Summary: Naruto met Sasuke through a dare involving getting him to smile, which led to Sasuke becoming Naruto's tutor and later, his friend. Meanwhile, Itachi escaped from prison and returned to the city. After Sakura broke up with Naruto, the two grew closer until they developed strong romantic feelings for each other. After some difficulty, Naruto and Sasuke enter a relationship, but Sasuke's past soon interferes. One evening when Naruto is out, Itachi pays Sasuke a visit, shattering his mental stability. Naruto returns late that night and prevents Sasuke from doing anything rash, but the next morning, while Naruto is at work, Sasuke disappears.


Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. This chapter is named for the song of the same name on Nine Inch Nail's album The Downward Spiral, the rights to which I obviously do not own. I chose the title because the song has a similar function within the context of the album as do important moments in this chapter (in my opinion, at the very least)

Warnings: Language, fucked up stuff, more Crazy!Sasuke, and super duper angst.

For Sonruya-chan, my friend and devoted reader. Happy early birthday!


Unsteadily, but perpetually, one heavy foot fell in front of the other, each step bringing him closer to his indefinite destination, to insanity, and farther away from Naruto. As his legs swung, so did the world around him, in reflection of the violent, capricious emotions within him, which swung from one extreme to the other. The world trembled in manifestation of the shaking his mind had endured the previous night. It was as if he stood upon a ship, caught in the turbulent storm of his own mental instability, the crests the peaks in his madness and the troughs the pit of his desolation. He struggled to remain upright, unaware of how precariously close he teetered to the edge, to being drowned by his own rage. He moved without sight and without direction, albeit not without an indistinct, convoluted purpose, which served to drive him forward.

Despite the fury of the storm within him, his inner turmoil was not evident in his appearance, except for his restless eyes that spoke quietly of his terror. Although he moved erratically, he did not blatantly stumble. Upon looking at him, it would be difficult to identify every movement that revealed the nature of his mental state, but by the combination of his subtle movements, one could discern that there was something wrong with him. It was only enough for the faceless passersby to momentarily cast their attention to such a troubled existence before carelessly shifting their gazes forward once more, bringing to an end the brief instant in which they glimpsed the miserable life of Sasuke Uchiha.

More than they did not see him, he did not see them, although they flowed around him like a callous river, moving in such a way that nothing, including the traumatized Sasuke, could halt their advance. To him, they were less than people, less than mere obstacles in his path; they were a swarm that seemed to exist around him naturally, as part of the environment of the strange world he had been living in for nearly half a day.

The amount of time that had passed since he had entered the world that was subject to the influence of his mind was lost to him. Linear time was not a concept that he could grasp in such a state. If he was capable of measuring time's passage, it would have been cyclical, following the tides of his emotion; he would have realized that it had been approximately eight hours since his brother had appeared to him. He would have realized the futility of his search. So onward he trudged in his mindlessness, or rather, in the excess of being within his own mind, between the rising buildings and beneath the grey, overcast sky.

Behind the clouds, beyond the vision of those entrapped below them, the sun continuously rose higher. He walked until he felt as if he was no longer moving through the river of blurred faces, but instead as if its rate of flow had increased as he stood still. Although his eyes were unfocused and the features of those who surrounded him seemed unclear, he managed to catch a glimpse of an attribute that struck a chord in his memory. Long, silken hair that was the color of dark alleyways and the night on a moonlit, winter evening swayed gently with the slight movements of a passerby. A small hand was clasped firmly by the larger, caring hand of the stranger. Sasuke's vision tunneled, sharpening in clarity, his eyes widening, until he could see nothing but the image of the stranger holding the hand of the dark-haired child. He became like a rock in the river, disrupting the flow, as the passersby adjusted their trajectories to his halted existence. A couple of them brushed against him roughly, not having anticipated his abrupt stop, but he had no attention to spare on anything other than the scene before him.

The stranger looked casually to the side while waiting at the crosswalk, in doing so noticing the conspicuous stare, frightening in its intensity, of the young adult standing in the midst of a moving crowd. In turning to look at him more fully, the stranger revealed herself to be a young woman. She cast him a hard glance before turning away to usher her younger brother across the street. Even after they had disappeared from his sight, he looked on in the direction in which they had left. The longer he stood, the more the rhythmic tapping of footsteps, the rumbling of cars, and unfamiliar voices crawled into his ears and his head. As he became more aware of his surroundings, his self-awareness increased as well, until he understood the reality of his situation. Despite his newfound lucidity, he remained anchored to the same spot; it was not raptness that held him, though, as before, but a feeling of desolation that inevitably followed such comprehension. For the briefest moment, uncertainty shook him, and for the first time in a long time, his thoughts wandered to Naruto.

