Itachi's vision of the world was a mad interpretation of the first law of thermodynamics through the eyes of a tentacle porn addict. Or perhaps a cephalopodiatrist, to lend him some credence. If the things he saw were energy given shape, then they must be coming from somewhere. His logical conclusion was that they squeezed their way through cracks in the barrier separating this world from the next. That those things were residual traces of disembodied souls and the ravenous exploratory extensions of larger spiritual beings was a leap Iruka refused to make. Energy given form, visible only to those with the eyes to see it? Perhaps. Far more likely they were a common hallucination stemming from people's universal fear of slimy wriggling things. Had Iruka seen such things as a child, he certainly would have viewed them as evil if not demonic. So he had sympathy when he witnessed through Itachi's eyes that first glimpse of his newborn brother and the horrific sight of an infant covered by frantically writhing...things. For a moment he shared that horror, then rational thought resumed. Unlike all of his other forays into the memories and dreams of others, he remembered himself this time and recognized the disturbing vision as just that - the vision of a disturbed mind. It was obviously an only child projecting his resentment, revulsion, and fear onto the newcomer to the family. That Itachi had gone on to see similar things elsewhere merely proved he had embraced and fueled that madness until it made some sort of sense in his mind.

Iruka closed his own mind as firmly as he could. None of the 'evidence' Itachi showed him did anything but emphasize just how crazy the man was, and just how long that craziness had been building up. He couldn't understand why Itachi even bothered showing him the memories. Was knowing that Itachi had been sent away for a year after being caught trying to boil his infant brother alive in order to 'clean him off' supposed to show Itachi as anything but batshit crazy? And why was Itachi so caught on the screaming? Even as a toddler Sasuke had screamed when his mother screamed. That was supposed to mean something? Their father had never liked crying or screaming. Who did? Their father had silenced the screaming pair and warned Itachi that if he ever used 'those eyes' again he would personally tear them out. To Iruka, that proved the man had seen Itachi's eyes change before, and he couldn't fathom why he had ever let Itachi back into the house after the first time. To Itachi, it was some shocking revelation that his father knew exactly what he was experiencing because 'those eyes' were passed down through the bloodline all the way back to an ancient ancestor who may have mated with something of demonic origin, and, oh, the mental leaps were so astronomical Iruka's brain hurt just witnessing them. He felt so bad for the family he couldn't blame them for handing their deranged son over to Oz. The only question in Iruka's mind was how and why Itachi had escaped that incarceration to wreck havoc on the rest of the world. Iruka wasn't subjected to those memories. This was about Sasuke and his place in Itachi's twisted view of the world, and about Itachi's mistake.

Iruka was still wondering about that 'mistake' when he was finally abandoned in the void. The murder of their parents had broken Sasuke's mind. Was that the mistake? Underestimating how fragile a normal child's mind could be? Itachi had taped the pieces back together and locked the memories away, but the tape could only hold those doors closed for so long. Like the energy tentacles squirming through the cracks in the barrier between the worlds, those ghosts kept creeping through the cracks around the doors to get at Sasuke's mind and the longer the sharingan worked to keep them at bay the weaker it became against them. Was that the mistake? Programing Sasuke's sharingan to repair the tape when Itachi wasn't around to apply new layers himself? Or maybe the sharingan itself was the mistake. Did Itachi regret having made him a mutant? According to Itachi's interpretation of things, the sharingan ran in the Uchiha bloodline, so Sasuke might have come into a mutant talent of his own had he not interfered. Between those locked doors and the sharingan Itachi had given him, that would never happen now. Did Itachi regret that missed opportunity? Or did he think the 'ghosts' themselves were the remnants of some latent talent that Itachi had inadvertently snuffed out? Iruka had no idea. All he knew was that Itachi had made a mess of Sasuke's mind and left the wounds to fester beneath shoddily reapplied bandages and he wanted Iruka to heal those wounds once and for all. In exchange, Itachi had crafted a tether Iruka could use to explore the world. Itachi's world?

Iruka had seen more than enough of Itachi's world. He wanted to go back to his own now. Without Itachi in his head he could no longer see or feel the man's 'energy tentacles', but he could hear them rustling and whispering all around him. Only his refusal to believe in such things kept him sane.

From what little he could remember, being lost had always meant floating like an empty shell in the recesses of space until, after an eternity, he was drawn in by the gravity of another person's pain. The tether was designed to keep him connected to his own body and serve as a lifeline to pull himself back as needed. But strength was required to pull himself. Strength out here was energy, of which he had none. Itachi had drained and abandoned him in order to force him to 'experience the freedom' he had gifted him with. It seemed sadistic. But since Itachi was certifiably insane maybe he really didn't understand that being out here with his mind intact was much worse than having no sense of self. He could think. He could count. By his count he had only been out here for a few minutes and already he felt in danger of losing his mind. He wouldn't survive hours of this, much less an eternity. He wondered how long Ino had been lost out here. She had recovered with only a momentary hysteria. Maybe he wasn't giving himself enough credit. Then again, she hadn't been surrounded by disgustingly noisy tentacle monsters that were, in his imagination at least, squirming all over him. He reminded himself that those things were just a manifestation of Itachi's madness. They weren't real. It was getting harder and harder to convince himself of that. The cracks were so vivid in Itachi's eyes, a web that bound the world with tendrils connecting each mutant and starbursts splintering the fabrics of their dimension in each spot where a cataclysmic explosion of energy had fractured the barrier. The tentacles swarmed in those places, feeding and breeding on the remains, just as they had at the black windowed house. Iruka had been repulsed by that house since his first glimpse of it. It would be so easy to believe Itachi's explanation for that instinctive revulsion. But he didn't dare open that door.

