'.o.'
-+.:In Leaps and Bounds:.+-
'.o.'

A/N- I understand that Sakura makes a lot of important appearances in here. Bear with me. This will not deviate from the original smutty SasuNaru path. Enjoy!

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Listen as the wind blows from across the great divide
Voices trapped in yearning, memories trapped in time
The night is my companion and solitude my guide
Would I spend forever here and not be satisfied?
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-Chapter one-

The grass was waving lethargically in the wind, just as it had been doing…that day.

"Sasuke, Naruto, come look over here!"

Naruto spun around on the spot, searching desperately for the person that fitted with that beautifully familiar voice, eyes roving over the hill of clovers he stood on for that pink haired kunoichi.

He laughed sadly. Even though he could see for miles on that green expanse, there was no one. But then, he had never expected there to be.

He hadn't heard that voice in over four years.

The eighteen year old continued his slow trek along the crest of the hill, hands shoved in pockets, remembering the last time he had been here, although then, he had been accompanied by an oblivious team seven. Well, Sasuke hadn't been too happy that day, but it was nothing compared to the preceding events. The pain he would ultimately cause.

Naruto smiled softly into the wind, (his memories of this place so fond and innocent) and then jerked in surprise as a distinct voice called out behind him.

"Dobe, don't eat that."

"Why the hell not?"

A small smile crept back to his lips as he watched two figures bickering a distance away. They were as he remembered them from that time, young and full of high strung exuberant energy. The figures were slightly more blurry in his vision, but then again, so were all his memories of those times. Sasuke stood, just as he had that day, hands shoved in pockets as he looked down at the blonde boy, sitting in the lofty waving grass. His mind had even conjured up the faint hint of lavender that had been riding the wind that day, completing in every respect the scene he forever remembered.

"Because it's poisonous."

"It's a mushroom!"

"…and it's poisonous…"

"What the hell do you know, you dumb bastard?"

"Suit yourself."

The physical Naruto wrinkled his nose, facing the couple. He had no desire any longer to finish this memory. He had replayed it in his mind's eye for years now, and it was imprinted so acutely in his head that no level of mental injury could ever remove it.

"You're just a memory," he called out, only a hint of distant pain making his voice strain through the distance. "Just a memory." The two children looked up at him, one still kneeling on the ground, fingers wrapped around the stem of a vibrant plant. The ocean blue eyes seemed so innocent as they gazed calmly back, and even Sasuke's maintained a touch of carefree youth. "Just a memory I never wanted to have," he whispered.

Naruto turned his back on the two, and he felt them fade sadly away behind him. Why did he always end up feeling guilty…every time they vanished?

Naruto shut his eyes in pain.

"You know what you've made me, Kyuubi?" he asked acridly to the air, voice slightly strained in sour humor, knowing full well that the demon could hear him. He continued to climb along the hill, retracing the steps he had taken as a child here, as the demon stirred inside him.

The wind blew heavy gusts of fresh mountain air past the boy's face, which he had left uncovered that day, tangling with slightly wild blonde spikes.

"Yes, Kit. I've made you- us-…alone."

There was no regret in that voice, but neither was there malice. Just a statement of the variety Naruto had come to accept from the demon that was his burden.

"Why?" he questioned, knowing the answer, but wanting, needing a reason to just talk. He hadn't spoken aloud in what must have been weeks, months. He didn't need the words, but they were all that kept him sane…all that kept him human. He had known the answer, even before the demon voiced it.

"Power."

And that was that.

They had a mutual respect for each other, neither hated the other, but neither would they hesitate to kill each other, because, that was just how things worked. Kyuubi wanted freedom, and Naruto….Naruto wanted the monster inside of him gone.

"Things wouldn't change, even if I did die, Kit," the fox growled, having already picked up on the teen's thoughts before the boy could organize them into a full sentence. Naruto plucked a tall stalk of dried grass, idly fingering it as he walked.

"No. No, I suppose it wouldn't. Not anymore."

.o.
Four Years Ago
.o.

Enraged crimson slits hovered briefly in hues of violet before they shifted uneasily back to tortured blue. Naruto blinked, then a rush of air sucked into his lungs as he fully took in the devastation around him. The destruction he had caused.