If only he had not prevented Sasuke from leaving when the thought to do so had finally fought its way through the shock that afflicted him. The likelihood of encountering his brother in the streets of the city would still have been miniscule, but he convinced himself that he would have found his homicidal brother, his beloved brother, if only it had not been for Naruto. Sasuke said the name aloud in his mind; it reverberated through him and it forced him to envision Naruto. But his lips were not smiling, as they often did, although they were stretched and contorted into the form that the mouth takes as one screams. Naruto yelled without words, the sound omitted from Sasuke's memories, but his words were rendered unnecessary by his expressive eyes. Sasuke recalled the look of fear that Naruto wore as he emerged from the bathroom, the pain that filled his eyes as he turned his back to Sasuke, and Naruto's hesitant hand as he placed it on his black and orange jacket.

As he put the jacket on, he faced away from Sasuke and toward the door. His movements were unrushed, seeming almost deliberately slow, as if he wished to drag out the moment for as long as possible. Sasuke remained sitting on the bed, not having moved since soon after he had awakened. He seemed to project the vacancy that characterized his eyes onto the room that he and Naruto shared; he looked at nothing, as if all that surrounded him did not exist.

Without apparent transition, Naruto went from standing on the other side of the room to being directly in front of Sasuke. For a moment, blue filled the majority of his vision, before it was extinguished by Naruto's falling eyelids. The brief contact between their lips temporarily shattered the wall between Sasuke and the rest of the world that he had recently reconstructed to greater heights and impenetrability than before. His memory of that instant was not vague or incomplete as it was for what he managed to recollect of the past half-day—it was photographic in comparison. He remembered the ephemeral, revitalizing touch of Naruto's lips, Naruto's quiet, nearly quivering exhale following the kiss, and the subtle rustle of his clothing against his skin as he drew away. One last time, Naruto looked at Sasuke, his expression revealing what he knew within himself, but refused to acknowledge.

"I'll see you when I get home, Sasuke." Naruto left.

And Sasuke was alone.

An incessant ringing filled Sakura's ears, bombarding her from every direction, reaching into her dreams as she slumbered in its determination to awaken her. The sound gave the illusion of growing in volume as she emerged gradually from her unconsciousness. When her emerald eyes shone for the first time since the sun had risen, she found that her vision was somewhat blurred, inciting uncertainty in her concerning her location. Once the blurriness subsided, she realized that she was lying in her bed and staring at one of the walls of her room. As the ringing persisted, she noticed its melody and recognized that it was the sound of her doorbell.

Abruptly, the ringing ceased, and hardly a second had passed when her phone began to vibrate on her night table. The vibration caused her phone to slowly move across the table until it hit her glass bong, which amplified the vibrations, causing her great annoyance. Although still groggy and with a hint of a hangover, she resolved to get out of her bed, but she was hindered by the limp arm and leg that were draped over her. With irritation, Sakura shoved off Ino's limbs and sat up. Ino rolled over and continued sleeping. By the time Sakura had answered her phone, she had already missed two calls.

"Open your door," she heard a familiar voice demand. His tone was unyielding, with a sense of urgency that made Sakura nervous. She hesitated before responding, giving herself a moment to think as concern budded within her. The blatant lack of any sort of greeting, specifically one of an amiable nature, as Naruto was wont to giving, told her that there was something amiss.

"…Naruto?" Sakura asked doubtfully, although she knew it was him.

"Yes. Open your door," he reiterated firmly.

"Wait, what are you doing here? Last night, I thought you said that you had to go to work—"

"Listen, Sakura," Naruto interjected, his tone adopting an edge of desperation, "please, can you just let me in? Please…" His voice dropped in volume and completely abandoned the forcefulness that it had commanded mere moments earlier. Sakura was taken aback by the erratic nature of his emotions, which was so prominent that it was conveyed even over the phone. In a matter of seconds, his voice jumped from sounding as if it was about to erupt into a shout due to ill-controlled frustration to dripping with despondency. The disturbing call had held her attention so raptly that she had not been aware of her own movements toward the door of her room.

"O-okay…I'll be down in a second. Just stay where you are, Naruto."