The only sign that he was being pulled by someone was sudden receding of the noisy - and entirely imaginary, he reminded himself - tentacle things. It sounded as if they were rushing away from him. He realized he was the one moving an instant before the pain consumed him. Then he was staring through a blur of tears at a bulging stomach and the bloody rip being widened by his - her - fingernails. He felt the desperate anguish, knowing something was wrong, that he was dying inside her and she had to get him out, had to see him breathe at least once before she died or it was all for nothing. And seething hatred for the old man watching from the other side of the bars, even for the young boy who had been brought to witness this ultimate proof that they were no better than animals. Worse than the physical or even the emotional pain was the terror of trying to tear the flesh without hurting the baby. Iruka was so horrified, traumatized even, to find himself experiencing a self-inflicted cesarean that he suddenly wished he had embraced Itachi's madness after all. It would be so much easier to believe these bodies were merely fleshy containers on a temporary stop the souls made during the trip between then and there. Because if, as he had always believed, this life was the only life they got, he was about to experience one ending in a vain attempt to give birth to another. The true horror wasn't living this death. It was knowing he would live with the memory of it.

.-.

Neji was deeply regretting his decision to buy his way into Iruka's care. The mutants here weren't just mutants, they lived as mutants. Some of them, like Shikamaru and Tenka, were deeply involved in the 'mutant front,' laying the foundations for an outright war between the species. Sasuke, with his family drama, had dragged the others into 'mutant on mutant' chaos. Even Lee, who struck him as relatively grounded despite his outlandish appearance was eager to build upon his 'talents' in order to be more useful. As far as he could tell there wasn't a single person in or associated with this house who was remotely normal except for Hinata. How absurd was that? It wasn't supposed to be like this. Iruka had described his home as a place for mutants to live a normal life, thereby proving they were as normal as any other young people their age. Normal. False advertising at its finest. Ino had it right. They were all freaks. It was only a matter of time before Neji was forced to include himself under that heading. This was the complete opposite of what he had wanted.

He blamed Shikamaru the most. Despite Shikamaru's casual use of his talents, he had seemed utterly normal. They had messed around because they could, they were at that age, sharing a room, with a mutual lack of revulsion that was nearly as good as an attraction, so why not? Just a nice way to pass the time. Then Neji had asked him how long he had been living in the house and the floodgates had opened. Shikamaru had revealed himself to be anything but normal. Worse than that unpleasant shock was that Neji had envied him for having a mission, a purpose in life. Eventually Shikamaru's mission would get him killed, but there would be others to take up his fight and that made it worthwhile. If Sasuke represented the black side of being a mutant, fighting mutants who targeted their own, then Shikamaru represented the white, fighting humans who targeted mutants. Neji had never experienced the black and didn't want to be tempted by the white. It was bad enough being in the gray. Accepting that he was a mutant meant accepting that he could have saved Hinata years ago but hadn't. He hated being a mutant. But suddenly he was beginning to hate being a useless noncombatant even more.

"What are you doing here?" asked Gaara.

Neji had been asking himself that very same question. He turned to glare at the newest addition to the house who, from what he understood, had dabbled in both the black and the white. Strange for Gaara to be out here with him when there were fights to be fought. "Nothing," he snapped. That was the problem. He wanted nothing to do with mutant problems, yet actually doing nothing felt...pathetic, if not outright cowardly. That did not sit well with him.

Gaara walked over the center of the dirt patch until he was standing directly between the two mutants. He was disappointed to sense no violence behind Neji's glare. "Are your talents useless, then?" He watched as the boy shoved off the rock and stalked back into the house. Probably just as well. Someone useless would only get in his way. He dropped his eyes to stare at the dirt behind him. "And you? Why are you here?" The mutant who surfaced was far more intact than he had been the last time Gaara had seen him. He was also darker skinned, with black patches around his eyes and a hairless lizard-like tail. Interesting. Gaara's eyes gleamed. This one could definitely put up a good fight. "Are you here for Sasuke? Or Naruto?" He supposed he could protect Iruka as well, in deference to Naruto's demon.

"Neither," said Kimimaro. "I'm here to return this." He tossed Sasuke's sword onto the grass near the house, then turned back to Gaara. "I am also here for you. I came to escort you to a far better place." Because Gaara belonged with them and bringing him back with him was the only way he would be allowed back himself. It didn't matter that he had accomplished his mission with Kabuto being none the wiser. The samples he had collected of Itachi's flesh, blood, and bone wouldn't make up for his having nearly killed Sasuke right before Orochimaru's borrowed eyes. That he had gained similar samples from Sasuke might go a way toward soothing Orochimaru's temper, but only if he could keep the man from having him killed on sight. Gaara would fix that. With Gaara he wouldn't just be allowed back, he would be welcomed. He might even be welcome enough to displace Kabuto for a time. That would be worth having left both Uchihas alive.

"I'm not interested in going anywhere at the moment," Gaara admitted. "How do you intend to change my mind?"

