Title: The Fire Sermon

Pairings: Deidara/Naruto, Naruto/Sakura, Naruto/?

Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. Fic prompt belongs to Letta, who had no idea what she was in for, not at all.

Warnings: Weirdness, character death, pretentious writing, what happens when Mai lets her mind run away with her, etc.


The Fire Sermon

-x-

I have heard the mermaids singing each to each

I do not think that they will sing to me

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

-x-

I.

This sea-green tale tells of a man who, on a downward and inward spiral, has an encounter with the king of crows, in a kingdom by the sea.

-x-

Just over two months ago and the little coastal town would have been brimming with noisy tourists, drawn to the sea for a bit of water and salt-laced maritime air to improve their health, sunburning their complexion sienna. But now swimming season is ended, and the scenic beaches are bleached monochrome under an uneventful grey sky, waves crashing despondently against black rocks like skeletons of wrecks. The town perches precariously against the sea; the rocky beach at the bottom separates land and the vast expanse of grey water. Spirits ride on the combed heads of swaying waves. When you close your eyes at night, you can hear the mermaids sing.

Traveling is a matter of days, two if by land, one if by sea, and the first time Naruto comes on foot, arriving just before silver dusk. Later, he will suppose he might have been unready. As it is, the sweeping symphony of wave and wind provokes from deep within him a spiritual shudder. The unearthly lilt of mermaid song echoes in his skull. This, he knows, is a place beyond life, where the living has no business tarrying. It is not a question of intent. The insular effect of the sea has a way of spilling into the human mind at this proximity. Even the night is full of it.

-x-

Letters still find their way to him. He's holed up in one of those sunbaked colonial lodges, all clean sheets soft fluffy pillows glimmering sea-mosaics on the floor, dead empty at this time of year save for old people and consumptive children, and the letters still find him.

Sakura's brave the journey dressed in coats of stationary pink, smelling of plum blossom, slightly salt-tainted by the time they arrive, made sheepish by sea-corruption. He reads them aloud to himself in his room like he might be comforted by the sound of his own voice reading meaningless words. Her letters are long and considerate, full of starkly irrelevant details of a humdrum life that she thinks makes up for their mutual lack of courage. I am adjusting beautifully to my new job, she writes, and the reconstruction is going swimmingly. Perky adverbs belie her true feelings, god only knows what she wants. Once in a while – very rarely – she chances the occasional sincere questions about his well-being, the vague purpose and indefinite length of his trip, etc. He doesn't reply, and her tone becomes hurt and accordingly angrier with each unanswered letter. It's not like he's the only one at fault here. She knows perfectly well where he is, and may come to see him anytime she likes. She doesn't. It's not his fault.

At times he wonders what the hell he's doing here. Late at night, lying awake listening to the sea blowing through the curtains and clutching at the empty hole in his guts, or during one of his seaside pilgrimages, covering the waterfront with the weight of memories. Soul-searching is not the object – these days, his head is quieter than he cares to admit. No, it is something more physical, it is the abdominal emptiness, the baby gap marking the spot where the tumor at the heart of his life has been removed. It aches and pulsates with a phantom pain, and it's ridiculous. You'd think he'd be glad to be rid of his lifelong curse. Instead, he's waiting for the scars.

No, it is not even that. It's just – it is only in this way that he understands Sakura, understands a little bit of what she might be going through. He can get perspective because, just as she is trying, he, too, is only doing the best he can. He's always known, with a sort of ingrained, bone-deep confidence that borders on cockiness, that he would be one of those left standing when all is said and done. The curse is lifted. The problem now is coping with being the one left behind.

So he walks beaches. And reads letters.

Others write. Tsunade's are particularly difficult to get through. She's the only one who still has a right to be self-righteous, and makes sure he remembers this every chance she gets. Her adverbs are mostly of the emphatic, verbally acerbic variety. Her anger, even when conveyed via long-distance correspondence, smashes against him like a furious storm, such that he has to fight not to succumb under the weight of his mounting guilt. His friends write as well, but he ignores those letters: they just make his head hurt, trying to wrap his mind around the conspicuous absences, the game of whose-name-should-be-here-but-isn't. Frankly, he wishes people would be more like Kakashi. The man's only written once and he didn't even bother asking after his health, just sent him his official on-leave notice and twenty hundred ruan in cash. It's the kind of gesture that speaks volume. His sensei would be one to get avoidance philosophy.

