A/N: WARNING! Heavy angst/darkfic alert. This is a very depressing piece, set immediately after the Kyuubi attack. Enjoy your angst for the day.

I do not own Naruto or the characters.


He could not breathe.

It was only two days past. The fires were still raging. From where he lay, he could hear the river still flooding, its roar so close to that of the flames. Small earth tremors and sinkholes were still opening up the ground. Smoke darkened the sky outside with a funeral pall. The sunshine filtered through grey and washed out, but mostly lit only the billows of smoke and the fine haze of ash still in the air.

He could not breathe.

The acrid smoke and bitter ashes seemed to coat his throat, wrung coughs out of him until he was sore all over from the effort of trying to expel the fine particles. He lay limp, exhausted on the futon, all his energy concentrated on breathing, just breathing.

He could not breathe.

His aunt hovered anxiously, torn between her new charge and her old ones. The nephew or the bees. He knew the ash and smoke were killing her bees. It seemed just as likely to kill him.

He could not breathe.

He coughed and coughed and coughed until he passed out and came to coughing again. He could not stop. His throat was raw and beginning to taste like blood and he ached all over and he was so tired. So tired.

He could not breathe.

She took him to the hospital. They shook their heads and gestured in a way that seemed resigned. So many broken, bleeding, dying, choking...he was just one of many. He was unhurt, whole, suffering only from the ash and smoke. They set him in a corner on a pallet with oxygen. It helped, but only a little. There was only so much they could do. And they could only keep him for so long. He was unhurt. After a day, they sent him home.

He could not breathe.

They had all been given masks to wear, thick things that tried to keep out the smoke and the ash. The forest was still burning, the ash-fields within the town still hot. The river roared on, swollen and frothing. The earth still trembled, but the sinkholes had stopped. The ash was settling, a fine mist, and it got everywhere. There was no escaping it or the smoke.

He could not breathe.

He could not stand to lie down any more. He could barely stand, he could not breathe, but he could not lie down and passively choke any more. His aunt did not try to stop him. She let him out. And out he went.

He could not breathe.

It was worse out here. Smoke flew by in thick billows, pierced briefly by the sunlight. It stung his eyes with the acrid tang. Ash blew in a fine mist, stinging his eyes and burrowing against his flesh. He could hardly stand, and staggered down the street like a blind beggar walking. Others passed him, coated with the grey ash, masked like so many sickly ghosts.

He could not breathe.

He sagged against a pole still standing and coughed until he was dizzy. He was not sure if the ghosts he saw were flesh or ash as they passed. But one had stopped still, in a gleaming of sunlight, and was watching with dark dark eyes that flashed blue in that flicker of light. The smoke closed in again, before he could catch at the name that matched those eyes.

He could not breathe.

Hands braced his shoulders, pulled him upright. "You shouldn't be out here." The voice was hoarse, gritty with ash and smoke. The eyes above the mask were red and bloodshot and had dark circles beneath them, but they were ultramarine and worried. "You'll kill yourself out here."

He could not breathe.

"U...umino," he choked out. His classmate hefted him straighter, braced him between the pole and strong brown hands. "Y..you..." Pain streaked his throat as he tried to talk.

He could not breathe.

"You're killing yourself, Gekkou," answered the other in a harsh whisper. "Why are you out here?"

He could not breathe.

"C...can...can't st...st...stay...in," he managed, gasping. It was all he could do. He leaned weakly against the pole and his classmate.

He could not breathe.

His classmate nodded, finally, and ash sifted from his hair. "...I see. Well then you can...you can come with me. You can help." He pulled him away from the pole, bucked a shoulder beneath his to help. "Call me Iruka, please."

He could not breathe.

But he had to talk. " 'K-kay. 'M H...ha...Haya...Hayate." He coughed, and it tasted like blood and mucus and bitter ashes. He leaned onto Iruka's shoulder and against the sturdy boy. He tried to breathe beyond the mask and ash and smoke coating his throat.

He could not breathe.

Iruka talked as he walked, steering them through the ash-coated streets. The air was hot and gritty and reeked of burning things. He tried to control his coughing so he could hear Iruka's voice, worn whisper-thin and harsh. "Some of the ash-fields are cool enough. They let people go out on them and search. I shouldn't take you. I really shouldn't. It'll probably kill you. I go and I look...we all look. Sometimes you can find dog-tags or hitai-ate plates. Don't often find bones or anything. It's mostly ash. I shouldn't take you. It's ten times worse digging up the ash than it is walking the streets."

He could not breathe.

"I...I...c..can hel...help," he hissed, getting his legs a little more firmly under him.

He could not breathe.

"Yeah, we all help, because it's all we can do, y'know?" Beyond his own persistent distress, he could hear the nervous edge to Iruka's voice. The uncertainty behind the tone. "I really shouldn't take you," Iruka repeated. "We're working on what used to be Hanakimi street. You used to live there, yeah? It was by your house that the medic-nins lined up the wounded. I remember 'cause I thought it was funny I'd wind up by your house and how weird it would be if I died there."