"By whatever means necessary."

Gaara grinned.

.-.

Lee saw Bunchu to the front door and then stiffened, excused himself, and tore off around the side of the house. Bunchu let himself in and headed upstairs only to be barred from examining either of the boys by Shino. He was directed to Kakashi and followed up the stairs to find the girls hovering just outside Iruka's door. Bunchu closed that door with all three of the kids on the other side of it. Kakashi, who was sitting in a chair beside the bed, sent him a blank look before turning his attention back to Iruka. Bunchu directed his own attention there as well.

"Glad you could make it," Kakashi said flatly. "Maybe you can figure out how he's still alive. I have seen humans with more energy than he has."

"I have seen him with less," Bunchu admitted. "His body has no energy because he isn't in his body. He isn't in his body because it has no energy to hold him. Either state can cause the other. He is currently somewhere else."

"Sleepwalking?" That was what Iruka had called it. Kakashi was more than happy to seize on that explanation. To the sharingan Iruka was like an empty husk. Where even a dying human had a spark at their core until the very end, Iruka had a black hole. Kakashi had felt that if he looked at if for too long he would be sucked right into it. So he had stopped looking. He looked at Bunchu instead. The man Iruka considered so reliable. "Can you bring him back?"

"Not without having contact with the body he is currently in. Even then, I'm not sure it would work. His mind has been altered."

Mind-fucked, Kakashi grimaced. "What does that mean?"

"Tampered with," Bunchu frowned. "Doors opened that should be closed. Tears where he used to have scar tissue. General disarray that could be hiding further alterations. And all of his shields are down." Even the ones Iruka couldn't lower on his own. Anyone with the slightest telepathic abilities could waltz right into his empty head. Bunchi's eyes narrowed. It appeared that someone already had.

Kakashi rose when Bunchu stalked to the door, pulled Ino into the room, and shut the door on the other two. Kakashi didn't need him to explain. Her face said everything. "Ino?"

"I didn't make it worse!" Ino cringed. "He was already like that. I was only in there for a minute, just to see if there were any physical injuries. I got out as soon as I heard them. They were in there before I was, I swear!"

"They?" asked Bunchu.

"You can't hear them?" Ino's face flushed with anger until she snapped. "I knew it! I told Sakura you wouldn't be able to help! That creepy eye of yours is useless with stuff like this. Useless! Go help Sakura heal Naruto and stop pretending you can do anything about this! And, I swear, if you ever yank me around like that again, I'll-" Kakashi stepped up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She choked, her eyes blurring until Bunchu was a six-eyed freak rather than a three-eyed one. It wasn't an improvement. She made a disgusted face at him and then looked back at Kakashi. "I didn't hurt him and he can't help him. He couldn't help me, either. I don't know what's wrong with Iruka's mind, but he isn't alone in there. There are things in there with him. Bad things."

"Iruka isn't in his mind at the moment," Kakashi sighed. He didn't know when he had gone and grown attached to this one. She did make a mean pot of coffee. His lips quirked into a wry smile. "If something is in his mind, we'll just have to make sure it's gone before he gets back."

"Is he lost, then?" Ino winced at the very idea, but... "I got lost. I'd rather be lost than trapped in there with them."

"I see," Bunchu said flatly. A quick look at the memory itself explained more than anything she had to say. He should have guessed. He shook his head at Kakashi. "What she heard is of no concern. It could have been anything from a telepath remotely accessing his mind to the residual energy in this room filling the void left by his absence. I could close the doors and raise his shields but since I can't access his memories when his mind is elsewhere there is no point in doing that. No one who looks in there will see anything. More importantly, I don't know if he left of his own volition. His mind has been tampered with enough already. Any further meddling might hinder him from returning once his energy recovers. You shouldn't have been meddling in the first place," he told Ino.

Ino bristled and bared her teeth, but Kakashi spoke up before she could. "Would giving him energy help?"

Bunchu's eyebrows rose. "It certainly wouldn't hurt. Can you do that?"

"No, but I know someone who can." Kakashi went over to tug Shino into the room, shutting the door on Sakura's cry of protest. "I don't know how long this takes," he told Bunchu, "so if you'd take that noisy one down and set her to work on Sasuke, I'd appreciate it."

"Why Sasuke?" asked Ino. "Naruto is the one with no face!"

"He appears entirely uninjured now," Shino informed her. He watched Bunchu leave the room, sympathizing with Sakura when she was once again denied entrance. He raised an eyebrow at Kakashi. "Why did you invite me in here?"

"Iruka needs an energy boost," said Kakashi. "Can you transfer mine to him?"

Shino scowled. "Hinata worked very hard to give you that." Had she wasted it on the wrong person?

"Hinata?" Ino demanded. "What does she have to do with anything?"

Shino folded his arms over his chest and frowned down at her. "Since you and Sakura chose to tend to Iruka, one of you should give your energy to him. Assuming you desire to help him, that is."

"Of course I do," Ino glared. "But I don't know how to give someone energy. If I did, of course I'd-"

"I know how," said Shino.

"Then do it, already," Ino snapped. "And drop the attitude! You're the newest addition to this house! I haven't even gotten your name yet."

"No, I'm not," Shino muttered. "Gaara is. And my name is Aburame Shino."