Red streams ran from the walls to the floor, looking almost black in the flickering light, locking the boy in a semi-surreal world. Broken items were strewn everywhere; tables, glass, …Bodies…

don'tlookatthebodies…

The blood was already drying under his fingernails. In his hair.

"S-sensei…I-"

Naruto stepped tentatively forward, reaching a hand towards the fallen man, the jounin's arm still stretched out protectively to the side as if to shield his raven haired student from his friend. As far as a broken arm could stretch, anyway.

"Back…off," the man growled, his breaths coming fast and heavy, blood making the green jounin outfit stick viscously to his worn skin, and Naruto wondered just how hard he had really hit the man.

Not him. Kyuubi.

But the two were one and the same

"Sensei, plea- I didn't… please…" The blonde struggled for a moment, trying desperately to make his sensei understand why he had done what he'd done, and at the same time, trying to remember why he had done it. But the man would have none of it.

"Wake the fuck up, Naruto!"

The boy stood for a second, not instantly registering what the man had said…and then-

"It's me, sensei," he whispered brokenly. "It's me." Not the fox.

"Dammit!" The man lunged suddenly, fingers wrapping tightly around the uneven laces of Naruto's orange jacket. "Dammit! Fucking. Wake. Up!" Kakashi punctuated each word with a hit to the dazed blonde, till blood ran down both sides of his scarred cheeks, mingling with the tears he had never meant to shed in front of his teacher. In front of Sasuke.

Gods, what did Sasuke think of him? Had he- yes, of course he had seen. He had seen it all.

Naruto was fourteen, and it seemed that even those he had come to trust, come to believe they didn't hate him for Kyuubi, even they had turned on him someday.

His eyes lost their shine as he faded into his thoughts, willing away both the physical and mental pain that came with the blows to his face.

Stand still, it can't last forever. Look, but don't see. See, but don't feel. Hate-

"Kakashi, stop!"

Silence fell through the room as the routinely tacit Uchiha ignored formalities, trying to pull his teacher from his desperate anger.

"It wasn't him," he growled, quieter this time. "So let him go."

The older man's hands trembled slightly as his fingers unfurled their clutch on the child's clothing, but not before turning the crushed boy around so he could see the carnage in the small room. The carnage he had caused… and those familiar faces that stared sickly pale up at him with lifeless wide eyes. He recognized a handful of the jounin from the village, and a chuunin who had once taught the blonde's academy class…before he'd been transferred.

He had killed them.

The people he'd sworn to protect.

A wave of nausea sent the boy to his knees again as he vomited up the remains of the little food he'd last eaten, staring unreserved at the pooling blood before him. He had done… this…?

"You see?" he had never heard that tone in his mentor's voice. That pain, and the fury he tried to hide it behind. He had lost his friends today, to the child he had tried to teach. "Get the hell out of here, Naruto," the man said quiet and deadly. He left out the subtext, but it was clear enough in his blazing sharingan glare.

I don't want to see you here again. Ever.

"Kakashi," Sasuke growled in warning, but the blonde had stood up, face hidden in the shadows, and arms limp at his sides. When he spoke, his voice was amazingly sharp and distinct.

"No. He's right. I'm not safe to be around. In fact," Naruto swung around, eyes wild as they met three sharingan orbs, and a feral grin plastered against his face. Now or never. "I'll kill you if you get in my way."

They didn't, and he left, exiting with a leap through a gaping hole in the wall. He was almost out of the entire building when his acute hearing registered the sound of a heavy body dropping inertly to the floor, and lighter footsteps running after him. Trailing him.

Not this time. He wouldn't come back this time.

"Naruto!" The desperate cry from behind bounced rapidly from wall to wall, and for a moment, Naruto almost stopped and turned.

But not this time.

This time, not even Sasuke could stop him.

"NARUTO!"

.o.
Present
.o.

He could feel as the wind changed, the now southerly blown air bringing with it the faint scents and sounds his refined senses acknowledged as travelers camping. Ninja, for only fighting warriors passed through these hills armed, as the soft clanging of metal scraping metal indicated. Ninja; people he no longer desired to be with.

Naruto still retained a healthy curiosity in the going ons of his old village, but that had long since passed the stages of investigation. It had been so long since he had heard any news of the Leaf, or any of their other neighboring villages, for that matter. And he supposed it wasn't of great significance to him now anyways.