The days stretch into weeks, pretty soon it'll be months, but it's another day and still he's here, still doesn't know, doesn't have any answer. With his eyes closed and ears pressed against the glass of the window on another sea-filled night, he listens to the mermaids singing.

There is nothing for you here.

But still he stays, and wears down the floor of his hotel room, reading aloud to himself as his grasp on the situation slips between the names and adverbs of the semantic stream.

"You're pathetic, Uzumaki," he tells himself. "This is how people go crazy. First they start talking to themselves and before you know it, they're going AWOL from their villages and scaring old ladies on the streets in idyllic seaside towns. Get a fucking grip."

He used to be happy, that much he remembers, he used to have dreams, and aspirations. He used to believe in himself, and in his growing strength, and the magical power of getting whatever he wants however steep the odds. Now he walks beaches and reads letters. This is not rock bottom. This is breaking through rock bottom and hitting certifiable hell.

Then again, he also used to vehemently believe that, when it's all said and done, he wouldn't be the only one left standing there.

Things change.

-x-

It's halfway into the fifth week – a dull, sullen day, the wind roaring off the water with a dark fury that resonates with the big sky full of layered clouds, all variations of grey. They are thick and unmoving far up the stratosphere, black and angry in patches casting dim shadows on the beach, thin and wispy-ash grey and scudding quickly past. The sky always seems larger when you are by the sea, as if the reflection of all that grey on the roiling water only magnifies it. It has already rained that morning, pock-marking the sand underfoot. It will rain again, before long.

Naruto shoves his hands into his pockets and turns his gaze away from the angry sea. He has been out walking for hours, squandering most of the morning up and down this same seemingly endless stretch of beach, freezing to the bones. A lethargy has settled over him, a little grey hopelessness like the silvery mist at hangs over the water at the edge of the horizon. The dark melody of the mermaid song creeps softly across his skin, molding goosebumps. Curling his arms about his torso in an effort to preserve body heat, he arrives at the lip of sand that covers the bit of rocky coast down to the water, and carefully observes his newest discovery.

At one end of the beach, the rock wall seems to have been split open by some ancient plutonic force, forming a small cove at the base, sharply angled at the far end. Beyond the reach of the sea even at high tide, a series of rockslides has formed an enormous pile of boulders, a natural "chimney" of sorts. A passage, high enough for a man to pass, burrows deep into the mass of rocks. Through the narrow opening, the fey darkness calls to him, a summons that drowns out the dark song of the sea-girls.

He leaves behind the seething water.

The sandy corridor takes him deep into the heart of the structure, half-lit by sunlight filtering through the gaps between the stone. From this main path, several narrower passages stem off in various directions. No light seems to penetrate these corners of the cave, and darkness reigns in impunity, insidious as the biting cold from the outside air. He makes a mental note to explore each of these detours up close in due time, but does not turn from the main path. A pressing curiosity is egging him on, urging with a single-minded insistency of terrifying potency. Almost unconsciously, his heart has started beating out a heavy rhythm. In his mind a new song has come, the music of the yet-unknown, a secret, seductive melody that buries beneath the faint mermaid song, still shrilling plaintively.

Light ahead.

A gasp passes between his chapped lips.

At the very end of the cave, the corridor opens up into a spacious, high-ceilinged chamber. Half of the floor space is occupied by an enormous stone kiln of rather rudimentary design. An honest to goodness kiln, complete with a deep hearth, a blazing fire, and a tall conduit chute leading up into the ceiling of the chamber and presumably outside, which seems quite superfluous as the fire itself appears to emit no smoke.