He could not breathe.

Iruka was talking on, heedless of the lack of response. "Anyway, that's when they pulled me and a coupla other kids back when the attack came. So that's where I think..." Iruka's voice faltered. "I'm looking there. Maye we'll find something from your house, hey? That'd be crazy."

He could not breathe.

He noticed the bag tied to Iruka's waist, the sturdy ash-covered stick thrust through Iruka's belt. "I wondered if you were dead, see, 'cause I haven't met any of our classmates, and I knew your house was gone," Iruka was saying. "Look, there's the field. They got some shinobi guarding the edges where it's not safe to walk. Too hot yet, y'know? And some people have gotten burned that way. I shouldn't let you help. We're stirring up the ash and it might kill you, why did I bring you, Haya-kun?"

He could not breathe.

"D...don...don't kn...kn...know," he grated out. " 'Ruka-kun." It was the best he could manage with a throat raw and choked.

He could not breathe.

Iruka let him kneel on the ashes. Iruka thrust and prodded with his stick, turning up the ash and charred stone, chattering all the while. Behind Iruka's chatter, he could hear the flooded river still roaring. The earth quivered briefly beneath them. Iruka left the bag beside him, and Iruka would toss what he found to him. Some were bits of metal, others bits of rock and ceramic. He sorted out two sets of half-melted dog-tags and three warped hitai-ate plates before the stirred-up ash blew over him with the smoke.

He could not breathe.

He was stifling, suffocating behind the mask but it would be no better if he took it off. He doubled over with the coughing, head against his knees, eyes shut and stinging and tearing for the fine ash grit that clung to him. His throat was raw and tasted of blood and acrid smoke and bitter, bitter ash. He was spinning out into the blackness again, the taste of blood and mucus in his mouth.

He could not breathe.

Hands were drawing him upright despite the paroxysms of coughing, strong arms holding him against someone's chest, hands tilting his head back against a shoulder. "Haya-kun, breathe, please, c'mon, I shouldn't have brought you here, c'mon, breathe, breathe, oh please c'mon, Haya-kun!"

He could not breathe.

The coughing petered out, and he lay dazed against Iruka's shoulder, staring up at the smoke-covered sky and the shell of Iruka's ear and the ash-dipped-brush of Iruka's ponytail. Iruka was still talking, pleading. "Haya-kun, please breathe. Please, c'mon..."

He could not breathe.

But he had to answer. " 'Ruka-kun," he choked out, voice raw and gritty like the ash.

He could not breathe.

Iruka laughed a strange raspy laugh and held him tighter. "Oh, you scared me. I thought I'd killed you. I shouldn't have brought you here. I'm probably killing you. I shouldn't...but I need help, we all need help, and you looked at me and talked to me and I just..I just..." Iruka made a strange, choked noise.

He could not breathe.

He reached up and closed one hand around Iruka's wrist. The other had a half-melted hitai-ate plate in it. Iruka pressed his face into his shoulder. Iruka was crying, crying hard, great whooping sobs that made him shake and shudder.

He could not breathe.

He pushed himself a little straighter, tried to wrap an arm around his crying classmate. Had he only known it, it was the first time Iruka had cried since the smoke had begun to rise that one dreadful night. All he knew was that his classmate was breaking apart like he only wished he could. Iruka cried, sobs turning higher and sharper into wails. He held onto his classmate and wished he could at least whisper words of comfort. A guard was coming towards them.

He could not breathe.

Iruka gasped in a sharper breath, tossed his head back and keened. The scream was hoarse and raw and devastated. It made his heart twist in his chest, clawed grief in furrows down his ash-coated throat. The guard stopped and looked at them, face twisted with a look too old and bitter and sad for one so young, and walked back to his post. Iruka keened again. Iruka's fingers were painfully tight around his arms, but he did not move.

He could not breathe.

He held on until Iruka was quiet, low moaning sobs that hurt his own chest. He tried not to cough, tried to let his classmate's grief wash away his own. They were both lost and hurt and scared. They had both lost parents and the idea of safety and homes in one fell, flaming swoop. There was no security any more. There was no support. There was only themselves, ash-covered and choking slowly under the smoke.

He could not breathe.

He had not cried, knew he could not cry. His throat was so clogged with bitter ash and acrid smoke and worn so raw he knew he could drown himself with the tears. And though it hurt, he did not want to die. So instead he coughed and clung and shut his eyes and listened to Iruka's tears wring him dry. Streaked with salt and ash and sweat, under the smoke, they sat together and grieved. He only wished he could cry. Instead he coughed and coughed and coughed until he could taste blood and bitter ashes in his mouth and darkness was pressing him down.

He could not breathe.


A/N: Born of a depressing day and musings on natural disasters and just general angst. I tried to get the hot, gritty feel of pervasive ash-fall in there. I hope I made you feel Hayate's sensation of suffocation and the shell-shocked misery of Iruka. The one line repitition--he could not breathe--got tiring after a while, but I liked the effect, so I kept going with it.

Please review and tell me if I did a good job or a terrible one. Thanks!