There had been a time when he had longed for company, any company, in the early stages of his escape, that it had hurt almost physically. But not anymore. It had been far too long since the time he would have joined the camping unit, regardless of their home villages. Naruto turned, slightly disgusted with himself, and headed downhill where he wouldn't be spotted.

But never had he expected her to be there.

The swirl of leaves around the figure subsided in the arrival technique Naruto had come to associate with only one individual from the Village Hidden in the Leaves. A man he had no desire to see again, irrespective of the fact he had trained under the jounin for a good portion of his life. But today, he had been completely caught off guard.

She stood there, looking not at all unlike the way she had four years ago. Sakura had matured though, grown into a lovely figure of eighteen, long fingers delicately plucking herbs from their stems, oblivious to the fact that that the boy from her childhood stood shocked and concealed in the shadows of an old oak not two hundred feet away.

She couldn't see him.

She couldn't ever see him.

Naruto. Was. Dead.

But gods above, he wanted to see her. Talk to her. Ask her how she was and where she'd been, and… how was Sasuke?

For some reason unknown to the unacknowledged blonde, he could not begin to comprehend why the absence of his raven haired friend from his side had managed to hurt him in ways he could not possibly fathom. He did not need to understand. He had merely accepted the feeling, and eventually, moved on. Or tried to.

The blonde shook his head ruefully and pulled tighter around his face the hood of the ANBU cloak he had stolen the day he had departed, consciously adjusting the mask he had hastily thrown on to assure himself it was secure.

No, it wouldn't do for her, for anyone, to find out that Naruto Uzumaki was still alive. Maybe if he had only-

The blonde teen managed to dodge to the right as twin shurikens embedded themselves in the old oak where he had been formerly standing with a soft thud thud, glinting innocently in the afternoon sun.

the fuck?

He glared around the tree through his mask at the woman who had not paused in her work to look at the person she had nearly assassinated. Her voice was stronger than it had been in his memories.

"Please come out and join me. It's not nice to sulk about like that in the shadows, watching me like some sort of prey." Her light voice held more confidence and assurance than had ever been there before, and remained playful as she finally threw over her shoulder, "One might take you for the perverted stalker type, eyeing young women like that," she chided softly, casting a glance directly into the gloom where the teen was silently swearing.

The two weapons implanted in the tree were joined by a kunai, wrapped in a dark explosive tag, crackling angrily at eye level to the boy. With a long drawn out groan, Naruto sidestepped into the light, walking swiftly and confidently away from the tree, hands up in the air in mock surrender, impressively ignoring the debris falling from the sky as the tree exploded quite powerfully behind him. Sakura raised a thin eyebrow at the display. She'd been expecting a yell, or a mad dash in the least. Well, this was going to be interesting.

"My apologies…miss," he said slowly, roughening his voice into a deeper and more masculine sound as he approached the pink haired girl. It wasn't too difficult. The gravelly noise that emitted from his lips, courtesy of the long years spent with so little conversation, sounded so unlike his childhood racket.

"You wear an ANBU mask, and yet you cannot manage to successfully conceal yourself from me?" the woman scoffed, slightly teasing, and still rightfully weary of the stranger in ANBU clothing before her. She had stopped gathering herbs and was standing straight, hand on hip, waiting for a response.

It hit him at that moment, however briefly, and he wasn't surprised with the sudden realization. He didn't love this woman before him. She was lovely enough to put his trademark Harem Jutsu to shame, but, it just wasn't there. Not the feelings nor the adoration he had once held for his childhood friend. Who knew what had possibly changed that, because he certainly hadn't an idea. Maybe it was the chuunin exams, in a time and place they fought for their lives and for the lives of their friends in a situation that demanded their best. Or perhaps it had begun even before that, but he had always been too thick headed to realize. It might have been those years that they had spent together, the three teammates of team seven, and coming to respect the girl before him, loving her and protecting her as he would a younger sister. Or maybe… and his mind reeled at the impact of the blunt truth in the thought…

Maybe it had been Sasuke.

"When you're done studying me like a piece of meat, I'd like an answer, please," the woman probed, eyeing him equally weary.

Naruto took a moment to fully appreciate the view before him, seeing his grown friend through a stranger's eyes, and he noted the changes they had both undergone. He was a good head taller than the girl, who had also gained a few inches since he had last seen her. She raised a delicate eyebrow, waiting for his shielded gaze to finally meet hers..