And the fire…

What a fire. It seems to feed on nothing at all – neither wood nor coal – growing straight out of the base of the hearth, the self-efficient flame-tongues licking eagerly at their stone confines. The heat it generates is vivacious, lashing at Naruto's cold wind-chafed skin in playful waves. The chamber is filled with a pleasant warmth which curiously enough promptly halts at the threshold, so that no other part of the cave reaps the benefit. The sweeping shadows of flamelight dance hypnotically on the walls. This fire – the Fire – it is a being with its own emotion, a thing apart. The song in his head is amplifying (the mermaid call now no more than an inaudible whisper) until it has gained the august intensity of the Fire itself, and becomes The Song of the Fire. The Fire Sermon. So lovely, so powerful – it is the melody of promise and redemption, a guarantee of security, of absolution, of the future. As if a dark cloud has been lifted from his mind, everything is suddenly illuminated in a moment of blinding, beautiful, terrifying clarity and he sees --

He staggers forward blindly, hands outstretched, reaching desperately for that warm lucence. But before his trembling fingers can grab his last chance at salvation, he is struck a powerful blow on the back of the neck, and goes down in a swirl of dust and darkness.

-x-

"Wake up."

Breath on his skin. He creases open his eyes, tastes a mouthful of grit and sand. He tries to raise his head, and something hard – a heel – slams across his nape, forcing his down again, sending little flowers of pain blossoming on the back of his eyelids.

"Don't move until I tell you."

Out of the corner of his eyes, he can make out, with some difficulty, the situational change he has undergone while unconscious. He is no longer in the stone chamber with the large hearth (and the fire, the warm and glorious fire, was that real or just imagined?). This room is cold and drafty, the walls pigeonholed, so porous that the milky light of the dying day streams in generously, narrow, dusty beams that illuminate simultaneously everything and nothing at all.

Lastly, he remembers he is not alone.

"Fidgety, aren't you?" the disembodied voice remarks. There is a lightness to it, some flighty quality that smacks of air and open planes. In this enclosed space, it rends the stifling dusty silence like an irresponsible gust of wind. It is deceiving. It is familiar.

"Alright. You can get up, but if you try anything, I'll blow your brain to shreds. I suggest you don't. I don't want to have cerebral juice and bits splattered all over my works."

Slowly, he pushes himself up on his arms, both confused and a little angry at having been caught off-guard. There is a squish of cloth to his right; he turns in its direction, and a sea of black and red, red and black swirls before his eyes. He looks up, up, and into a single icy blue eye, wide and searching. In the darkness, it seems to glow.

"Long time, no see. Jinchuuriki."

He startles, scoots away a little instinctively. The eye crinkles slightly, amused. The face that frames it is a strange one – but only in the sense that it is odd, and not that its features are unknown – and very wrong. Something about the set of the mouth is too broad, the cheeks too pale, the face too blandly androgynous. Naruto takes in the shock of stringy, winter-wheat hair that cascades over one side of the man's face, behind which something hums with electrical menace, a cold, joyless sound, and moves back still further.

"Never thought I'd see you here," the man laughs, and his laughter rustles like silk. "What a letdown. You're the loud jinchuuriki, aren't you? The little leaf. Why, the last time I saw you, there was a war, there were mythical monsters, and men were scheming world domination…"

"And that didn't work out too well for you, did it," he spits, snarling. "Akatsuki."

"Now, now," the former Stone shinobi – the one that got away, his mind supplies – placates mockingly. "You know better than to be calling me that. There is no Akatsuki anymore. I just wear the cloak."

"Then what am I supposed to call you?"

A sliver of a smile, sharp enough to bleed on. "Deidara will do."

"That speech impediment thing of yours is very annoying," he remarks.

"Well so is yours, dattebayo," says Deidara sarcastically. "Anyhow, jinchuuriki, I do believe you have barged uninvited into my workshop."

"Workshop?"

"Take a look around."

He does. That voice seems to have hypnotic power. He looks, and suddenly feels as though his heart has been pierced by pins of ice. The shadow of the cave shades inexplicably into eyes, tiny, blank eyes full of whites, eyes set in small, narrow, beaky faces of birds. White crows: lean, identical albino creatures that glare at him sinisterly from the heights of makeshift shelves. He has a moment of stupid, irrational fear that the ranks of uniform birds would rupture and attack in a fierce swoop, until the light adjusts and he realizes they are made of clay.