Instead of responding, he ended the call. Sakura removed her phone from her ear and looked at it with puzzlement as she hovered at the door. She tried to rid herself of confusion as she strode down the hall so that she could have some hope of being capable of handling the undeniably negative situation that she was about to let into her home. As she passed the wide-open double doors of the master bedroom, she observed with displeasure that some of her guests, Kiba, and a gorgeous dark-skinned girl that he had brought with him, Karui, had found their way into her parents' bed. Once she had descended the stairs, she encountered Tenten exiting the guest room, dressed in her work attire.

"Oh, good morning, Sakura," Tenten greeted with a smile. Her large eyes had briefly widened with pleasant surprise when she had taken notice of her pink-haired friend. "I didn't think that anyone would be awake at this time except for me, considering how much everyone drank last night." She laughed affably before continuing. "Not even your doorbell woke those drunkards up. What was up with that, anyway?" She placed a hand on her hip and tossed Sakura a quizzical glance.

"You would be the only one awake if Naruto didn't happen to be at my door," Sakura explained, her tone proving to be more sober than she had intended. Her words caused Tenten's genial expression to change; the corners of her lips tilted downward to form a small frown and her eyebrows knit. She knew as well as Sakura did that Naruto was never the harbinger of good news when he appeared unannounced at a doorstep.

"Do you know what he's doing here? I thought that he said he couldn't stay over because, unlike me, he's incapable of waking himself up for work after partying all night."

"That's what I thought, too, but I guess he didn't go—" The doorbell began to sound again and brought the girls' conversation to a sudden halt. The manner in which Naruto pressed the doorbell made his impatience and anxiety evident. With each time that his finger made contact with the bell and the sound resonated throughout her, Sakura felt his panic augment. She exchanged glances with Tenten to confirm that they shared the same fears and suspicions.

"Come with me," she urged. Tenten nodded, her face set in determination, and followed Sakura. They passed through the living room, stepping over Lee, who had passed out on the floor, in the process. All the noise seemed to have brought Gaara and Shikamaru, who were stretched across the couches, to the verge of wakefulness. By the time the girls had reached the door, the ringing of the doorbell had been replaced by the drum of Naruto's fist against it. When Sakura's hesitant fingertips brushed the cool metal of the doorknob, the rapping halted as suddenly as it had begun. The silence of the early morning returned.

As the despair that Naruto attempted to smother with his anguish and anger fought its way to the surface of his emotions, his fist landed on the door with a thud and did not rise once more. He leant against the door, allowing it to support the entirety of his weight, having lost the will to carry it anymore. What he did desire, though, was to be let inside the house, to escape the loneliness of its exterior, where he had no one to help him, where it was only himself and his failure. He needed something, or someone, to sustain him. When the door cracked open, it swung open heavily with the force of Naruto's weight, causing the girls to stumble backward. Once the door had opened completely and revealed Naruto to them, they stared at him with apprehension.

He raised his eyes, which were exhausted and broken, to look at Tenten and Sakura. In them, the near constant torment of the past eight hours was evident. Regardless, his eyes managed to retain a spark of vitality, which was fueled by his self-directed anger. When he saw that the girls were silently returning his gaze, he attempted to harden his expression in vain. Naruto looked at them with borderline incredulity, as if in failing to answer the door immediately, they had betrayed him. "What took you so long?" he demanded harshly.

"…are you alright, Naruto?" Sakura asked with worry, as well as wariness.

"What happened?" Based on his demeanor—and the fact that he was clad in the white shirt and black apron of his server's uniform while being far from his workplace—Tenten knew it was not a matter of whether something distressing had occurred.

When he was faced with their concern, which withstood his slight hostility, his transparent veneer of animosity crumbled. "I…I need to talk to all of you. I need your help. Sasuke…Sasuke's gone." His voice as he uttered those last few words was devastating to hear.

"What do you mean, gone?" Sakura's heart lurched at his words.

"Last night…" He began, despite having no idea of where to begin. He found himself struggling to find words that could convey a semblance of the situation's complexity, the fuse of which extended back many years. As the night's events rushed painfully back to him at once, he soon found it difficult to speak at all.

Sakura looked within her mind and recalled images of the past, comparing them to the distraught sight of Naruto before her. She remembered the blithe and impish Naruto, a remnant of which she knew remained in the present Naruto, but could not see no matter how deeply she tried to look. Before she was conscious that she had conjured the thought, it appeared in her mind; Sasuke is destroying him. A strange pang struck her at the full comprehension of the thought. Impulsively, she placed her hand on Naruto's back and began to lead him inside. Tenten closed the door after them. Sakura glanced over her shoulder to look at her.

"I'm going to take him upstairs and try to sort out exactly what happened." As she spoke, her hand slid from his back to his wrist, around which she firmly wrapped her fingers. Tenten's eyes darted briefly to Sakura's grip before settling onto her face again.