"Who says I was trying to hide?" he replied casually, twirling a small kunai around one finger; a habit he had long since picked up to mask his insecurities and discomforts. She frowned, obviously disliking the question that had taken away her control of the situation. Her hand lingered around the pouch on her leg, fingertips innocently teasing the mouth of the weapon holster.

"Where are you from?"

"Around." He waved a hand around dismissively, but did not elaborate, a small smirk tugging on his lips as she slowly lost her temper. Around her, he had always learned to keep his cool. As cool as one can be in the heat of the afternoon in a stuffy black cloak and air restricting mask, anyway.

"We're on the outskirts of the mist village, is this your home?" Even as she said it, his eyes caught the subtle tensing in her muscles, and the twitch of her fingers towards the pouch on her thigh. What had happened between the two countries since he left? Apparently nothing good.

"Sure. Might as well be." Naruto raised his hands again as the kunoichi dove a hand into the pouch, eyeing him wearily. "But I assure you, so long as you don't attack me, I won't go through the bother of hurting you. Deal?" Though his eyes danced behind the stolen feline ANBU mask, his heart squeezed slightly. This girl before him was no longer the young and innocent teammate who cowered from a fight. She looked like, and with all likelihood, was, ready to kill him on the spot if he proved dangerous. And probably even if he didn't.

Sakura glared daggers at him as if reading his thoughts, not removing her hand, now curled around two metallic weapons.

"You wear the Leaf head protector, and yet you're from the Mist Village?"

He winced inwardly, subconsciously maneuvering the arm he had looped his old headband around behind his back. It had possessed too many close and dear memories to discard with his vibrant orange clothing.

"I…travel."

"You're a spy," she accused, tossing the blades at him. Her brows knit together as he easily sidestepped, sweeping an arm out gracefully to catch the tip of one of her weapons between two fingers.

"I think," Naruto replied, voice laughing as he threw the kunai back to land at her feet, "I would make a better assassin than a spy, don't you agree?"

"You won't get away," she growled back, lunging at him, kunai raised. He dodged, and the girl ran past him until she realized she hadn't connected the blade to his skin.

"Well now, that was fun," he said dryly. A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek, paused at his jaw line, then stormed down his neck as she smiled sweetly at him. Smiled? She wasn't supposed to be the one smiling…

"Oh, but that wasn't what I was aiming for."

Naruto realized, perhaps too late, that what she held in her delicate fingers were strands of chakra threads, gleaming menacingly in the sunlight. He followed their shining lines with his eyes with growing unease across the distance between the two, and then, he understood.

"Shit!"

Sakura tugged the thread, peering intently at the teen as the thin wires snapped through the clasp that held the ANBU mask to the boy's face.

"Fucking shit!" Naruto spun around, trying to hide his face in the depths of the shadows his hood provided, hoping that no spikes of unruly blonde hair had become visible in the loss of his ceramic mask.

Had she seen?

"I've got you now, Mister ANBU, so turn around, nice and slow," she said smugly.

"Like hell," he muttered, forming seals with his hands in rapid motions. He had to get out of here. He felt so unprotected without his mask. If she knew, which she obviously didn't quite yet, he wasn't sure if he could handle it. Not after what he had done to them all. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and then without a warning of any kind, was spun around by the girl with unwomanly strength, having time only to throw an arm over the lower half of his face, nose buried in the crook the limb. When exposed, which half were you supposed to cover? The loose sleeve of the garment drooped low over the boy's chin, and for a moment, he met her eyes, radiant blue with jade green.

"Hidden Leaf Concealing Technique!"

A roaring mass of leaves blew in, and Sakura shielded her eyes from the swirling hurricane of particles.

As they died down again, she dropped her arm from her eyes, squinting through the dust it had aroused from the ground.

He was gone.

And he had taken his mask.

Sakura put her head in her cupped hands, feeling rather faint and weak as she slowly massaging the tension from her face while mulling over the other man's presence. His face, what she had seen in that brief moment was just too familiar. It was uncanny and eerie.

There was only one person in the world she knew of with eyes that shade of pure ocean blue. But Naruto…

…was dead.

.o.

"Dammit, Kyuubi, that was too close!" Naruto picked up another rock, hurling it at that stone wall of his cave, and watching as it shattered into millions of smaller pieces.