"Yes," Deidara is saying brightly. "In this kingdom by the sea, the last rest stop before the end of the world, you have stumbled upon the last true artist. I am the sovereign of flightless birds -- " the king of crows " -- or at least they seem that way now, don't they?"

"What are you talking about?" More than anything – the darkness, the strange creations, the appearance of a former enemy – it is Deidara's odd behavior that sets off the alarm bells in his head. He remembers his handful of encounters with the Stone shinobi, snatches of recollection in a jumble of much bigger, more consuming events, and recalls only that the man has a penchant for creating explosions (and shouldn't he be afraid of that, of sudden, messy death at least?). And it's not that he's ever considered any member of the once fearsome Akatsuki sane in any way – even so, something about the current situation seems wholly, utterly wrong.

"I am talking about you, jinchuuriki. You, who must be the loneliest man in the world, to have been desperate enough to seek out this shithole."

And, yet again, he can't be sure if that non sequitur is plain old ribbing, or a watered-down extension of the earlier crazy talk. Ever optimistic, he opts for the former. "Don't you know better than to be calling me jinchuuriki? Since it was one of you that did the handy work."

"Is that the reason, I wonder," Deidara says thoughtfully, sweeping to the other end of the room. In the gloom, his long frayed cloak and stooping posture really do give him the semblance of some gaunt bird of prey. "You're not used to living for one, not used to listening for the voices in your own head for a change. You miss the company. So you felt you needed to get away."

He opens his mouth, and shuts it quickly. There are parts, percents of him that concede to the unrealized half-truth in those words – it is the parts of him that are terrified, that quake on moonless nights when the mermaids begin to sing. Why does he pretend that those millionth-part percents don't exist, no matter how infinitesimal they may be?

Quite possibly, it is because he does not want to believe that, all along, a certain degree of his existence, a certain indispensable core, is defined by his lifelong curse, the Kyuubi.

"My name is Uzumaki Naruto," he says instead. They have, after all, never formally met.

"Charmed."

"You did not kill me," he says, standing up. Deidara makes no move to stop him. In the story, too, the king of crows is ever deceitful. "Why? Last I heard, there is a huge prize on your head."

"Just like the uncouth layman to ask questions that can do him absolutely no good," tuts the blond man disapprovingly. "If you must know, there has always been a huge prize on my head. As I see no hitai-ate on your forehead, I assumed your loyalties were temporarily… elsewhere."

"Just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Please," Deidara says dismissively. "Think about it. This region has a population of under two hundred in the winter. We two are the only shinobi for three counties around. Do you really think the concerns of your ninja countries hold any weight here?"

There, too, is truth in that.

"Now I wish you to leave," the blonde continues blithely. "I have much work to do, and not an infinitude of time. The kiln will not wait."

"The kiln," Naruto repeats to himself. Then something hits him. "The kiln! That chamber with the stone hearth! I didn't just imagine it!"

Deidara stares at him quizzically. "Of course you didn't. Where do you suppose I intend to fire my statues?"

"But that fire back there," he persists. "That could not have been any normal flame."

Something like a dark thought flickers across Deidara's one visible eye (the other, Naruto notes, is no more than a metallic glimmer shrouded in darkness). "You mean the Fire."

It's almost as if he could hear the capitalized word. "Yes."

"Interesting," mumbles Deidara. "The Fire is my creation. It will be the final trial through which my works must go before sublimation. The test of truth, you might say."

"But -- " but he bites his lips and says nothing. His silence is helpless.

"The Fire must burn for forty-nine days." Deidara's gaze has turned dreamy, and he speaks with a sort of trancelike breathlessness. It is an absence of weight that sinks into Naruto's heart like a heavy stone. "On the last day, I will fire the birds, and then… something incredible will happen." Thoughtfully, "I rather think you will make… that is you might…" Suddenly, it fades. Crisply, "But you will not be here to see that. It is almost a shame, but you must leave immediately."

"Wait -- " he startles, stumbling over his tongue.

"No," says Deidara, though it looks more like he's talking to himself. "No, definitely not. You must leave. There is no other way… if only… I could… but no." Unmistakable finality.

"You will make me?" he says defiantly, a last-ditch effort.