"I'm calling in sick," Tenten stated. She did not leave any room for protest, removing her phone from her pocket, turning on her heel, and walking toward the guest room as soon as she finished speaking.

Naruto followed without resistance as Sakura led him upstairs. But he did so due to lassitude instead of compliance. Sakura gripped his wrist more tightly, feeling the heat that radiated off his skin and into her hand, to reassure herself of the life that still flowed through him. Bearing in mind that both her room and her parents' room were occupied, she stopped in the part of the hallway between the rooms, with the hope that the seclusion would encourage him to speak. She wanted to lock eyes with him, but he looked downward. Slowly, her fingers unfurled and she released his wrist. Both of their hands fell to their sides and they stood on their respective sides of the hallway, the emptiness of the corridor between them.

"Tell me what happened, Naruto." Her voice was soft and her eyes were earnest. For an instant, Naruto lifted his gaze to meet hers, but then he looked away quickly, as if he could not bear to make eye contact in his condition. To look through the window of another human being and see their pity for him laid bare would drive him to collapse. With his eyes largely averted, he opened his mouth to speak.

"When I came back from work, Sasuke wasn't there…He promised me that he would be there, but I…I knew that he was lying, that's why I came back. Even still, I…"

"Hold on a second, Naruto." She placed her hand on his arm gently in an attempt to comfort him. "You need to rewind a bit here. Why did Sasuke leave?"

"His brother came and visited him last night, and I wasn't there," he whispered. "I wasn't there when I should have been." His eyes were still downcast and his voice was characterized by remorse.

She realized how little Naruto had confided in her as of late, and how little she had noticed the subtle changes in his demeanor that revealed the depth of his troubles. There had been that sudden escape to the south and that sober moment over coffee, but other than that she had been in the dark, and thus ill-prepared to deal with the current situation. It was one thing when all that stood between Naruto and Sasuke was the latter's emotional handicap, but another thing altogether when what separated them was Sasuke's criminally insane brother. The details of Sasuke's past were unknown to her; she had only heard rumors concerning the murder of his parents and his subsequent institutionalization. With such limited knowledge, Sakura felt powerless to help Naruto. And vaguely, she wondered if anyone was capable of helping someone like Sasuke.

"Wait," she began tentatively, "I'm confused. Did Sasuke leave during the night, or did he leave on his own?"

"No, he left this morning, and I let him leave. I don't know why I left. I knew what would happen. I knew, and yet I still left," Naruto murmured to himself, his tone growing increasingly more unsettling as he spoke. His fingers curled into a trembling fist as his body visibly tensed. His eyes, which still refused to look at her, widened in unrest. His growing tension did not escape Sakura, so she tried to choose her words carefully.

"If he left after you went to work, then you didn't let him leave, Naruto," she said cautiously, as if she was dealing with a fragile object that could be broken by her words. "Sasuke's actions are not your fault. I'm sure that you did as much as you could have, and what you thought to be the best thing to do at the time, so don't be so hard on yourself. And you really can't blame yourself for not being present when Itachi"—at the sound of the name, Naruto lifted his head and looked at her with eyes simmering with hatred. Sakura paused briefly, her mouth slightly open in surprise, until she saw that Naruto remained immobile and silent, with watchful eyes that expected her to continue. She did so with hesitance. "I—I mean, when his brother visited him. No one could have predicted that, so it's unreasonable feel guilty for not having been there. Besides, who knows what would have happened if Itachi had visited and found a stranger there, so maybe it's—"

"No, you're wrong! You don't understand!" Naruto shouted, his voice seeming to fill every corner of the silent house. He gripped Sakura's arms tightly enough to make it physically uncomfortable; her back made contact with the wall as she stumbled backward in fright at his sudden, violent movements. His feral eyes bore into hers, which were wide with disbelief more than they were with fear. "I didn't do everything that I could have, I let this happen, I could've stopped him, I could've done so much more. If I had been there when Itachi had arrived, I could've taken him down. I would've torn him to shreds for everything that he did to Sasuke, for daring to get near him again, for everything that he did to me! If I had really loved Sasuke, if I…."

He exhaled shakily. The wildness in his eyes disappeared, submerged beneath the flood of the mixture of emotions that had been stifled by his momentary rage. He still held on to Sakura, but he no longer gripped her as tightly. "I was weak. I was tired of all this. I don't have any excuse. How could I have done this to Sasuke? I could have prevented all this. I could have protected him!" His voice fluctuated drastically in volume, from a muted, somber tone to returning to a shout.

