Author's Note: Edited version! Some stuff was added, some stuff was cut, and incorrect grammar was taken out and burned. I'm sure there are still mistakes, but hopefully nothing too big. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

Shadow Lands

"May I take your order?"

"If I get you as compensation, then sure," leered the customer.

"Charming," Sakura sighed.

Like she could expect any better from the residents of Nixon City. She had moved there illegally barely five months ago, on the cusp of fifteen, and had been too late in realizing that whatever opportunities she might have imagined were little more than army propaganda and government-based lies.

She hadn't even said goodbye to anyone when she had left. Not that there was anyone left so say it to. With her hair pink and lobbed off to her shoulders, people were able to overlook her still-childish face.

But it wasn't like she had really had any choice. There was no where to go, just one pile of ashes to the next, visiting the graves of relatives and neighbors, with sweepers forever at her heels. You could never trust the sweepers—they'd sell your life for fifty bucks, give you a gun and put you out on the battlefield.

The fact of the matter was; her side of the country was losing the war. The north was going to take over the entire thing in a few years, so the pressure was always rising. Child labor laws were abolished every day, now anyone over the age of ten was fair game for the army.

Sakura was very, very certain that she would not be joining. Even if it had all been a lie, she had come to Nixon for a purpose. There was a school here, even if the halls were mostly empty, and there was a way in. She just needed to get the money.

Hence putting up with losers that had nothing better to do than hit on skinny, under-aged girls.

"So, do you want a coffee or what?"

"Sure, gimme a double dose of sugar while you're at it, Su—,"

"Call me 'Sugar' and I'll get Jim," Sakura pointed at her large, male coworker, "To kick your ass. I'll be back with your coffee in a minute."

The problem with Sakura's job wasn't just the lousy pay or the vile customers. It was more the fact that this was the best she could do. She didn't have any references, and establishments were constantly shutting down because of over-taxation. Her paycheck was as dwindling as a politician's stance on the environment. She wouldn't be able to go anywhere with her current pay, she could barely afford to live in a two room apartment and feed herself.

Sighing, Sakura pushed her sweaty hair back behind her ears. Fluorescent lights combined with heating was apparently expensive, the restaurant she worked at now used heating lamps to illuminate their establishment. It gave Sakura a nasty burn on the back of her neck and made her feel like a cooked lobster.

"Here's your coffee," Sakura flashed the man a fake smile and trotted off before he could make anymore suggestive comments.

She was more than a little annoyed when he didn't even leave her a tip. Most people at least shelled out a few dollars, (she wasn't blaming them, poverty reigned supreme in the city,) but all he left were a few crumpled napkins and an indent in the booth seat.

She muttered sulkily, then marched away, refusing to clean up.

Hissing at the cold air, Sakura slid outside onto the cracked sidewalk. Walking briskly towards her home, Sakura kind of wished she had a boyfriend. It wasn't that she was lonely, exactly, just that it would have been kind of nice to have someone taller than five feet walking by your side on a dark, crime infested street.

Only, said a snide voice in her head, you could fall in love with him only to have him die, be forced into the army, cheat on you, or betray you and steal all your money.

Damned voices. To bad that they were usually right.

Sakura's shoe were wearing out. She only had one pair, and the rubber was cracking off. It looked like she was going to have to buy a new pair, along with another coat.

The wind flew down the street, tearing through her clothing and worming into her bones. She grit her teeth so they wouldn't chatter, and walked faster.

There were empty buildings with black and empty windows for eyes, smashed displays and an abundance of homeless people. Raiders frequented the area, (they were the ones smashing the windows,) and the homeless weren't just drunk bums anymore. Young children and middle aged adults had joined their ranks.

They didn't beg, they weren't stupid or hopeful enough to do so. No one had any money to give them. Sakura put her hands in her pockets to protect whatever change she had squirreled away within.

She walked past a group of sullen teens. They turned their faces to watch her, large eyes fixed on her grungy sweatshirt and peeling sneakers. They turned their backs to her, recognizing her as just another victim. The idea was slightly depressing.

There was a rag doll in the street; half mashed into the pavement. A few feet from her, people were huddled around a fire in a trashcan. Sakura checked them for knives and briefly joined them, warming her hands. They were burning the army flyers. She watched the edges of the paper curl inwards before breaking off and fluttering away—wisps of depressed ash.

She kept walking, passing dark alleys and busted street lamps. She let the smoggy light of the moon guide her, squinting through the haze so she wouldn't trip over the sidewalk.

A car, (that was rare,) sped past, loud music blaring through open windows. Raucous laughter accompanying the obnoxious base line. Sakura rolled her eyes and privately wished they crashed into a tree.

Actually, scratch that. She liked trees, and they were running short. She hoped they hit a land mine. Jerks.

The car had stopped, music turned down.

Breath quickening, Sakura slowed down, eyeing the car suspiciously. Were they raiders? Or maybe kidnappers?

She was probably overreacting. Sakura shoved her hands a little deeper in her pockets and kept going.

She would just walk past them. Wouldn't make eye contact or anything—she was just gong to walk past. Yep. Hum a happy little tune, and all that.

So of course, just as she was drawing level with the car a man got out. He wasn't even a man really, just a boy with a dirty face and a dirty knife in his hands. Sakura stepped back reflexively. Shit. Gangsters.

Gangsters weren't quite as nice as they had been back in the day. Back then, you joined a gang, did your crazy stuff, whatever. Nowadays, people shoved you up against a wall, waved pointy objects in your face and snarled that you had better join or else.

Sakura swallowed. She could deal with raiders, (run and hide,) kidnappers, (run and hide) and pressgangs, (run and hide.) She wasn't sure about gangsters though. It's hard to run from someone who's already seen you and has a car.

Sakura tried to look as unappealing a gang member as she could. The boy still walked up to her. "Hey," he said.

"Hi," Sakura said quietly, she surreptitiously shrank back from him. Her hands groping for something that she could use as a weapon.

"Hey girl, I dig the shoes," the boy leaned over her, backing her into the wall. One of Sakura's knuckles hit the freezing brick and cracked open to bleed. It was a shame he was about to slit her throat, he was rather handsome with his shaggy brown hair and angular face.

"Thanks," Sakura forced a smile, wondering how to get out of this. She was trapped and facing a larger opponent who had a weapon. Jolly good.

Kick his ass, yelled the voice in he head, what're you so afraid of?!

A lot of things, Sakura thought back, spiders being one of them, knives being another.

"What're you doing out here all alone? Why don't you come hang with my friends and I?"

"My friends and me," Sakura corrected before she could stop herself, "And I—um,"

"She's already got a friend," said an unfamiliar voice. A warm arm was suddenly around Sakura's shoulder, tugging her towards the speaker. "Thanks for the concern though."

Backing away, the tall boy frowned before snapping his switchblade close and clambering back into the car. Sakura watched him drive off, her fingers trembling from the adrenaline rush. Breathing in shakily, she turned to face her 'savior,' who, by the way, still hadn't removed their arm.

A tall blond boy was frowning after the gangster's car, catty blue eyes narrowed as they disappeared. Three dark scars stretched across each cheek, giving the illusion of whiskers.

