papers, dirty dishes, even empty instant ramen cups. Had he slept in this sty? His skin was crawling at the very thought. This place was an infestation waiting to happen.

"Um..." Naruto glanced over his shoulder and cringed. He didn't really notice the mess until he thought about someone else seeing it. Maybe he should have stuffed some of that under the bed and into the closet while he had the chance last night. "My room?"

"I'm out of here." Sasuke was off the bed, sidestepping a wad of dirty clothes, and at the door in seconds. Naruto caught him there, and he shot him a deadly glare when he tried to stop him. "If you ever want me to step foot into this room again, clean it first."

"Okay, okay," Naruto groaned. Sasuke sounded as bad as Iruka. "I'll clean it right now, just wait, okay?"

"I'm not staying in here another second."

"Then I'm coming with you to your room!" Naruto insisted as he followed him out. It wasn't until Sasuke halted just inside his own room that he remembered the dirt on his floor. He stared down at it for a long while, and then scowled at Sasuke. "Let me guess, you want me to clean that up, too?"

"Or you could leave while I do it."

Naruto heaved a sigh. "I'll do it."

"I thought you might."

.-.

TBC