Tears welled in Sakura's eyes. She would have liked to think that she was strong enough to maintain her composure after being yelled at in such a disconcerting way, by the person she loved most, no less, and for the most part, that was true. Much of what drove her to tears was witnessing Naruto's anguish so palpably that it became hers. When Naruto saw her tears, his expression changed; his eyes widened in disbelief and a hint of horror, his eyebrows knit upwards, and his lips parted slightly. There was shuffling to his right. He turned his head quickly to see that Ino was standing in the doorway of Sakura's room. Her long hair was loose and tangled, her clothing was wrinkled, and her eyes held no trace of sleep, but of astonishment instead. Naruto heard Neji and Tenten ascending the stairs.

He released Sakura and walked swiftly into the room, past Ino, his gaze directed downward with shame. He walked to the back of Sakura's room, facing the east wall. The dull light that managed to permeate the thick cloud cover shone through the windows and onto him. Naruto closed his eyes tightly, a few tears slipping out, and gripped the lump of paper in his pocket. He sensed that Ino, Neji, and Tenten had collected near the door, warily watching his rigid back, and that Sakura approached him with soft steps. Undoubtedly, her eyes were fixed on the hand that was buried in his pocket. He removed the crumpled paper from his pocket and held it in his hand loosely until she slowly took it from him.

Sakura laid eyes on the Uchiha family portrait, and through its creases and burnt edges, in an instant she understood more than she could have ever hoped to comprehend with hours of explanation.

Alone, he sat on the grass. Alone, as he often found himself, regardless of where he went. Whether it was his home, where he was a murderer in the eyes of his father, whose love for his wife twisted grotesquely into abhorrence for their son, since the day he took his first breath. Whether it was his school, where he gave voice to the misanthropy that was planted within him, and treated those around him with cruelty. Irrespective of his location, that element of his life would remain. Of that he had been certain, until the moment that a blond boy had approached him without a seeming reason, offering him a smile. It was a moment that he had relived many times, this time in the form of a dream, where there was nothing in the world but the patch of grass on which they had first met.

There, in the dark depths of his mind, he dreamt. The pollutants that he had put in his body had submerged him further than he had been in a long while. But the noises that surrounded him caused him to almost resurface as they augmented in volume, only to send him back downward, swallowing water, when they diminished. For some time, he dwelled in the strange realm that lay between wakefulness and sleep, hearing, but not seeing, as if he was trapped within himself. The various sounds that filled the Haruno home warned him of what was occurring—a continuation of what had been occurring since the near beginning of his freshman year of college.

A hand grabbed a hold of him and shook him awake. Below the red hair that now hid his tattoo, his green eyes cracked open. The blurred image of Tenten appeared before him. Gaara, wake up and head upstairs. As he fought grogginess, he closed his eyes in a slow blink. When he opened them once more, he found that Tenten was no longer standing before him. Her voice floated in the room as she spoke to the others around him, Lee and Shikamaru, waking them as well and asking them to leave. Such an awakening was undeniably abrupt and confusing, but as soon as they heard the unsettling voices coming from upstairs, they seemed to grasp that something was amiss and complied in taking their leave. As Tenten saw them out, Gaara forced himself to stand. He lifted one heavy leg after the other as he climbed the stairs, toward Naruto's indistinct voice, until he stood at the entrance to Sakura's room.

The moment that he looked upon the scene in the room, it became unnecessary for anyone to inform him of anything. His eyes immediately focused on Naruto, whom Sakura sat beside, one of her arms resting on his back in a comforting gesture, while the other held a crumpled piece of paper. Naruto's face was gripped in his hand, concealed from view. He trembled gently with each shaky breath, yet each successive one grew more even, as a strange stillness seemed to overtake him. Although Gaara did not know the exact details, he already knew more than enough. Never in the four years that he had known Naruto had Gaara seen anyone affect him as profoundly as Sasuke did.

His countenance was without expression as he watched in silence. Although the impassive face he wore seemed to speak of his indifference, indignation stirred beneath his thin layer of skin. Because the scene before him held no surprise, he held his tongue; regardless of whether he chose to express his sentiments, the situation would remain. The little that he knew of Sasuke told him that the Uchiha would always be problematic, though that in itself was of no concern to him. Whereas Sasuke was defined by his difficulty, Naruto was defined by his determination and devotion. And so as Sasuke spiraled further downward into the abyss of his hatred and obsession, Naruto would follow and let himself be slowly suffocated. It pained Gaara to see the smile that had been so generously given to him distorted into something unrecognizable—a grimace that could have been worn by many people, but did not belong on him.