He seemed to notice that she had been staring, for he turned back and shot her a lop-sided smile, "You alright, skittle head?"

What the hell? She wondered, before it hit her that her hair was still pink. She scowled at him, shrugging his arm off her and stalking away. "I could've handled it," she snapped over her shoulder.

He smiled ironically, "Right."

Sakura opened her mouth to make a retort, noticed that he was staring at her shaking hands and shoved them in her pockets. She turned to walk away.

She made it about ten steps before she heard it.


So—the army. The army was coming.

Around her, people were running. If you were caught now, it meant they put you on the front lines. Sakura watched a young mother swing herself and her children into a dumpster to hide. An old man was crawling through jagged shards of glass to hide in an abandoned shoe store.

In sick horror, she turned back to look at the young man.

He was still standing in the middle of the street, an angry look about him as he waited for them to find him. They were only a few blocks away, now. He turned back and frowned at her. "Go on," he said, "Get out of here."

Was he really dumb enough to face down a whole group of soldiers? Well, whatever. It wasn't any of her business. Sakura turned and started to run, the cold air burning her lungs and seizing up her legs.

But…he had saved her.

Sakura stopped again, indecision weighing her down.

What did…?

She turned back again, watching the boy. His hands were curled into fists, his back rigid as he stared down the horizon.


The sun wouldn't be up for several hours. She wondered if he could live long enough to see it.

And then she was running, running towards him—not away, like she should have been. Her fingers wrapped around his wrist and tugged. "C'mon," she yelled, "Let's go!"

His mouth opened, eyes widening. He looked shocked that someone would care enough to pull him out of the path of a train. Desperately, she yanked. "Come on."

His mouth closed, he grinned at her. "Since you asked so nicely."

And then they were running, running away from the awful sounds of guns being fired, of men yelling and woman screaming.

And the steady hymn of soulless steps, tramping in tandem.

She led him down three alleys, and then dashed up the fire escape, the rusted iron shaking under her weight. When they finally reach the third floor she slid her window open and tumbled inside, the boy following her.

She was breathing raggedly, lungs and legs burning from the air and exertion of sprinting a mile. Beside her, her companion was doing the same. She rolled over to face him, "You can stay here 'till they're gone."

He blinked up at her, blue eyes confused. "My name's Naruto," he blurted out suddenly. It was apparently very important to him. A vague suspicion stirred at the back of her mind, nagging that she'd heard it before. She shrugged it off, calling herself ridiculous.

She shrugged, "Mine's Sakura. Wait a second and I'll get you a blanket." Carefully, she levered herself up and staggered into the bathroom/storage room.

Struggling slightly, she wrestled a moth-eaten comforter from under her stack of clothes and staggered back the main room. She pulled a pillow off her cot and tossed it at Naruto. He was still sitting on the floor, looking stunned. When the pillow bounced off his head, he seemed to return to reality, fixing her with an unnerving blue stare.

Sakura fidgeted nervously, not really sure if she wanted him gone, or to stay forever. "Are you hungry?" she asked suddenly. She drifted towards her plug-in teakettle, sticking it in the outlet and filling it with water.

Naruto nodded, "Do you have any ramen?"

"Please, that's like the only thing I can afford to eat." Sakura sighed.

Naruto grinned happily, "I love ramen, especially Ichiraku's."

Sakura sighed, "I work there."

"Really? Whoa! You must be like a ramen goddess!" Naruto was staring at her with something akin to hero worship in his eyes. Sakura shrugged.

"Not really, I don't actually make it. I just play the hostess and bus tables and stuff. Deal with icky customers with worse lines."

"Like, who?" Naruto, Sakura was discovering, was pretty talkative.

"Well, there was this pervert today who kept coming up with these annoying ones. As if I'd seriously go for him."

Naruto grinned, bouncing on his heels, "Did he use the one about sugar?"

Sakura blinked, "Um, yeah. He did, why?"

"I invented that," Naruto boasted proudly.

A little disbelief flooded through her, mixed with horror. What exactly had she just let into her home? She took a breath, swelling up, "YOU WHAT?!" Sakura bellowed, hitting him over the head with an instant ramen package.

She was tired, and what's more, Naruto didn't seem like the type to be overly interested in raping, killing and pillaging. She didn't know why, really, but she felt sort of like she could trust him. She kept her pocket knife under her pillow, just in case.

Yawning, Sakura snuggled into her blankets. "Steal anything and I'll hunt you down," she sleepily mumbled at Naruto.

"Jeez, Sakura! Have a little faith in me, would ya?"

"You're a guy. Males cannot be trusted," Sakura said gravely.

"Don't automatically assume I'm male!" Naruto jokingly yelped.

The two of them fell asleep halfway through their banter.

Someone was trying to break in.

Sakura woke with a start, alarmed at the scratching noises coming from her door. Eyes wide, she fell out of her bed in alarm. Naruto was still sleeping, so the suspicion that he was perhaps stealing something was instantly banished.

Trembling, Sakura stared at her door. Was someone trying to kidnap her? Were those gangsters coming back to try again? Shakily, Sakura crawled to her feet and advanced on the door. Grasping through the dark, her fingers closed around one of her fold-out chairs. Sakura huddled behind the door and waited.

Several minutes later there was a soft click and the door swung outward. The dark silhouette of a messy haired head poked into her apartment. Sakura gripped her chair a little harder and raised it above her head.

"Naruto, are you in here—," the stranger started to whisper.

"KYAAAAAA!" Sakura screamed, swinging her chair down.

"AURGH—!" The stranger yelled before Sakura's chair connected with his head and he crumpled to the ground.

"HOLY SHIT," Yelled Naruto, sitting bolt upright in alarm and staring at Sakura like she was a mad axe murderer. Breathing hard, Sakura groped around for the light switch. When she finally found it, she and Naruto were confronted by the sight of a dark haired teenager sprawled face-down on Sakura's floor.

"Sasuke?" Naruto asked, looking confused, "What's he dong here?"

Sakura gulped down air, laying a hand over her stuttering heart. "You know this guy?!" she demanded, "What the hell was he doing!?"

"I…think he was looking for me. Holy crap, you just knocked out Sasuke." Naruto looked slightly frightened before a vicious grin split across his features. "You are so my new hero."

Sakura was starting to feel slightly guilty for attacking someone who was only trying to find his friend. Naruto, obviously, didn't seem upset that she had basically brained his buddy. On the contrary, he was rolling around on her floor laughing.

Gingerly, Sakura knelt down and rolled Sasuke over. Her stomach lurched, eyes suddenly trained on his face. There was something almost frighteningly perfect about him, too terrible to be beautiful, and somehow more dangerously alluring for it.

And she had just knocked him out. So much for good first impressions.

To make matters worse, Sasuke groaned a little. It looked like he was starting to wake up.

Breathing abnormally fast, Sakura glanced first at Naruto, then at the incriminating evidence she was holding. Sasuke was probably going to wake up in about .3 seconds, meaning she had to do something fast.

So she did the only thing she could; shoved the chair at Naruto and tried to look innocent. She had a feeling that it wasn't working, she could feel her nostrils flaring—something that always happened when she felt guilty. She moved her hand up to block it at the same time Sasuke's eyes snapped open.