"Why not?" counters Deidara, suddenly lucid. "I am the one with two hundred kilos of potentially explosive clay at my disposal. I don't suppose you care to argue."

He doesn't reply, and is quickly hustled out.

At the entrance of the cave, he spins suddenly on his heels and fixes Deidara with an earnest look. "Just out of curiosity, I'd like to know one thing. Is that okay?"

"Fine," says the blond man, sighing in exasperation. "Just the one question."

"How many days has it been?"

Deidara seems taken aback. There is a discernible pause. He waits, almost holding his breath.

The answer, when it finally arrives, is so quietly spoken it is almost inaudible. "Seven."

-x-

"Is it a religious thing?"

He's back again the next day, and this time he finds Deidara sitting just inside the entrance of the cave (the Chimney, he dubs it), looking eastward over the sea and rolling clay at a blurring speed. The horizon is obscured by layers of black cloud swelling ever higher into the enormous sky. The wind is already strong and sniping as the light fades.

"Is this fun for you, being a nosy moron?" the sculptor grouches, mechanical eye clicking menacingly with the motions of his dexterous hands. "Do you not at all comprehend the meaning of 'just one question'? Aren't you afraid I might blow you up?"

"It is a religious thing, right?" Naruto presses on boldly, feigning deafness. He's slept on it, and decided it cannot wait. "Because I've been asking around. Forty-nine days comprise a complete initial mourning cycle in the Buddhist tradition. That's what this is about, isn't it?"

"Disregarding the fact that the only religion I practice is that of true arts," Deidara replies tartly, "I'm not the mourning type. Besides, there has only ever been one man of faith in the Akatsuki, and we both know what happened to him."

"You're not an Akatsuki man anymore, remember?"

Deidara nods. Every muscle in his body seems to denote rising agitation. "I just wear the cloak."

There is a short pause, during which the mournful howling of the wind sweeps the desolate beach. Naruto shuffles back and forth on the balls of his feet, eyes glued to his feet as though he'd suddenly found his beach-bum sandals highly engrossing.

"So, about…"

"Oh to hell with it," Deidara exclaims suddenly, rolling his eyes. "Here."

With that, he shoves a sizeable hunk of wet clay into Naruto's hand and goes back to his work without a word. From between his fingers, the rudimentary form of a bird is coming into shape.

Naruto stares open-mouthed at the moist clay in his hand. "What the hell is this? Why?"

"That's a chunk of very expensive Hikadari white clay," answers Deidara matter-of-factly without taking his eye off his own piece of pricey sculpting material. "Why what? Why is it clay? Are we getting existential today? Fine! This is the end of the Earth, I am the last true artist, and you are the loneliest man in the world, or maybe just the most foolhardy, and we are making clay birds. Now are you going to let me teach you how, or are you just going to stand there and ask more idiotic questions?"

Hot white sparks of anger flare suddenly, making him dig his fingers roughly into the wad of clay, leaving half-moon tracks in its surface and bits of clay under his nails. "Why did you give me the fucking clay, asshole."

The blond man looks up then, and regards Naruto with his full, ineffable attention. The intensity radiating from that one bright, untrustworthy eye flays him to the bone. The smile, grim and small, does not reach it.

"Oh, I think you know."

And the funny thing is… he actually has to think for a moment about that. He stares sullenly at the ground, pondering, while Deidara looks on in avid expectation, as if the man has not for all the world just issued the most inane of nonsensical requests.

"There's this friend I have. Had. His name was -- it doesn't matter. He was a friend of mine, and he'd… gone away, and I sort of made this promise to this girl that I'd bring him back. Something to that effect."

"And did you?" asks Deidara.

"Yes. Sort of. I got him to agree to it, anyway, and he is – was – a stubborn bastard too. Hard-headed fucker. I think it ran in his family or something, at least from what I can tell of it."

"I think I might have some idea," Deidara says meaningfully. The implied grin is in his eye.

"Right. So like I said, I got him to come back, but he wouldn't do it until he'd done this one thing. And wouldn't you know it -- " and his voice is not breaking, it's not. "Wouldn't you know it, he went and got himself killed along the way. And then there I was, and I had to go tell Sa-- the girl about it, and you just know she was all understanding and supportive and optimistic about it. She might as well have ripped my balls off and put them on display."