He averted his eyes from Naruto. They wandered to Ino and Neji, who stood nearby the two figures on the bed, watching as quietly as he had. In contrast to his mask, Ino's face was riddled with concern, her large eyes wide and focused on her troubled friends. As usual, Neji managed to retain his composure, except for the slight frown that he allowed to show through. It did not take long for him to notice the eyes encircled by blackness that rested on him. When Neji shifted his gaze toward him, Gaara moved from his position in the hall, just before the doorway, and stepped forward into the room. The girls turned to look at him when the edges of their eyes glimpsed his movement.

He spared them a glance before his eyes fixed themselves once more on the broken form on the bed. So broken that Gaara could not help but wonder why he hid his face; perhaps he wishes to not even have a face for others to recognize him by. Slowly, Naruto lifted his face from his hand. He must have felt the stare that bored into him and silently demanded that he meet the gaze with his own. Irises that were once like the ocean, vivacious and mercurial, swelling with passions, had stilled and become like ice, revealing the frozen state of his core. Yet the cold, blue pain that had rendered him in such a state still managed to swim through them. His eyes, as they appeared in that instant, were etched into Gaara's mind with striking clarity. For a moment, his composure faltered; his eyes widened and his jaw went slack. But then Naruto tore his eyes away from Gaara and turned slowly to face the window.

"Gaara…." Sakura began, interrupting the heavy silence in the room, although it was clear that she did not know how to continue. As soon as he heard her voice, he looked at her sharply, effectively precluding any further attempts on her part to address him. His gaze contained all the harshness that his controlled voice lacked as he spoke.

"What did Sasuke do?" He asked, although he already knew the answer—as they all knew, but refused to state so bluntly.

Sakura's eyes narrowed into a reprimanding glance, but she said nothing. She glanced to her side to briefly look at Naruto, who remained silent as he gazed outside, his countenance uncharacteristically devoid of expression. It had not escaped Gaara's notice, though, that soon after he had uttered Sasuke's name, Naruto had closed his eyes, almost as if in pain, and inhaled sharply. Gaara found that his fingers began curling to form a fist.

Several long seconds had passed without an offered answer, so Sakura took it upon herself to respond. "He…" she started, but stopped herself, seeming as if she had changed her mind about what she would say. "Sasuke is in trouble. He's not in the right state of mind and he's wandering the streets. We need to go find him." Her voice was laced with urgency and determination. Within it, Gaara also heard the words he felt as if she had left unsaid: That's all you need to know.

Although resentment simmered within him, his face remained inexpressive as he mulled over her words. Inwardly, he fiercely demanded why he had to search for Sasuke when all he had caused them was suffering, when all he had done to Naruto was suck the life from him, changing him from the person that Gaara had first met years ago—the Naruto who had changed him. He entertained the idea that it would be for the better if they left Sasuke to wander the streets, unstable as he was, to let whatever may happen to him happen, and to allow him to exercise his volatile will. For an instant, Gaara considered that, perhaps, in such a way, Naruto could free himself from Sasuke. He fooled himself with that thought until he looked at Naruto once more.

Uncontrolled rage or irrepressible tears would have unsettled him less than Naruto's deeply perturbing demeanor that was a distorted shadow of calmness. Gaara struggled to swallow his realization that there was no way for Naruto to free himself from someone who had become a part of him—a necessity in his life, an addiction, which he could no longer survive or function without, although it harmed him repetitively. And when he looked at Naruto, he knew that he would not refuse to search for Sasuke. Sasuke, who was nothing more than a child, whose life had halted at age eight; who had the same desires as his eight-year-old self, and Gaara dared to think perhaps even the same level of maturity. Sasuke, who he disliked since the moment his attention had been directed to him by Naruto. If he did anything other than assent, he knew it would only destroy what was left of Naruto.

So when the time came, wordlessly, he descended the stairs along with the rest of them.

He stepped into the gloom of the morning, halting briefly on the front steps as he allowed his surroundings to penetrate him. The amorphous clouds had merged to replace the sky with a wraithlike grey glow that made the entire world seem to him merely an endless stretch of land encased by nothingness. The crisp air flowed through him as he inhaled deeply, biting him from the inside, like thousands of needles. Once Gaara had exhaled, he walked toward his car, to begin the fruitless search for Sasuke Uchiha.