"You idiot. Do you really think it was my fault?"

Naruto's eyes flashed a dangerous red, and he scooped up another pebble, cursing as it ricocheted, a fragment slicing his cheek. But it was his own fault. There was nothing that he could pin blame on Kyuubi for this time. Not even for being alone.

From crimson to purple hues, Naruto's eyes raked the floor of the barren cave, his shelter and home for the past four years, landing on the weak ceramic mask, silently debating whether or not to dash it too against the stone.

"I hate you, demon," he muttered tiredly, slumping to the floor in disgust. "I really do."

"And I to you, Kit." But there was no malice, no anger, no hatred. Just understanding, and a sorrow that ran deeper than blood.

"I want to see them all again, Kyuubi," Naruto confessed, now staring at the scarred wall he had vented his fury on only moments ago. "I don't want to be alone…"

"Then don't be, you whiner. Nobody forced you to leave."

For a moment, his heart fluttered with hope at the neutral words. Was there really a way that he could…? But-

"That's stupid. I'm dead to them, remember?" he snapped crossly. "They can't know I'm alive, and I don't exactly blend in with the crowd, if you know what I mean. I don't figure I'd have a huge welcoming party either; not after what I did."

Naruto let the bitterness of his situation consume him, wavering in between moods of depression and fits of anger. He had no right, no right at all to feel sorry for himself. He would be the very last to forgive his sins, and he doubted the village had even started entertaining the idea yet.

"Then tomorrow, let them die. I couldn't care less." Naruto's head shot up, though there was nothing physical he could rest his stunned gaze on.

"What, what do you mean by that, fox?" he growled numbly, fleetingly accommodating the thought that the statement was the monster's sick idea of some twisted joke, and then just as swiftly recalling that the Kyuubi did not joke. Part of him wished he hadn't heard the demon correctly, that there had been some miscommunication between the two, but then, there was never mistaking words sent through the parapsychological connection the two shared. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Don't tell me you haven't already felt it," the demon rumbled. Naruto winced.

He had. And he knew.

"Don't tell me you can't already smell the death in the air, and feel the bloodlust pouring from both sides."

He could, and louder than words it rang through the peaceful meadow, this thirst for blood. There would be a battle here by dawn, he knew, and the arriving Mist nin would slaughter those of the Leaf before they knew what was on them. The Leaf nin were loyal, and they were strong, but the Mist were an inexhaustible and overpowering force. And Konoha's best would not stand a chance.

Naruto felt torn. Trapped between the desire to help his friends survive what was slated to be mass murder, and then, maintaining the illusion of his improper death.

On the battlefield, anything could happen. And if worst came to worst, there would be no more pretending. What would they think, his irretrievable friends, as they unmasked him after the battle, after the body count was up one more than they'd dispatched? What would happen when they found out it was him? But in his heart, imperative pathways and choices aside, Naruto knew what he would ultimately choose. And he hated himself for it. For his inability to keep a resolve he had signed with blood.

"Fine, I'll go," he snapped back irritably, though secretly relieved. Oh, it felt good, this chance to see them, just one more time. "For reconnaissance only. But," he growled at the leering beast, "I cannot reveal who I am, you got that, fox?"

"As you say, Kit."

But they both knew the words were more for Naruto's sake than for the fiery demon within him.

"After this, there's no going back on my past, no matter what," he said, completely unfolding his head protector until it was nothing more than a large square of cloth in his hands. Clumsily, for he'd never worn it in this fashion before, Naruto slipped the blue fabric over his hair as a bandana, completely obscuring his telltale blonde locks. The fabric was cool against his heated skin, and he savored the feeling for a moment before verbally continuing. "We go, deliver the damn message, and get the hell out of Dodge. After this, It's all over, Kyuubi. All over."

He felt the beast inside of him smirk, nodding slightly.

"If you wish it, Kit, then so be it."

...
A/N
...
Hey! I hope you like this so far... though I know it's a bit fast paced. If enough people like this (cough cough -reviews- cough cough) I'd be happy to make the other chapters longer and, well, more detailed. Those of you wondering about Nothing to Lose, I WILL update it someday, have no fear! Just not anytime soon, sorry. :-( On the other hand, 100 reviews as of yesterday! Thank you all so much! Anyway, hope you like this, and please review!