His vision was unfocused, (did she give him a concussion? She hoped not. Having a coma induced person hidden in the closet would be hard to explain,) but he defiantly saw the chair because he managed to stare at both her and Naruto, (one eye pointing at her, the other at Naruto. Her concern increased.) and growl, "I'm going to kill you."

Unsteadily, Sasuke lurched to his feet, glancing between the two of them—searching for the culprit.

Sakura was still trying to look innocent, her hand clamped over her nostrils. Naruto was shaking from mirth, chair at his feet. Slowly, Sasuke's head swung around to regard her coldly. Sakura twitched; he really was intimidating, despite looking like he had walked off the cover of a magazine.

And this was with his eyes crossed.

Her nostrils were flaring like crazy, but she slowly removed her hand from her mouth and prayed to all the gods she knew that he wouldn't see her nose.

"You," Sasuke said slowly and deliberately, "Hit me with a chair."

"I, uh, totally did not."

"It wasn't Naruto, he's smart enough to have jumped out a window by now."

"You don't scare me!" Naruto scoffed.

"Shut it."

"I, uh…it was an axe murderer. They like to stalk me." Sakura lied badly.

Sasuke arched one of his eyebrows aristocratically and opened his mouth to say something else, but was cut off by Naruto who chose that moment to blurt out, "Dude. You just got owned by a girl." And he collapsed into a fit of giggles a second later.

Damn. There went her 'you-have-no-evidence' speech. She shot Naruto an evil glare to let him know that after she died, she was seriously going to haunt him for all eternity.

"What about axe murderers?" Sasuke smirked, still slightly cross-eyed. He was getting better though, meaning that she should probably start running now.

"I, um, well. You found Naruto!" Sakura said as cheerfully as she could whilst cowering slightly, "So…you can go now!" She gestured to the still open doorway. One of the neighbors chose that moment to poke their heads out from behind their door and snap, "If you don't shut up, I'll have you evacuated."

Sakura smiled apologetically, "Sorry, they'll be gone it a sec—"

Sasuke kicked the door closed in the middle of her sentence. Sakura stared open mouthed. Sure, he was pretty, but that didn't excuse him from being rude.

"…Do you want some tea or something? Because I don't have any. Or any money. So you see, it wouldn't benefit you at all to do anything to me since nobody cares and you don't have anything to gain from it."

"You hit me over the head with a chair." Sasuke pointed out, looking annoyed. She suddenly noticed how tall he was. Just standing in front of him made her feel like cowering.

Sakura's mind raced, trying to figure out what to do. Sasuke was obviously mad at her for hitting him over the head with a chair. Naruto, she supposed, might stop him from physically hurting her, or he could help Sasuke. They know that she didn't have anything valuable, and Naruto hadn't taken anything so they weren't looters or thieves.

Sakura ran a critical eye over them. Both were tall, maybe a little older than her. They were skinny, probably malnourished, but looked strong, like they'd survived a couple of fights.

And they both had large hands. The kind that looked kind of like they could wrap one around her head and squash it like a melon.

Obviously, she wasn't going to be able to talk her way out of this. Sasuke was still frowning and glaring at her, and Naruto was just watching in apparent amusement.

Taking a deep breath, Sakura curled one of her hands into a fist…

…and then ducked around Sasuke, wrenched open the door and bolted through it. Fight or flight, and all that.

She sprinted down the hall through the stairway door, whoops, nearly tripped, and then she raced down the stairs, two at a time. The iron framework cutting into her bare feet and making her wince, but she had to get away.

Sasuke was following her, though she had a decent lead on him, but his legs were longer and he could run faster. Even further back Naruto was yelling, sounding angry. "Sasuke, what the hell?! Leave her alone!"

It was hard to see, every other floor having busted the lighting, so Sakura half slipped-half ran her descent, desperately trying to escape.

Both of her palms slammed into the door at the bottom of the stairwell. Locked. Not good, definitely not good. Frantically she turned, footsteps pounding down the landing above her. Hide. Hide, where? There wasn't—just the stairs behind her and only the door.

Feverishly, Sakura pushed at the door, c'mon open! It groaned but stood firm. She let loose a cry of frustration and started rattling the knob.

No. Wait, stop. Think about this.

This was just a door. Just a stupid, dingy old door in a stupid, dingy apartment complex. This building had to be at least 50 years old, and it hadn't been repaired in all that time.

Fear and dizziness swirled through her head, making it hard to think. The footsteps were coming closer; she thought Naruto might've shouted from a few floors up, telling Sasuke, "Knock it off, dammit!"

Pain suddenly spiked up her heel, racing up her tendons. Wincing, she glanced down at her bloody heel. Stupid iron, it was probably all rusty too…she had to clean that…

Wait, iron. Sakura's hands faltered, ceasing in the jiggling of the door knob. Carefully, she examined the hinges. The hinges were on the inside of the door, no one would think to replace them. Who would want to break out, after all? The door knob was steel, probably relatively new, but the hinges were…

Rusty iron. Above her, she could hear Sasuke's heel skid as he spun around the corner.

…this was going to hurt…

Sasuke jumped the last six steps, landing in a crouch on the floor below. Straightening, he looked around warily. Where did she go…?

If she popped out with another chair, he was seriously going to be pissed off. That first time had just been a lucky shot, he hadn't been expecting it.

Fine, let her attack him. He'd smash that stupid, pretty little face in—

"AUUUUUGH!" Someone yelled from behind him.

Whirling around, he was just in time to see Sakura roll out from under the stairs and charge at him. Was she crazy? Did she not see that she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt whereas he had on metal toed boots and brass knuckled gloves?

Sasuke's hand automatically flew to the army knife in his hip pocket.

She was so close now that could see the tiny freckles on her nose, almost see the individual muscles tightening around her jaw…

And then she was shooting past him and slamming all one hundred pounds of herself into a magnificent kick at the hinges on the door.

She connected, and the frame gave way with an awful, screeching whine, before the door was ripped partially from its frame.

Sakura had fallen backwards, crying a little as she wrapped her hands around one of her feet. Grinding her teeth together, she squeezed through the triangle of opening that had been made, and crawled out into the blackness.

Sasuke stared.

Okay, so she was even dumber than he had given her credit for.

Sakura hopped painfully towards a wall, sinking down it gratefully and propping herself up against it with a sigh.

Great. Now she had no home, money, food or anything to read. Life really sucked.

And her foot really, really hurt.

Whimpering, she pulled it into her chest and rocked around it protectively. It wasn't the cuts that were bothering her. Sakura had taken enough drugs over the years and been to enough clinics to know that her immune system would be able to deal with anything nasty. What bothered her was the sheer enormity of the pain, even when she wasn't putting any pressure on it.

It might've had to do with how one of the bones had made a new lump under her skin. Apparently, she had dislodged it or broken it or something.

That was bad. That was very, very bad, since not only did it hurt like hell, but if she didn't get it fixed, she wouldn't be able to run. Running was essential if you wanted to survive.