Time passed slowly as he slowly drove. His eyes scanned over the mass of innumerable people that roamed the streets as he searched for a head of raven hair and a pair of restless eyes—for someone whose appearance had become so familiar to him against his will, yet on which whose countenance in such a mentality he could only speculate. He was aware that he knew little of Sasuke's mindset, although he considered that perhaps he knew enough, having seen its reflection in the expression of Sasuke's lover. As he looked for the face he thought he might know, faceless strangers, soon to be forgotten, flashed in his mind for a brief moment of time. So futile was his search to single out one among so many, particularly when he questioned whether he truly wished to find Sasuke, although he had resigned himself to do so.

The blare of a car's horn seized his attention. Gaara's eyes swerved to the screaming car that barreled toward a pedestrian who slowly crossed the street. Ahead of him, where the pavement began anew, the image of a warning hand glowed orange. The car veered to avoid him with a slight screech of its tires, continuing onward after steadying. The pedestrian halted for a moment, but it was a moment too late for normalcy; it seemed as if he had only registered the existence of the car after it had passed by him—whether he had any sense of the danger it presented was unclear. The instant that Gaara's head was not filled with the cry of the horn, the less than glaring details of the scene came to him. His hair, his clothing, his gait, his demeanor—Sasuke.

A sudden jolt of anxiety stabbed Gaara in his chest and adrenaline burst through him. His fingers clenched the steering wheel, his body tensed, his widened, alert eyes adhered to his assigned target. An instant passed, and then there was no hesitation. He parked in the first available space he saw, climbed out of his car, and ran across the street, through traffic, toward Sasuke, seeing nothing else. A fire ignited inside of him, fueled by his building rage, burning through his veins and boiling his blood. The flames licked at his mind, setting it into a frenzy, causing it to regurgitate memories of his encounters with him, of thoughts of him, all colored by a smoldering disdain that was warping into near hatred. Mercilessly, Gaara wanted to subdue him, to beat him, to deliver him back to Naruto.

"Sasuke!" he shouted viciously, the force of his yell echoing throughout him. He stood on the sidewalk, deceptively still, his blistering stare boring through strands of crimson hair and into the back of Sasuke Uchiha. The sound of his name called so vehemently seemed as if it had broken through the false reality that had engulfed him; he halted for several long seconds before turning to face Gaara.

Startling onyx eyes emerged from his pallid, thin countenance, piercing Gaara, burrowing into the depths of his flesh, until they reached a place where a reflection of a young teenager in a mirror resided; his pale skin cracked, revealing nothing but emptiness beneath it, and his sleepless green eyes seethed with malice and misanthropy. Gaara tore his eyes away from those of Sasuke and his former self crawled back within him. Disquiet took hold in the back of his mind and his fury wavered to a simmer. When he returned his gaze to Sasuke, he was not met with recognition, but with the look of an unfulfilled expectation, as if Sasuke had anticipated that someone else would be standing in his place.

Sasuke remained immobile, but far from rigid, as he scrutinized Gaara; it appeared as if he was prepared to vanish into one of the many nearby alleyways at the first moment he felt it necessary. Gaara saw the beginning of that moment in the acknowledgment that flashed across Sasuke's features—and in the subsequent distrust. He heard his voice pouring out of himself before he had even thought to speak. His words spanned the several feet of pavement that separated them and held Sasuke there.

"Sasuke," he stated firmly, "I'm here to take you back to Naruto."

At the mention of Naruto, Sasuke's face contorted into an indecipherable expression that undoubtedly reflected the variety of emotions that the name had caused to surface all at once, all too quickly. When he regained himself enough so that he was capable of escaping the snare of his own mind, he focused all of his attention onto Gaara. His dark eyes had grown wilder and his regard harsher, yet Gaara could not rid himself of the impression that a strange and desperate desolation lay at the foundation of his manner.

"Get away from me," Sasuke warned in a low, feral growl.

"As much as I would like to, I'm not leaving you alone until it's time to kick your ass out of my car and onto Sakura's doorstep," Gaara retorted, uncompromising, as a peculiar determination began to take root where before there had only been exasperation. He took a single step forward, his steady gaze never moving from Sasuke.

"Fuck off!" Sasuke screamed violently, his face twisting to conform to his madness. Briefly, it seemed as if he might act—that he might turn away and run from the confrontation, from reality, or that he might lunge toward Gaara—but he merely stood his ground as he writhed with what seemed at first to be anger, but with each passing moment became more like pain. Gaara continued relentlessly.

"Listen, Uchiha, I don't like you. The only reason you are worth anything to me is because you are everything to Naruto. So, for his sake, I'm not going to fuck off, no matter how much I would like to. If you care about him at all, let me take you to him."