"Whatever," Ino scoffed. "Just get on with the energy transfer if you really know how to-" Her eyes dropped to Shino's palm and she lurched back a step. "What the hell is that?"

"An insect."

"What? Why? That's-" Her eyes bulged. "You don't expect me to touch that, do you? Oh! Why are there two of them now? Ew! They're moving! Why are they moving?!"

Shino sighed. Maybe he should transfer Hinata's energy after all.

.-.

"Oh, good," Lee sighed, "I'm not too late." He stopped beside Gaara and addressed the boy's would-be kidnapper. The man looked and felt considerably different now that he had tapped that evil power of his. "As you were honorable enough to state your intentions in advance, you should be honorable enough to agree this must not happen near the house."

Since getting Sasuke eaten would not further his cause, Kimimaro conceded. "Agreed. Shall we continue this discussion in the fields, Gaara of the Sand?"

Gaara's eyes narrowed. This wasn't a discussion, it was a fight. At least, it should have been a fight. He directed his annoyance at the interloper, though he did his best to keep it from sounding in his voice. "What do you think you're doing?"

Lee blinked in surprise. "I was given to believe that you lose control when your life is threatened, endangering anyone near you. Is that not true?"

"That's true."

"Then this must not happen near the house. Have no fear, I will personally ensure that your life is not endangered. Relocating is merely a precaution."

Gaara's opponent turned and walked away as if the matter were already settled. Gaara followed with rapidly growing anger that remained firmly fixated on the presumptuous boy at his side. "This is my fight. Do you intend to steal it from me?" He would maim him at the very least. Later, after the fight was finished, he would probably eat him. Just as well they were leaving the house, then.

"Not at all," Lee exclaimed. "Of course you have every right to defend yourself, and as Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun are unable to join in this worthy endeavor I shall naturally welcome your contributions to this fight. Ours is not an opponent to be taken lightly. You have my word that I shall do nothing of the sort."

Gaara felt his anger faltered under the weight of confusion. The boy was somehow dousing his eagerness to fight. That shouldn't be possible. "What are you talking about?"

"Defeating your would-be kidnapper, of course. I do understand," Lee assured him. "You wish to fight your own battle. If you prefer, I will leave the attacking entirely to you while I focus solely on your protection. I am utterly flexible in terms of offense and defense. Defeating this villain is what matters, not the role I take in that endeavor."

No, Gaara decided, despite his confusion he was still irritated enough to eat him. The only question was whether or not he would suffer guilt for having done so. "The first time I saw you, you were with Shikamaru. What are you to him?"

"A voice of reason!" Lee beamed proudly.

Gaara was so stunned he nearly halted in his tracks. The Shikamaru he knew had always been his own voice of reason. What could have happened to change that? He hadn't seemed any different. But if he was now relying on this boy for advice Gaara should probably avoid eating him. Perhaps he shouldn't discount what the boy had to say so quickly, either. He didn't even know what the boy's talents were, after all. "Can you put up a good fight, then?"

"Yes," Lee said frankly. " I am very well-rounded. I was taught by the very best. I will not let you down."

Gaara eyed the dark gray tail of the man walking ahead of them. It was studded with bones, looking more like a dinosaur than any living reptile Gaara had seen. This man had fought Itachi and walked away, apparently stronger than ever. If Lee survived against him, he would prove himself worthy of being kept alive. And if he died then Gaara wouldn't have to worry about eating him. Either way, he would still be having a talk with Shikamaru when he got back. Temari had dubbed him a lazy genius. If Shikamaru was relying on Lee out of laziness Gaara would take it upon himself to snap him out of that in a hurry.

.-.

Sai didn't look up when Sasuke's door opened. He had bided his time to get in here without being observed. Now it no longer mattered. His charcoal pencil flew over the sketchpad, depicting the shapes if not the features. He wondered what Kabuto would make of this. Perhaps he already knew. Kabuto was the one who had advised him to draw Sasuke now, while he had the chance, rather than regret not having done so later.

"What are you doing in here?" Sakura demanded. She threw a frantic look back at Bunchu and didn't understand why the man wasn't rushing to throw the spy out.

"I'm drawing a picture," said Sai. Really, that should have been obvious. So much for Haruno being one of the smartest in this bunch. At this rate she would never master that talent of hers.

"Ignore him," said Bunchu.

Sakura hesitated for just a moment before choosing to ignore Bunchu instead. She marched over with every intention of throwing Sai out herself. Then she saw what he was drawing. He had captured Sasuke in his bed so vividly it could have been a photograph rather than a sketch. But it was the shadowy figures that immediately caught her attention and sent chills down her back. "Is that what you see? What are they?" Or who?

"I have no idea," Sai admitted cheerfully. "There is no such thing as ghosts. Otherwise, I would say he's a necromantic. Or, at the very least, haunted." He finally glanced up to smirk at Bunchu's third eye. "He's holding Iruka's hand. Except it was never Iruka's, was it? Did you know that at the time? That the severed hand belonged to one of Sasuke's imaginary friends?" He was curious how Iruka had picked up that hand, but didn't bother to ask. It wasn't as if Bunchu would tell him. His own hand moved to thicken the shadowy little figure curled up on the edge of the bed, but the body remained indistinct compared to that vivid hand gripping Sasuke's. Strange. "A toddler, I'd say. Can't be someone he killed, then. Of course, the room would be packed if everyone he has killed stuck around to haunt him." He looked around the room, and then his hand was moving again. Two more up against the wall between the desk and the head of the bed. Unlike the other three, these weren't in direct contact with Sasuke. They weren't even looking at him. They were facing the wall, their forms so vague they could have been shadows. Maybe they belonged to the house and had merely been summoned by Sasuke's necromancy. He snorted and had to bite back laughter. It was no wonder Itachi hadn't wanted him doing this. It had nothing to do with his talent affecting Sasuke. Itachi just hadn't wanted anyone to learn that his little brother was as insane as he was. Too bad for him. This one sketch would probably be enough to get the Order off his back. He hoped Tiedoll was in charge of the exchange. He would enjoy rubbing the old man's nose in his discovery.