She glanced up and down the dark alley. If she didn't hide soon, then she might as well put a 'free organ donor' sign above her head and hand out knives.

She'd heard looters resorted to that sometimes—if they couldn't find anything good to sell, then they'd sell the people the got a hold of. Or rather, bits and pieces of them. Both North and South were big on shoving new hearts into old bodies, letting their leaders live forever. It didn't matter where it came from, looters didn't have a side they needed to stay on.

Swallowing hard, Sakura wiped away her tears and snot with the hem of her shirt and dragged herself towards a dumpster. It would, at least, be warmer inside. That was another problem, if she stayed outside too long, then she was going to either die or loose some toes to frostbite.

Was cold good for infections? Probably, bacteria liked warm, moist places. Such as the dumpster she was about to toss herself inside. If she hadn't been so set on surviving, Sakura would've called herself an idiot.

Worming her way between the plastic bags, she decided to anyway.

But the two homicidal maniacs would be gone in the morning. When they left, she could take a day off work and patch herself up. (And then beg her boss not to fire her, since employment was a rather desirable position.)

But they weren't gone in the morning.

They actually didn't even wake up until eleven, meaning Sakura was forced to hide on the landing for a grand total of three hours. They didn't heat public buildings anymore either, so she might as well have been outside in the dumpster. At least it was slightly warmer, though much smellier.

When the two of them finally walked out, it was not with any of her possessions in hand. She was pretty sure Sasuke had been wearing a coat when she had first seen him.

Her temper flared, did they think they could just move in?!

Hah. Not likely.

As soon as they had walked off down the hall, apparently too deeply absorbed in their argument to notice the small, pink haired girl lurking by the broken elevator, she crawled to her door.

Glancing to make sure that they were really gone, Sakura reached down into her shirt, pulling out a chain with a single, tarnished key on it.

Fumbling, Sakura shoved it in the lock, only to find that the door had been left open. Bastards.

Letting herself in, she secured the door behind her, smiling in satisfaction, casting careful looks behind her now and then to make sure her home was secure.

Things seemed to be fairly neat, there wasn't any food lying around and nothing appeared to have been taken. Sasuke's coat was on her unmade bed and Naruto's gloves were by his pillow on the floor. She took them, and contemplated burning them. But seeing as that was a spiteful, childish thing to do, (and she really needed a new coat) she decided against it. Before doing anything else, Sakura changed clothes. If she was going outside again, she wanted to be better prepared. She didn't know what to do about her foot; she obviously wasn't going to be able to get it into one of her boots. In the end she just painfully slid about five socks over it and called it good.

Naruto's gloves were fingerless, with leather palms and a steel plate running across the back of the hand. They were too big for her, but she put them on anyway. They made her feel intimidating.

Sasuke's coat, however, was another matter entirely. Naruto's gloves were fairly inconspicuous; lots of people had things like them. She doubted many people had black leather trench coats with an arsenal of small, pointy things in them.

This was even more obviously too big for her, but she put it on anyway. At least it was warm, even if it did smell like smoke and made her look like the grim reaper.

Sakura was just about to call her boss when the knob rattled. Her eyes widened. Crap, they were back! Naruto yelled at her from the other side of the door, "Sakura? You in there?"

She kept silent, biting her lip. She liked Naruto, and trusted him a lot more than she trusted Sasuke, (Naruto didn't carry a grenade around in his pocket, whilst Sasuke had about three in his coat) but she still didn't exactly consider them to be the best of buddies.

"Sakura, you should really open the door," Naruto whined, sounding a bit pained.

There wasn't really any point in keeping silent, he already knew it was her, so she yelled back, "Why?! So Sasuke can come in here and hit me with a chair in revenge or whatever?"

"Sasuke's not here."

"HAH. Right, as if I'd fall for that. Where is Sasuke then, at Starbucks getting coffee? Should I add that Starbucks closed down forty years ago because of corruption?"

"No, I mean Sasuke's climbing up the fire escape, and I think he's probably where you are by now."

"So?! I locked all the windows and the doors! He can't get in," Sakura said confidently.

"Some glass isn't going to stop him Sakura-chan. He's a raider, he's good at breaking in."

He was a raider? Well, at least it explained his violent tendencies and many weapons, but seriously. Could she be anymore unlucky? She snuck a glance at the fire escape through her small, grimy window. Still clear, Sasuke hadn't gotten there yet. Maybe he fell, she thought hopefully.

"Jesus Naruto, shy didn't you tell me you had a raider for a friend?!" She yelled agitatedly, trying to shove her book case over so it would block the window. The bookcase; which was 10 percent tape, 20 percent nails and 70 percent rotted, cheap wood refused to budge. She continued trying anyway.

"Look, I didn't think you two would ever meet, much less that you'd crack his head open. Sasuke's not that bad really, he just has some issues…"

"Like being a sociopath with homicidal tendencies?!" Sakura yelled. Her hands were shaking again, she noticed with some distaste, as she peered out the window. Still no Sasuke, thank god.

"Look, could you just open the door? Sasuke's really not that bad, he just has some temper problems—,"

"I don't care," she empathized, fishing in Sasuke's pockets for something destructive, "About how virtuous he is. I just want to live, okay? Why does he hate me so much anyway, all I did was knock him out. It was self defense!"

She thought Naruto might have sighed from the other side of the door, "Look, he's weird, okay? And really freaking bored. You fought back, so now he can't stop."

"That doesn't make any sense!" She wailed. Below her, the railing remained clear. That was odd, Naruto said he would've gotten there ages ago.

"I think he likes you, Sakura," Naruto said rather patiently, voice muffled by the door. If she could have seen him, she'd have known how evilly he was grinning.

"Stop trying to psyche me out!" Sakura's foot throbbed painfully when it tapped hard against the floor. She clamped her hands over her mouth to muffle her scream and doubled up, sick with pain.

"Did it work?" Naruto laughed on, oblivious. When she didn't reply, he rapped again on the door, "Sakura? Are you okay?" Naruto sounded worried. Sakura, who was curled up into a ball on the floor, was privately thinking that she had never been worse. She was dizzy from fear, pain and hunger, her foot seemed to be trying to gnaw itself off, she was having trouble breathing she was so frightened, and a homicidal teenager was going to kill her because he thought she was interesting.

Painfully, she focused on the ground in front of her. It was okay, she was going to be okay, she'd just open the door. Naruto seemed to kind of like her, maybe he'd save her. Collecting herself, she pried both of her hands away from her foot and braced them on either side of her forehead, which was resting on the floor.

Something nudged her gently in the side. Cold fear racing up her spine, she turned to see Sasuke, who was poking her hip with his foot. He was frowning, "You took my coat."

Naruto, hearing Sasuke's voice through the door, started banging on it. "Sasuke! Lemme in already! And don't hurt Sakura-chan, she already thinks you're weird, so you don't have to add to your image or whatever!"

Sakura's mouth was very dry. She was suddenly aware of how bad she must look, with her face all blotchy and her nose probably running. Then she remembered that the last time she had seen him, he had been chasing her down several flights of stairs, probably intent on throwing her down a landing or two.