His tone was unsympathetic, yet frank throughout his speech. When he finished, he waited, watchful, for his response. No longer did it seem as if Sasuke would flee; Gaara had captured him with his words—most notably the word 'Naruto.' He need only to slip it into his sentences as often as he could, or perhaps utter nothing but the name at all, and each time the torture would bring Sasuke closer to submission. He looked on as Sasuke winced, as if struck by a migraine, and covered most of his face with his hand, leaving visible only a shockingly savage eye.

"Just….shut up," Sasuke gasped as he struggled to speak. "Don't mention…"

"Naruto?" Gaara asked provokingly.

Through the disheveled raven hair that spilled over his forehead and the trembling fingers that gripped his face, Sasuke glowered at Gaara as if he was the sole source of his past and present agony. His ferocity had given him a façade of strength and vitality, but it crumbled as his body threatened to collapse. Although Gaara had some knowledge of the Uchiha's troubled past, intimations of his frame of mind, and had seen the wan coloring of his skin and his restless eyes, his resentment had disallowed the truth of it all to reach him until now. Neither could he ignore the implications of the profound effect of Naruto's name on Sasuke; part of Sasuke was still deeply connected to Naruto, although he was unsure whether the nature of the connection was defined by loathing or some distorted form of love. In Gaara's eyes, nothing could ever excuse all the suffering Sasuke had caused Naruto, yet he found himself beginning to speak less harshly and more earnestly.

"Living for revenge won't solve anything, Sasuke. It only makes your own life all the more miserable, it causes you to endanger and harm yourself, and others….and Naruto." When Gaara saw the anger gradually seeping away from Sasuke's eyes, he knew that his words were resonating with him. "It's not too late for you to return to your life with him, you know. Wasn't that better than escaping into your own world, possessed by hatred? Try to remember for a moment what it was like to be with him, to be capable of forgetting all of your past woes, at least temporarily…"

Sasuke remembered. It began with a quiet laughter that arose from the recesses of his mind, echoing through his skull hauntingly, growing in volume until he could hear nothing else, until it silenced his every thought, until he could not take it any longer and it materialized outside of him and became reality. The laugher belonged to Naruto. He stood before Sasuke as dozens of people behind him meandered through the fair. His lips were curved upward in an exuberant and stunning smile, the brightness of which gradually diminished as his smile took on a more ardent quality. It was the smile that had melted the last piece of ice coating his heart. This time, he would not shy away from his urge to kiss him. Sasuke moved forward, closer to Naruto, to bury a hand into his hair and bring his lips down to meet his own.

A bell jingled, a door swung open, almost hitting him, and a man he did not recognize stepped between them. Confusion overwhelmed him as the verdant grass abruptly transformed into cement, the clear, ice blue sky became ghostly in color, and the trees on the horizon gave rise to buildings. Naruto disappeared behind the man with the sickly complexion and the dyed blue hair. Sasuke's eyes frantically darted over every inch of his strange, new surroundings; a short distance away, he noticed a red-haired young man watching him warily. When his eyes inevitably returned to the unfamiliar man in front of him, he was met with a gruesome smile that revealed a mouth full of unnaturally sharp teeth. Suddenly, Sasuke sensed someone coming up behind him quickly. He turned around to see Naruto approaching him; for a second he perceived that same foul smile in the background, but then Naruto grabbed him roughly and ushered him away, tearing his eyes away from the ever-grinning face. What the hell are you doing? Sasuke barked. Nothing, Naruto laughed.

Everything came crashing down on him at once. And once more, he forgot everything, Naruto, Gaara—but not the man, and never Itachi. The stranger no longer stood before him, but he promptly spotted him turning a corner further down the road. Sasuke turned toward him, and he ran.

A/N: I know a lot of that stuff toward the end may come off as vague, but if you skim the first scene of chapter 22 it should make sense. I also know that I should probably offer an explanation or an apology for my absence of over a was most of the reason for me not updating, it dominates my life, but then again it's the middle of finals week for me right now and somehow I just posted a no excuses me, bad llama! So yes, my sincerest apologies. I have spring break next week, so I will try to write the next chapter within the next two weeks, but no promises! hahah.

So you noticed that the last scene is unusually written from Gaara's persepctive, huh? Bout time! I kind of had to find him as I wrote him, so it was somewhat challenging. You might have noticed that my Gaara is not as collected and kind as Kishimoto's Gaara, so forgive me if he might seem out of character. He's not quite there yet in terms of maturation in this universe. It was really fun to write him though! I should have done it more often...

That is all. Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think! :D