Sai closed his sketchbook and rose with a smug smile. "Don't worry," he told Sakura. "There are no ghosts here. There is nothing here but a sad little Uchiha who is just as crazy as his brother."

"You don't know what you're talking about," said Bunchu.

"Whatever you say," Sai shrugged. He shook his head at Sakura. "Give my regards to Iruka. And I really am sorry we got off on the wrong foot. You have the potential to become an excellent healer. Don't let the wild cards ruin that for you. Or Ino, for that matter. She's just a breeder waiting to happen. Sad waste of talent, if you ask me, but I suppose someone has to continue the mutant race. Better her than you, right? Maybe I'll see you around sometime. You're going to be a bombshell when you grow up. Just so you know."

Sakura gaped at the door Sai closed quietly behind him. Then a sigh drew her attention to Bunchu. She promptly flushed.

"You should have ignored him," said Bunchu. "He has no idea what he's talking about."

"I know that," Sakura said quickly. "If anyone is crazy around here, it's Sai."

Bunchu was quiet for so long she began to grow uneasy. Then he sighed again, shook his head, and waved her toward the bed. "Let's get you to work."

"Gladly!"

.-.

Iruka never made it back to the void. He floated up and back when her consciousness faded until he was looking down at the little life squirming in her ruptured belly. Without her love and desperate hope tinting the scene he was overwhelmed by helpless revulsion. Only the nostrils and mouth were clear, making it look more like an alien parasite than a human baby. Because it was a mutant baby. They were parasites. That thought came with a tug, and then he was looking at the newborn from a different perspective. Curiosity and childish impatience. And disgust. Were they going to leave it there? Could a mutant baby survive with its umbilical still connected to a corpse? There were tiny flashes of white in that squalling mouth. It had teeth. Could mutant babies eat meat? Infant mammals were limited to drinking milk, weren't they? But this was a mutant. Maybe it could lap up the blood it was swimming in. He turned to look back at the general who had invited him to this event. "How long can it survive by eating its host?" He was granted a thin smile of pride and dark approval. He always said just the right thing. Because he had no filter and they liked him that way.

"You'll find out for yourself. This one is yours."

Perfect. He stepped up to the bars and smiled down at the grotesque yet lively creature, and Iruka pushed as hard as he could to get out of his diseased mind. There was a blurry lurch, as if he had tipped backward suddenly and then overcompensated so fast he should have fallen forward onto his face. Except it wasn't his face. He had gone forward, not up, and that sick mind was now a curdled mass of tumors. He sneered down at the grossly obese boy strapped to his table and longed to slice him open just to silence his blubbering. The gluttons were the worst. The sheer selfishness of mutants continued to astound him. Did the ungrateful wretch have any idea how much of his stockpile he had gobbled his way through in order to maintain that weight? "Have some shame," he spat. "You have eaten nonstop since you got here. Is it too much to ask that you give back to your own? That gut of yours will feed dozens. Fitting, considering you have eaten nearly that many during your stay. This should have been done weeks ago."

Could a mind separated from its body be physically ill? Iruka felt as if he were vomiting in his soul. Yet he couldn't separate himself from the man's thoughts, the feel of the boy's trembling stomach squishing beneath the hard press of his gloved hand. The blood alone would make enough pudding to feed a captive army. Assuming the ingrates didn't choose to starve rather than taint their palates with such a foreign dish. As if it was really so different curdled than it was when mixed with soups and stews. But minimizing waste was for the cooks to worry about. He was just the butcher now. His lip curled as the blubbering grew in volume. Perhaps he should start gagging them. He doubted a pig squealing would be as annoying as this. "Stop begging," he snapped. "I can't kill you first. You're too fat. Even with the drugs I gave you, half the blood would curdle before I can collect it if I killed you first. Besides, I know all about your stay here. You never failed to clean your plate. It's rather late to start wasting food now."

He turned back to his equipment. The fat distribution was top-heavy, leaving the legs more humanoid in shape than not. The femoral artery was accessible. It would take a little digging to get to it, but sadly this piglet was not the biggest he had slaughtered since achieving this post. He was by far the loudest, however. He scoffed. "Are you hungry again? Is that the problem? I supposed I could cut off a chunk of fat for you to chew on if it will shut you up while I work." Amazing how well those lungs worked under all that weight. A gag really was in order. One fashioned of his own fat would be most appropriate. He picked up his scalpel.