She lunged backwards, catching her injured foot at an even more awkward angle. It made a nasty cracking noise, and she gave a raw gasp, fresh tears of agony coming to her eyes. Naruto was still banging on the door, though now he was yelling at one of her neighbors to 'mind their own business.'

Sasuke shot her an unreadable look, and let Naruto in.

The blond boy almost flew in, saw Sakura huddled and crying on the floor and yelled at Sasuke. "What did you do?!"

"I didn't do anything."

"Sure, right." Naruto knelt down in front of Sakura. "Hey, what's up?"

She shook her head, still crying. Blood had started to soak through her socks, which was definitely a bad thing.

Dread and a horrible curiosity made her move forwards, peeling them off as carefully as she could, still sobbing messily. When her foot gasped out, wet and free, Naruto leaned away from her with an expression of pity and revulsion on his face.

Her foot was an enormous bruise, yellow green at the edges and purple blue near the center. The bottom seemed peppered with scabs, some now ripped open, her bone easily seen.

"Naruto, hold her down. I'm gonna put it back in place."

Sakura shook her head harder, and tried weakly to get away.

His hands were going for her foot. She slapped him across the face and scooted backwards, hands reaching for something, anything. Naruto grabbed her, muttering soothingly, and she writhed pitifully.

And then Sasuke's hand was on the pressure point in her neck, and for a second there were starbursts doing the tango at the backs of her eyes, and sound flipped inward till she was lulled to slumber by the own steady beating of her heart.

The world was very black. Sakura could distantly make out the feeling of her body, the pain in her foot, the feel of someone carrying her. A door slammed open.


"What th—oh. It's you."

"Tsunade, I need—"

"Get him out of here, Naruto."


"I can't have them probe him. If they trace him to here, things'll get bad for me. Get him out."


"I'll go." This voice was closer, the one carrying her. She moved, shifted into another pair of arms.


"Just fix her Naruto. Something's wrong, she should've woken up by now."

"Why aren't you gone yet?"

"Tch, whatever."


"Is she alright?"

"…What the hell did you do to her?"

"I didn't—Sasuke chased her down some stairs. She wasn't wearing any shoes, he told me she kicked her way through a door."

"Straight at it?"

"No…the hinges I think. They were really old I guess."


"Yeah, probably. The stairs were too, really rusty and shit."

"Hmm. How'd she survive through the night?"

"I dunno, I guess she found somewhere close to the building to sleep. She couldn't have gone far on that."

"Alright, I think it's some sort of infection. She's almost awake right now, might be able to hear us, though she won't be able to make any sort of movement."

"How can you tell?"

"See her eyelids? The twitch a little, whenever you talk. She's got a fever. She's burning up—goes any higher and she's going to die."

It might be nice, Sakura thought, if I could. Right now. Just sink into the blackness and not go back. It won't be hard—I can see it. I can see that door. All I have to do is open it.

It'd be nice.

"Sakura," someone was whispering to her.

Go away.

"Sakura, can you hear me?"

No. Go away. Go away and let me die.

"C'mon Sakura, don't die. Don't die on me. That'd really suck."

Why would you care? People die everyday, it's no big deal. I don't care anymore. I can't. First time stopped it. I couldn't cry when my parents died, you know that? I still haven't.

"Please don't die."

Would that really be so bad? Would that hurt you at all? I've known you for what—a day?

"We've all gotta stick together, right? And Sasuke wasn't really going to hurt you, y'know."

Haha, right. Because you almost kill the people you like.

"You're really smart and stuff."

And stuff. Well now she could die happy.

"No one's ever saved me before. No one cared. No one gave me food, let me stay with them."

I didn't save you; I just did the moral and human thing. Don't exaggerate. And giving you food was mostly to distract you from stealing my stuff.

"Sasuke likes you too, even though you probably don't believe it. Er, I think he does. In his own weird kind of way. He's never met anyone who'd stand up to him like that."


"So…you shouldn't die. Because we need you to stick around and hit him with chairs. You can be like our new mom or something. But with a chair. Or something."

How appealing.

"Naruto, get lost. I'm gonna get the surgery started."

"Yeah…take care of her, okay?"

"Sure, sure. She'll be fine. She's a strong girl, now go find some food for her, she's malnourished. Try not to be obvious when you steal it."

"Right, I'll get Sasuke to do it."

"Good plan. Last time you stole something it was a couch and you ran down the street with it."

"Oh, shut up. I didn't think they would notice."

"The world's not that bad yet, Naruto."

A fantastically beautiful blond woman leaned over her, shining a small flash light into her pupils. Sakura blinked, licking her lips. She thought she might be cross eyed, but couldn't be sure. Now that the woman was closer to her, Sakura thought she could pick out the tiny, almost invisible white scars that marked plastic surgery.

Her age was a mystery. Her hands were steady, her face flawless, but the surgery must have been to hide something, and the sadness in her eyes spoke of accumulated wisdom and hurt from years past.

"Can you say anything?" The woman asked. Her voice was brisk, toffee eyes narrowed as she inspected Sakura carefully.

Sakura tightened her lips, trying to summon some saliva into her mouth. "Where am I?" She managed to rasp a second later. She sounded absolutely awful, like a dying man.

The woman nodded approvingly, "Good girl, sit up now." She did so, concentrating on breathing and not falling over. Everything in her body felt pleasantly numb, like a blanket had been thrown over all her hurts. A cup was pushed into her hands, and the woman helped her to sip.

She drank slowly, relishing the sweetness.

The water was almost too sweet; its innocence made Sakura suspicious. "You drugged this," she accused, glowering at the woman.

The woman smirked, crossing her arms flippantly and leaning back. "You're right, I did. It's nighty-night for you, in a few minutes."

Sakura didn't doubt that, her eyelids were already heavy. "Where am I?" She asked again, trying to sound forceful even though her words slurred and made no sense even to her own ears.

"You're at my house, east side of the city, on the docks by the river front. Don't worry, none of the recruiters ever come here."

"Where are…?" Sakura wanted to say Sasuke and Naruto, but their names were hard to remember. She sagged back against the bed posts and blinked hard.

"The idiots? Naruto's probably wandering down by the pier, or the idiot's fishing. Sasuke disappeared a while ago, dunno when he'll be back." The woman shrugged, lighting herself a cigarette. "You need to go back to sleep now, we'll chat when you wake up. Your body's seriously dead right now, and if you don't rest some then I'm not going to be able to get your feet in the healer."

From the corner of her eye, Sakura could just glimpse the sullenly humming machine. It was incredibly damaging to the environment, was very rare, and required the patient to be in a near coma-like state for it to operate properly. The good part about it was that it could heal almost any type of injury in a very short amount of time.

"Hey, do you play poker?" The woman asked suddenly. Sakura nodded sleepily, and snuggled down into her bed again, tugging her covers tighter around her.

"Will they…be back?" She managed to ask.

"Naruto? Oh sure, he'll be back, stupid kid. Sasuke'll come too, though it might just be to get his coat back."

That's right; she was still wearing his coat. Sakura grinned a little, burying her nose in the collar. The smoky smell of it was nice, comforting even among all of this sterile equipment. "It's mine now," she proclaimed before sliding back into unconsciousness.