He laughs, and the laugh is shaky, as shaky as the world through blurred eyes, as shaky as anything else he might be capable of right now. "But the best part has got to be this: guess who the bastard went and left all his worldly possessions to? I mean, he was on the fucking lam, when the hell did he find the time to pen a will, you know? So anyway, I ended up with it all, his money, his stuff, even a couple cozy little pieces of real estate. What do you suppose he thought I ought to do with them? You know the first time I went to the bank, and saw those bags of cash with the little family seal on 'em? I almost left them sitting there on the fucking counter."

He thinks Deidara might be nodding, but he can't be sure. He's keeping his gaze straight ahead, staring at the roiling black water, and all the while knowing an awful something is creeping back into his heart, a floundering feeling like flightlessness.

The petrels, the porpoises, and he, lost.

"That's how I'm even able to afford living here. I mean, I had some money saved up, but it runs through your fingers when you take an indefinite vacation. I've never been this well-off in my life. To top it off, the damn fox is gone. That's all I ever wanted, just the one thing, and now it's here and I'm Scots free. Free as a bird, high as a kite. You'd think – you'd think I'd be happy."

"I don't, actually," Deidara says quietly.

"What?"

"I don't think you're obligated to be happy in any way," intones the blonde. "Nor do I think that really answers anything."

"You're right. That's just my big tragedy, which you aren't even listening to. Fine. The real reason I'm here…"

He spins around to meet Deidara's expectant gaze. "The real reason I'm here is because -- " stops and points a shaky finger at the deceptive darkness beyond the opening of the Chimney.

"Because of that."

"The Fire," supplies Deidara.

"Right," he nods. "And that." Now pointing to the sea.

The wind chooses that moment to hush into a low murmur, leaving the cove wide open to the sickly melody of the mermaids. Without fail, the sound sends his cold skin prickling. "It keeps me up at night. I came here to find… peace of mind? And I'm not getting any. I can't close my eyes for a second without hearing it, like it's already stuck in my skull. But when I'm here…"

"When you're close to the Fire, you can't hear it," continues Deidara. In this moment, his melodious voice sounds soft and remote, as though coming from some deep, distant place where things make sense and questions find answers. "The Fire sings louder and stronger, and its music drowns out everything else."

"What is it like for you?" he asks suddenly, amazed by the raspy, breathless quality his own voice has taken on. "Is it beautiful, is it as glorious… Does it make you want to forget? Does it?"

Instead of answering, the other man favors him with another half-closed smile, so thin and heavily guarded that some part of him urges him to run from it, run now, while the running is still good. He hesitates for a moment, and then, with a sense of newfound resolution, turns a deaf ear to the panicked voice of reason and takes a few steps forward, the piece of mangled clay held out in his outstretched hand.

-x-

It's hours later when he finally drags himself back to the lodge, damp to the skin and sneezing but reeling from a strange grim satisfaction for which he can find no explanation. There are specks of dried silt splattered all over his clothes and face, and his hair reeks of seawater.

"My word, where did all this muck come from?" clucks his landlady, taking in his curmudgeon-like disarray with barely veiled shock. "What on earth have you been getting up to?"

"Nothing," he laughs, swinging his arms in wide, elated arcs. The Fire Sermon is soaring majestically in his head. "Nothing at all. Looks like we're gonna have a bad night, doesn't it?"

The old woman nods sagely, parting a tartan curtain to look out the window at the gathering tempest, a crease beginning to split her brow. "Rain and wind, just the way the petrels like it."

"Excellent!" he shouts, and bounces away to his room, still chuckling to himself. The slightly alarmed voice of the baffled woman follows him to the door, but he pays it no mind, thinking instead of the way Deidara's long white fingers curve and straighten in synchronism, pleading the yielding clay into the sharp, fragile form of crows. Three new letters lie on his desk, unopened. He doesn't spare them a glance. It's the eighth day.

That night, he sleeps for the first time without the shrilly cries of sea-girls in his ears.

-x-

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