Iruka closed his eyes. He couldn't close his ears. He couldn't stop feeling the man's careful grip on that little blade. He felt his arm lift, felt his other hand grip a thick pinch of fat, and felt his throat close up. He was suffocating. His throat was being crushed. The pressure was all around him, squeezing the air out of his lungs, but with his throat crushed the air had nowhere to go. Was that his blood gushing out of his ears or parts of his brain? Iruka's eyes flew open, but he couldn't see anything but a red burn. Was he dying? They had better not feed his remains to the mutants. He would rather be eaten by worms than wasted on those things.

Iruka pushed. He had expected to detach, to float up as he had with the woman. Instead it was a sidestep and he was in the young boy on the table, staring through teary eyes at...a black humanoid mass. The mass jerked for a moment before collapsing out of sight. A far quicker death than he deserved, Iruka thought furiously. The boy didn't think so. He was too frightened, ashamed, and sickened to think anything but that it had been quick. He wanted to go quickly, too. A boy hurried over to cut at the rope binding his right wrist and he opened his mouth to beg him to use that knife on him instead, but what came out was a startled, "Do I know you?" Because Iruka had lunged forward. Iruka knew him. Nine years old if he was a day, with his hair falling straight to his shoulders, but it was undoubtedly Shikamaru. Iruka reached out to him frantically. If he could transfer to him, maybe he could stay with him, move forward until Shikamaru returned to the house. Once he was close to his own body he was sure he could get back to it. He strained until the boy's tears dried, his desire for death faded, and he stared in wonder at his rescuer. "How do I know you?"

"You don't," Shikamaru said quietly. "Your dad has connections, though. There's a fortune up for your return. First time I have ever heard of that. Figures I'd stumble across you instead. I've never done a rescue. Frankly, I don't know if I can. I hope you can walk on your own. I'll have enough trouble trying to keep us from being spotted without trying to push a wheelchair, too." He grimaced and hurried to cut free his ankles. "Assuming I can even find one..."

"I can walk," the boy said fervently. "I can walk anywhere if I'm with you." Shikamaru shot him a disgruntled look and Iruka winced back guiltily. Was he affecting the boy's mind? He couldn't be. That Shikamaru was a child proved this had already happened. He couldn't affect something that had already happened. Or maybe this was a memory, a dream of the past, and that was why the boy seemed to be adopting his own vision of Shikamaru as the answer to all of his problems.

"That's very creepy," Shikamaru muttered, before turning back to cut free the other leg. "But if it gets us out of here in one piece, I'll take it."

Iruka surged forward the moment Shikamaru took the boy's hand to help him sit up. The transfer was fluid, so easy, but when he turned and looked he was afraid he had accidentally stepped backward rather than forward. He was being suffocated again. Only this time it was just his ribs that hurt, a faint ache rather than outright pain. He, or rather Shikamaru, squirmed and muttered, "Ease up. I'm not as whole as I look." His hugger pulled back to beam at him, a broad smile that made his eyes get lost in his cheeks. Iruka recoiled in surprise. This boy - a teenager now, so was it the same boy? - was the spitting image of Akimichi, the doctor who had introduced him to Naruto. His son was a mutant? Was this his son?

"You've lost weight," the boy sighed.

"And you haven't gained much," Shikamaru snorted. "I thought you were working on that? I should take you for breakfast at the house I'm currently staying at. There's a girl there, total pain in the ass, but a good cook. She'd fatten you up in no time."

Do it, Iruka thought furiously. Right now. If he could just get home-

Shikamaru shook his head and Iruka tumbled backward as if he were an insect being swatted out of the air. He found himself floating, looking down at the two teens and clinging from a gossamer thread to the edges of Shikamaru's mind. He froze, terrified that any movement on his part would send him spiraling away to who knew where.

"What's wrong?" asked the boy.

"A telepath, probably," Shikamaru muttered. "You need to work on your block. I had a spy tell me the Black Order knows all about me. There's no way they got that from my head. I'm blaming you for this one, Chouji."

"Sorry," the boy winced sheepishly. "Dad tries his best, but I'm an open book. It runs in the family."

"Yeah, I know. Speaking of family traits, are you up to busting a wall down for me? We found a vault that uses a retinal scan. No telling whose. The walls could be a couple feet thick."

Chouji sighed. "I should have known you were here on business. Don't you ever take a break?"

"I just took one. You get me in that vault and I'll take another while we bulk you back up. I wasn't kidding about that girl's cooking."

"I'm still not eating meat."

"Forget meat," Shikamaru scoffed. "I'm talking home-made cinnamon rolls. The french toast isn't bad, either, if you can handle eggs."

"I'm in!"

"Great. And it will be a lot quicker now that I'm a regular taxi service." Shikamaru sent a slow look over his shoulder, making Iruka wonder if he could see some hint of him. "I suspect we'll have a tag-along for this one. He's still hanging around."

"The telepath?"

"I guess," Shikamaru shrugged. "As long as he stays out of your head, I don't care. If Oz has a telepath on the payroll now, good for them. He still won't be able to warn anyone in time to stop us. Not now."

"I can't believe you can transport other people now."

"Yeah," Shikamaru sighed. "I'm just full of untapped potential. They'll be listing me as S class at this rate. Hate to think of the pictures they'd be posting of me."

"Poor guy," Chouji grinned. "It must be awful excelling at everything you do."

"Tell me about it."

.-.