Sasuke didn't like Tsunade's work room very much.

He knew that the woman hated him being there; he was a marked man and could be easily traced via satellite and the barcode on his neck. He did have to go back eventually though, even if it was just for his coat. Wandering through the abandoned pier aimlessly, Sasuke kicked at an empty can viciously, brooding.

Things had been easier when it had just been drills and comrades and family and friends.

Sasuke pushed away the thoughts forcefully, focusing on walking a safe distance from the alleys as he looked around for Naruto.

It took him nearly half an hour to find him. The blond boy was sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, staring out at the other side of the forest with longing.

"Naruto!" He yelled, watching as the boy snapped around, coming away from his precarious diving position.

"Get over here, I'm hungry." Sasuke yelled, hoping that this lie would be enough to convince him. Thankfully, it was. Naruto jumped into the water with a splash and swam back to Sasuke with an awkward, probably self taught doggy-paddle.

Wading through the shallows, Naruto grinned at him, "You're so whiney."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and threw Naruto's shirt at him. "You better cover that up," he said, averting his eyes from the ugly black stamp on Naruto's belly.

"Oh, right."

The two of them set back along the docks, reaching the road quickly. "Is she awake yet?" Naruto asked hopefully.

Sasuke shrugged, rolling his shoulders and shoving his hands into black cargo-pants pockets. "I dunno, Tsunade won't let me in, remember?"

"Oh, right. Do you think she'll be okay?"

Sasuke wasn't really sure if he cared or not, but it seemed important to Naruto so he again shrugged and said, "She made it though the night in a shirt and shorts—I think she'll be fine."

Beside him, Naruto let out a sigh of relief. "Good…do you think there's any ramen around here?"

"There's some food down west," Sasuke replied automatically.

The two of them walked in silence before Naruto grinned evilly at Sasuke, "Hey…"

"What?" Sasuke snapped, already dreading what came next.

"Sakura's pretty cute, huh?" Naruto raised his eyebrows suggestively.

"Why are you being stupider than normal?" He asked, knowing that this was a sensitive subject for Naruto.

"I'm not stupid!" Naruto yelled, predictably.

"I win."

"I liked you better when you were unconscious," Tsunade grumbled, shoving the poker chips towards the grinning Sakura. "Fine, you win next hand and your treatment's free."

"I loose next hand and…what?" Sakura asked suspiciously.

"You're paying double."

"Bring it."

"I think they're…getting along…" Naruto whispered apprehensively, his nose pressed to the dirty glass of the window.

"Mnnf," Sasuke agreed around his mouthful of French-fries.

"You'll get fat from eating those," Naruto sniffed sarcastically.

Sasuke threw one at him.

Naruto caught it in his mouth, laughing. Sasuke rolled his eyes, his lips quirking up a bit against his better judgment.

Abruptly turning serious, Naruto turned to Sasuke. "I need a favor…"

"This has to do with Sakura, doesn't it?" Sasuke sighed, setting aside his fast food and settling himself more comfortably on his tree branch.


"You fail at lying," Sasuke said flatly.

"I think she's illegal, Sasuke."

"So what? Are you saying we report her? We're not exactly legit either, if you'd recall." Sasuke said, bored as he fished through the paper bag for an escaped potato strip.

"No, I mean, I don't think she's eighteen."

"Yet again, another area in which we would be hypocritical." Sasuke snapped sarcastically, displeased that the fries were gone.

Naruto was silent, pensively munching on his clam strip. "Sasuke…" he began,
"How old do you think she is? Seriously."

Sasuke sighed, "I guess she's probably under sixteen. She's pretty scrawny, at least.."

"So…fifteen?" Naruto guessed attentively.

Sasuke chewed on his lower lip, and gave Naruto a firm, decisive nod, "Yeah."

"How long do you think she's going to last Sasuke? She's going to get caught by someone soon, or she'll die from starvation."

"She'll be fine," Sasuke argued.

"Will she?"

Sasuke was silent, wondering. Most people couldn't keep a job for than a year, either because they were killed off or the company went bankrupt. In those cases, girls like Sakura would probably search around for a job for a while, not find one, and then end up sliding into the underworld for survival.

It was pretty nasty down there. There were three categories making up the underworld; drugs, prostitution and begging. Sakura wouldn't get to begging for a while, only after she got really screwed up by the other two categories.

No. That couldn't happen.

Even worse were the druggies, the pushers. She could do okay there, flourish for a bit. Until one of her Crystal-Meth buyers tore her head off for not giving them their fix.

"What is it?" he said, and Naruto understood.

"Good, so I was thinking she could hang out with us." Naruto tried to look as appealing as he could, but Sasuke was surprised at how little the idea upset him.

"And why would she want to do that?"

"That's where your talents come in…" Smiling charmingly, Naruto whispered into Sasuke's ear. When he was done, Sasuke sighed.

"This isn't going to win you any points…" Sasuke groaned.

"Get her stuff out of the building first!"

"I was talking more about you taking over her life." Sasuke elaborated, wondering, yet again, why he was still friends with such a moron.

Naruto grinned, "Nah, I already explained all of your emotional shit to her. She'll warm up to us in no time."

"Charming," Sasuke snapped sarcastically, and stalked moodily away from the laughing blond.

Someone was banging on the door. Cursing, (she actually had a good hand, for once!) Tsunade crossed the room and opened the door to let Naruto in. He grinned at her and bounced over to Sakura, practically throwing a bag of food at her. "Eat up, dude!"

Sakura, who was only too happy to eat something that wasn't ramen, obliged. Tsunade made an angry noise from by the door and whacked Naruto over the head.

"She's supposed to be eating healthy, idiot."

"Yeah, well, she looks happy, right?" It was true; Sakura was smiling around her deep-fried chicken strip. He crouched by the side of her bed, "So, are you feeling better?"

She nodded. "Yeah, I'll be able to walk around normally in a bit, I think."

"Oh, good!" Naruto smile was unnaturally wide. Sakura began to suspect a plot.

"What? Did you steal something?" Naruto shook his head.

"Why don't…you turn on the T.V., Tsunade?" Tsunade scowled at him from her lab table, busily mixing ingredients. Sakura watched apprehensively as Naruto bounded over to the antique television and flicked it on. Her concern grew when he switched to channel four, dubbed 'the disaster channel' by many.

The screen quality was low, flickering from black-and-white to color sporadically. Sakura gasped, what had at first been a fizz of white dots switched to color—turning out to be a raging inferno.

Her apartment was on fire.

"No!" Sakura yelled, staring horrified as her windows blew out, long tendrils of flame spewing into the sky. The small reporter in the left hand corner of the screen was solemnly proclaiming that the police suspected an arsonist.

Sakura started pinching herself at this point. There was a large banner proclaiming, 'If you want to live, get out of the building' hanging from the building across from hers.

If the police only suspected an arsonist, than they really were screwed.

Turning furiously towards Naruto, she opened her mouth to scream at him, but was interrupted by the door slamming open and a disgruntled Sasuke stomping in. He was carrying several sacks that were full of what appeared to be her stuff. Something in her chest loosened, at least she wouldn't have to completely start over.

"Let's go," Sasuke ordered, glancing over at Sakura before glaring at Naruto.

At least now she knew why his coat smelled like smoke.

Sakura liked to think that she was a calm, rational person. From an outsider's perspective, what they had done wasn't really that bad. Sure, they had destroyed her home, but it wasn't like she had lost everything. She hadn't been particularly attached to the apartment, or her neighbors.

But still, they had no right.

"Yeah, so, Sasuke and I were thinking—" Naruto began enthusiastically.

"You were thinking," Sasuke interrupted. He was watching Sakura carefully, probably waiting for her to throw a knife at him or something.

"Fine, fine. So, I was thinking that you could come live with us!" Naruto grinned widely, missing Tsunade's outraged expression.

Sakura did not reply, feeling too angry to speak. Her fingers ached from the tension she was putting them through. Every muscle in her body was tensed, ready for a fight. One of her molars was grinding worryingly, aching from how tightly she had gritted her jaw. She stared hard at her lap, trying to calm herself down.

How dare they?!

It was probably a good thing that she couldn't move the lower half of her body, otherwise violence would have reigned supreme.

"Naruto!" Tsunade steamed, wrathful on Sakura's behalf, "You do not destroy the material possessions of a person in order to get them to like you!" She smacked him hard over the back of his head. It seemed to be something of a hobby for her.

Naruto yelped, covering his head with his arms protectively, "Hey, that hurt!"

"Good," Sakura spoke at last, her head snapped upwards, her tiny human fangs bared in fury. "I hope it did."

"…Sakura?" Naruto's eyes were large and confused. He blinked, tilting his head to the side.

She hissed.

Sasuke, who had been around women more than Naruto knew that they should probably be running right now. He strategically maneuvered himself behind Tsunade's lab table and braced himself.

"You idiot!" Sakura screamed—her eyes wild, small hands clenched together tightly. "Why the hell did you burn my house down?!"

As the sound waves hit Naruto, he appeared to shrink in size, contracting and hiding within his own skin. "But—but, Sakura …"

"No, you are not allowed to talk," Sakura seethed. Her hands had unclenched, reaching instead for her soft drink. Clutching the Styrofoam cup tightly for a second, the beamed it at Naruto, hitting him full in the face and coating him in carbonated, highly sugared water. "You jerk!"

Naruto yelped, leaping backwards and shaking his head like a dog. His blond hair had fallen out of its' gravity defying style and pasting itself to his head. "But—"

"I—Why?! Why did you do that?!" Sakura's pupils were dilated, giving her an alien, frightening look.

"He wanted to make sure you didn't die," Sasuke said calmly. He regretted speaking however, when she turned towards him.

"You…" she seethed, "You probably liked burning it down, didn't you?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, "What are you talking about?"

"Hey, guys—" Naruto tried to interrupt.

"You don't like me—you probably wanted to make sure that I really would freeze to death!"

"Don't be stupid," Sasuke snapped, glaring back at her. Jeez, and just when he was starting to consider her moderately intelligent, too.

"Oh, I'm stupid—"

"I told him to do it," Naruto interrupted, his voice tiny.

She turned back to him, looking almost regretful, "But—"

"I told you, Sasuke kind of likes you—"

"I do not," Sasuke frowned. Naruto ignored him, pushing onwards.

"—so he wasn't going to burn your home down for no reason. Would he have gotten all your stuff if he had?"


There was a loud crunching noise, causing all three teenagers to look over at Tsunade. The woman was leaning back against a wall, munching on potato chips. She smiled encouragingly at the three of them.

"Don't mind me! Please, continue!"

"Hey, I want my coat back," Sasuke frowned suddenly. He was carrying three bags of Sakura's stuff, but it had suddenly occurred to him that he was cold. Next to him, Naruto made frantic slashing gestures—do not provoke her.

Sakura sent him a chilly glare, "It's mine."

The three of them were on slightly rocky ground. Sakura was still mad at them for burning down her apartment, as well as making her practically lose her foot. Naruto was miffed because Sakura wasn't happy to live with them and annoyed at Sasuke for being a jerk. Sasuke was just in a bad mood and annoyed with the world, especially considering that he felt he didn't really deserve all this abuse.

After leaving Tsunade's, Sakura had reluctantly agreed to live with them—temporarily. They were now transporting her things to their place. A twinge of uneasiness pricked at Sakura, they were entering a neighborhood that she knew to be even worse than hers.

"No, it's not. Give it back."

"You burned my coat down, I get to keep this one," Sakura snapped viciously, feeling glorious and powerful for this small torture. Naruto sighed, why couldn't people just act their own age?

"I didn't burn it; it's in one of these stupid bags." Sasuke shook one of his own bags to empathize.

"Yeah, right," she sneered, clinging to her own bags harshly.

"I did, it's the one with the candy stash in the front pocket."

"You went through my stuff?!" Sakura yelled, throwing a bag at his head, "Bastard!"

Nevertheless, she edged slightly closer to him and Naruto, glancing nervously at the dirty windows and the hungry eyes peering out through them.

"What the hell is this?" Sakura snapped aggressively, peering into the room.

"Well, intelligent people would say it's a kitchen—judging by the microwave and refrigerator." Sasuke commented sarcastically.

Naruto sent him a curious look; he was much more talkative then usual.

"It looks like a pile of crap," Sakura commented calmly, wading through the mess, dropping her bags on the table and looking around. "I'm not sleeping in here, am I?"

There was an awkward silence, the two boys apparently having not thought out this part very well. Sakura rolled her eyes.

Their living space was larger than hers, though not by much. Kitchen, Living room, bathroom and two bedrooms. Sakura's eyes darted towards the living room.

"I refuse to sleep on the couch. I need my own room if I'm going to live with you." She said calmly, hands finding their way to her hips.

Naruto mumbled something under his breath before he grinned cheerfully and pointed at Sasuke. "You can take his room!"

Sakura hit Naruto, barely batting an eyelash. "It's my home."

Annoyed, Sakura dragged her things into Naruto's room and poked her head into his closet. It was completely empty, and unlike the rest of apartment, was actually fairly large in proportion. She shoved her way in and shut the door behind her, yelling, "I'm going to live in here!"

The two of them listened to the sound of the door shutting, before following her into Naruto's room and dropping her things on the floor in front of the closet. Naruto tapped on the door, "Hey, Sakura—"

"Go away!" Sakura yelled from behind her door, sounding murderous. The two males hastily retreated into the kitchen.

Sasuke scowled darkly at Naruto, "I hope you're happy," he snapped, before he shouldered his way past the blond and stormed outside, intent on prowling the streets.

Naruto waited until he was sure the other boy was gone before he allowed his grin to re-emerge. Whatever Sasuke said, he had gotten Sakura.

His victory dance was short and graceless.

Score one for team Naruto.

Sasuke glared at the offensive pavement, stomping down on it in vicious satisfaction. Stupid asphalt. Stupid Naruto. Stupid Sakura.

Grumbling, he continued on his trek—passing by the rusted over train tracks and making his way back the harbor.

Sasuke was looking for something to burn.