Gaara felt a surge of adrenaline as his opponent rushed him and his sand formed an automatic shield. His sand was too slow and his opponent too fast. But Lee was faster than both, appearing between Kimimaro and the half-formed shield, letting the bony whip wrap around his left arm and breaking the man's grip on the weapon with a kick upside the head. Once again Gaara felt his eagerness transform into frustration. He had yet to take a single step since the start of this fight. Since he hadn't made an eye, he was forced to turn now and then in order to direct his sand attacks. But every time Kimimaro attempted a direct assault on him, Lee intervened and he was left watching the two of them dart - and in Lee's case flip - around until Gaara's patience snapped and he broke them apart with an attack of his own. So far as he could tell, those attacks of his had left more scratches on Lee than Kimimaro's strange weapons had. Gaara had an annoying sensation in his stomach because of that, which he suspected was guilt. He resented feeling it. Lee kept throwing him gently reproving reminders that they were allies, comrades, partners, and other such platitudes. He was sorely tempted to ignore Kimimaro and direct his attacks entirely at Lee. The boy might not be stealing his fight, but he was certainly ruining his enjoyment of it.

Lee had a strange way of fighting, a strange way of moving in general. He bounced. He flipped around on his hands. During one flip he had kicked his opponent into the air and then sprung airborne himself in order to kick him back down. It was bizarre, and Gaara really wanted to send his sand after him to see if Lee could evade it in the air as easily as he evaded Kimimaro on the ground. When Lee bothered to evade. The two had more direct clashes than his own sand had against either. He wondered if part of the irritating sensation he was experiencing was jealousy. He envied them the physical impact of direct contact. They had beaten down the grass all around him with their clashes, and while his own waves of sand had been as mobile as them, he hadn't taken a single step. This wasn't like his fight with Kisame. He had been content to stand still because Kisame hadn't been interested in attacking him directly. Kimimaro was trying to attack him directly. Lee just wasn't letting him. The longer Lee kept Kimimaro at bay, the more Gaara's interest in Itachi's last opponent diminished, and the more he was convinced he was wasting his time by sending his sand after the wrong opponent. Enough was enough. If he wasn't going to enjoy this fight, he wouldn't let them enjoy it, either.

He took a step toward the fighting pair and the ground heaved beneath his feet. As always, his sand acted automatically to shield him. One second he was falling forward, the next he was crouched in a tight ball of sand. He could feel the pressure of some sort of cage just on the outside of his sand shield, and pain in his wrists and ankles. His sand hadn't moved quickly enough. The shield had formed around four slender skewers with tiny recurving teeth that caught and ripped when he shifted one of his arms. He forced his shield to crumble and wasn't surprised when the bony cage made no attempt to crush him. The cage appeared to be made of ribs. That didn't surprise him, either, considering its creator. What did surprise him was that the cage contained his energy nearly as well as Sasuke's had. Kimimaro should have used this during his fight with Itachi. Sasuke's shield had clearly annoyed the man, after all. This one only annoyed Gaara because of the skewers attached to it. They were so close to his veins that any movement on his part would risk him bleeding out and triggering a change. He had his own reasons now for not wanting to eat Lee. Did Kimimaro realize that? Or did he honestly think this cage would be able to contain his fully transformed self? Sasuke's cage had contained his energy without injuring or endangering him, giving him time to rage his way back to sanity. This one seemed designed to trigger a change and then keep him that way. If so, it was far too small.

He turned his head to glare at the fool. Kimimaro had traded roles with Lee, and was now keeping the boy from getting close to him. As if Gaara needed help breaking free of this cage. There was another striking difference between Kimimaro's cage and Sasuke's energy ball. Sasuke's had been a complete sphere, cutting him off from everything outside of him. Kimimaro's extended beneath the ground, down where the dirt was. Where the sand was. Gaara dropped his eyes to look at the blood seeping into the dirt beneath him. Kimimaro had laid and sprung this trap without shaking the earth until the last moment. Still, had Gaara been faster he could have evaded it entirely. Well, Gaara wasn't fast. He could, however, teach the man a thing or two about subterfuge.

Lee was berating himself furiously. He had forgotten his opponent's affinity for dirt. He had also taken the man to be far more honorable than he actually was. Of course a villain with a blackened soul wouldn't hesitate to use a cowardly trap. But despite Kimimaro's dark energy, the man didn't strike him as being evil. His energy was evil, terribly wrong and disturbing, but Kimimaro himself had struck him as almost noble at his core. A misread, obviously, and not at all like him. Lee didn't have time to wonder how he had misread the man so badly. He had made a mistake and Gaara was now suffering for that mistake. It was unacceptable. He had vowed to protect him and failed to do so. He could not fail again. He darted at his opponent at top speed and was startled when bone skewers shot out of the ground, forcing him to evade. More traps? Or another aspect of Kimimaro's talents that he had been holding in reserve? That disturbing energy was thickening, billowing until his stomach clenched and he had to admit the man was stronger than him. Lee would lecture himself about his lack of humility later. For now, he had to free Gaara. Kimimaro was stronger than him, but he wasn't stronger than both of them. Between his speed and Gaara's amazing supply of energy, they would prevail.

Kimimaro finally clipped the fleet-footed nuisance with one of his earthbound skewers. He caught him by the neck with a freshly grown spinal whip and yanked him back to earth. He quickly pinned him in place. The boy's strength was nearly as annoying as his speed, but his energy and attitude were rather appealing in a way. Kimimaro didn't want to kill him if he didn't have to. He walked over to frown down at the struggling youth. "Give up. This doesn't concern you. It never did. Gaara of the Sand is a demon. He belongs with us."

"He doesn't want to go with you," Lee cried. "I won't let you take him!"

"You have no say in the matter. Be still now, and perhaps you won't bleed to death." He turned away and crossed to where he had caged the demon. Gaara's head was bowed, staring down at his pinned wrists. That sand shield of his had prevented the skewers from piercing the veins in his wrists and ankles, but Kimimaro was still surprised he hadn't transformed. Rumor had it that even a glimpse of his own blood was enough to unleash the beast. A pity that wasn't the case. He would have to injure him further. He wanted to deliver the demon itself, not a demon in boy's clothing. "It's over now. You may resent me once the tests begin, but you will thank me afterward when you never again have to fight what you really are. That is true freedom." The boy didn't look up. That was just as well since he hadn't been speaking to the boy. He ran a light hand over the ribbed cage and thin skewers shot out to slice the boy's neck open, spraying the ground with a thick splurt of...sand?

"Fool," Gaara murmured from behind him as he stabbed a slender skewer of sand into the base of his skull. Direct contact really was preferable now and then. Paralysis was boring, just as Shikamaru had claimed, but it was a quick way to finish an unsatisfying fight. The man crumpled in an ironically boneless heap. Gaara let out a disgusted sigh. "Did you really think you were the only one who could move under the ground? You shouldn't have used my fighting title so casually when you have obviously never seen me fight. Now you never will." It took more effort with Kimimaro than it had with Sai. Kimimaro had far more bones to crush. The end result was still the same. Gaara turned away before releasing the saturated sand. Although his sand enjoyed the taste of this as much as his demon side did, he didn't particularly like the sight of it. Or the smell, for that matter.

Gaara was almost amused by Lee's fervent apologies by the time he finished freeing the boy. No one had ever apologized to him. For anything. "You aren't as strong as you think you are," he informed him.

"I shall become much stronger," Lee vowed.

Gaara nodded as they headed back to the house. He hoped so. Fighting him would be more entertaining that way.

Silence reigned over the fields for a long while before Kimimaro's body twitched and then began the slow process of piecing itself back together. Even Orochimaru's cursed blood had its limits. He had died too many times today. Too many mistakes. He should have waited before setting out to capture Gaara, should have monitored the earth beneath his cage, should have guessed Gaara could create a sand facsimile of himself as lifelike as his own earthen ones. More than anything, he should have stabbed Itachi in the throat when he'd had the chance. Itachi might have died, Sasuke wouldn't have been injured, and he wouldn't be dealing with yet another failure today. A wisp of grass caught his ear and he nearly groaned. He was wrong, he realized. His biggest mistake had been accepting this suicide mission in the first place. He didn't bother opening his eyes. He already knew who it was.

"Have you had ample time to experience regret?" Itachi asked as he knelt beside the mutilated remains of his head. He plucked daintily at a bit of the bloody white hair. "Answer my question now and I will put you out of your misery quickly. Aside from your death, what did Orochimaru intend to accomplish with this?"

The man never knew when to quit. Kimimaro kept his eyes closed. He would take the answer to that question to his grave. The samples were safe. If Kabuto didn't find them then Orochimaru would undoubtedly send someone who would. One way or another, Orochimaru's next body might have Uchiha blood. Fitting revenge against the both of them. Had his teeth been in their proper place, he would have smiled.

"Very well. We'll do this slowly, then."

Kisame gave a grimacing grin. That black flame was a thing of beauty. But when it was used on a person and started at the feet? Yeah. Between the screams and the stench he would rather have been admiring it from a distance. Itachi had invited him along for the show, though, so he wasn't about to complain about having a frontrow seat. He had enjoyed watching Gaara's energy in action again, too. It was a damn shame they couldn't keep him. Once the screams stopped, he set himself to gathering up all the visible pieces of bone littering the area and tossing those on the blaze. That was fun, but the smell was pretty bad. It was a wonder Itachi could stand being so close to it. By the time Itachi released his flame and stood, only a humanoid shaped patch of dirt remained. Kisame knew from experience that grass would never grow in that spot again. Pretty cool, really.

"Cleanly done," said Kisame.

"Naturally."

"Are we finished here, now?"

"Not yet," Itachi murmured. He picked distastefully at his filthy clothing. Black flame prevented any energy from sticking around, an ultimate form of purification. The smoke, on the other hand, was undoubtedly settled deeply into his hair. He was long overdue for a hot bath. Unfortunately there was one more bit of business to attend to first. "Next we find Sai."

"The kid with the middriff?" Kisame asked in surprise. "I thought Gaara took care of him."

"Kabuto will have healed him by now," Itachi informed him. Kabuto was too curious not to have seen the boy's potential, and not wasteful enough to have let him die. "My little brother had the distinct memory of having been kissed by him." Compared to the disgusting things his brother and the ninetails' host had gotten up to, that was nothing. But it was the principle of the matter. He refused to have anyone saying he made empty threats, after all. "I am curious what else he may have done."

Kisame winced. That explained why Itachi hadn't changed out of his ruined clothes yet. This was bound to be messy, especially if Itachi still considered the kid too young to kill. Honestly, sometimes dead was better.

.-.
TBC