Idly, he flicked the lighter through his hands, playing it back and forth between the two. The flame flickered once, singing one of his fingers. Cursing, he shoved the fried appendage in his mouth and started glaring at the ground again.

It was official; life sucked.

The lighter was back out after a second. He watched the slender, flirting flame beam itself up into the air—felt the heat when he brought it up to his face. So pretty…

There. A large, half rotted plank of wood. Relatively far from anything else flammable, should be safe…ish.

Painstakingly, torn newspapers and splinters of doors were gathered, piled, perfected. Lighter pulled out, papers lit, and Sasuke hopping backwards to watch the swelling inferno.

It roared, it consumed, and it destroyed. Blazing higher and higher, heat waves rolling off and soaking into him.

He smiled, so caught up in his creation that he didn't notice the first plane.

The siren was loud. The kind of loud that splits eardrums and gives you a heart attack from fright.

The fire had almost died when this phenomenal sound wave hit Sasuke. He had been staring at the smoldering coals, watching as they spat out sparks that jigged through the air.

When the alarm came, he jolted forwards, almost stepped in the fire and reached instinctively for the knife in his boot. Then he remembered what the sirens were for.


Meaning that in a couple of minutes, this street was going to be demolished.

He didn't really have to worry, there was a shelter not too far from here, he could make it just fine. Hurriedly kicking some dirt over the fire, he started running towards the shelter before he stopped dead in his tracks.

Sakura and Naruto were still back at the apartment. The rickety, decades old structure which could probably be blown apart by some strong winds.

And they didn't have an alarm in that district. One of them was always awake during the night, watching for raiders and worse. Naruto and Sakura would be sleeping right now, not watching the windows, not peering through the clouds.

Sasuke turned, and ran.

The door slammed open, ricocheting outwards and banging hard against the wall. Instantly awake, Naruto shot upwards—his fingers groping wildly through the darkness for the light switch.

"Naruto—Sakura, get up!" Sasuke was panting in his doorway, hair disheveled and eyes wild. The closet door creaked open and Sakura poked her head out, looking sleepy and confused.

"What's going on—?" She yawned, fisting one of her hands into her eyes and rubbing tiredly. Sasuke grabbed her roughly by the elbow and dragged her sharply forwards. She yelped, falling forwards and landing ungracefully at his feet. She hissed, mutinous.


"We have to go," Sasuke snapped, dragging her out of the room behind him. Naruto ran after him, grabbing their emergency bag from the kitchen as they went. Sasuke hadn't waited for him, hadn't stopped to let Sakura put her shoes on. "Come on," He yelled harshly.

Naruto followed, a ramen packet crammed into his pocket and all the cash they had in the other. Frightened, he watched Sasuke. The other boy looked frantic, desperate. He moved jerkily, quickly. Running through the rooms and through the hall, down the stairs and onto the street.

Sasuke relaxed a bit then, sprinting full forward. His eyes were narrowed, dragging Sakura along behind him. Naruto frowned; Sasuke usually wouldn't even touch people unless—

Somewhere far off, he thought he could hear the wail of a siren. Blood freezing, he shot forward, grabbing his two friends by the hand and pulling them forward even faster. Sakura was wincing—she didn't have any shoes, and her foot wasn't supposed to be doing anything this strenuous. Sasuke was panting, he had run here and was worn out. Naruto pulled, come on…come on

Above them, the roar of an engine could be heard.

They ran faster.

Miles behind them, something exploded. A second later the shockwave rolled past them, shaking the ground and blasting at them with hot air. Sasuke slipped, fell. Naruto jerked him halfway upright and didn't notice when Sasuke skimmed his knee from it, grinding away the skin. Thick, dark drops of blood welled up and snaked their way down his leg.

The nearest shelter was almost a mile away.

Closer now, another bomb had dropped. There was another explosion; a sink flying through the air three blocks down from them.

Around them, the streets were deserted but for a select few individuals. The old and the sick, they huddled in the grimy filth of the buildings. Their yellow, sickly faces watched the runners, hoping they would fall.

A mob had grown a little ways in front of them. A laughing young man was at the center, pointing upwards at the sky, and laughing. "We're going to die!" He yelled gleefully, "We're going to die! Oh babe, this is it!"

Naruto shivered, his feet slapping past him. His hands tightened around Sasuke's and Sakura's, pulling them forward. Hurry.

Half a mile to go.

It was hard to breath, they weren't really sprinting any longer. Sasuke was the runner, but he had needed to make a round trip. Desperately, they forced their way onwards. Lungs burning, eyes stinging, legs aching.

Another bomb fell. Close, way too close. Debris flew everywhere and this time it was Naruto who fell, dragging the other two down with him. He hit the ground hard, coughing. Sakura whimpered, sobbed a little and was the first to push herself up.

Despite the danger they were in, despite the fact that it was hard to breath and he thought he might've pulled a muscle, his heart still swelled because she didn't leave without them. She almost did, started to run—but stopped, and yanked the two upwards, leading them in the retreat.

The pavement was hot, people were screaming—loud and high and—oh God, there's a baby in the street, the mother lying facedown not five feet away.

Naruto didn't think she could still be alive, considering the metal pole lodged in her spine. Next to the dead woman, the baby screamed louder.

Sakura had stopped.

He turns back, reaching for her. Beside him Sasuke yelled, "Come on!"

Naruto watched, and thought. There was some blood caked on the soles of his sneakers—it wasn't his.

"What's your problem?" Sasuke sounded desperate, frantic. He pushed Naruto ahead and reached for her—"Come on!" For a second she wavered, reaching up one arm to grab his hand…

And then, abruptly changing her mind, she turned and bolted towards the screaming toddler. "No!" Naruto yelled, and started to chase her—because…because…

Because there was a building that was going to fall on her if she picked up that baby.

Desperation made him fast, propelled him forward to grab her wrist.

"LET ME G—" she wrenched forward, clawing at the air, trying to reach the child. From behind them, Sasuke was silent, frozen. His eyes were wide as he stared at the falling building, at Sakura at—

The mother was moving. Lifting her head, reaching for her child. She cradled her baby to her breast and looked up, locking eyes with them; the bystanders. Slowly, her eyes drifted shut.

The building fell.

Sakura screamed, throwing herself forward, crying and kicking at the rubble, saying "Mom! Mom!"

Naruto watched. Not understanding, not—it had been so personal to Sakura. He didn't get why was she freaking out; she had seen all those other people die and barely blinked—

While Naruto watched, Sasuke didn't. He marched up to her, yelling, "Stop it! What's wrong with—just stop it, let's go!"

"I—I—" She stammered, large eyes wide and hurt and crying. "I—I was supposed to die! I was supposed to be there with them! I—"

"Shut up!" Sasuke yelled, teeth bared at her. He grabbed her arm and then he reached for Naruto, grabbing him too, and started to run again. Naruto had to work to keep up—he'd forgotten how fast Sasuke can run when he really freaked out.

They ran and they ran, passing destruction and death and Sakura was still crying and—

There was the shelter.

Sasuke kicked the door hard, smashing the cheap metal in. The door itself wasn't particularly strong, since it lead only to a pit.

Naruto went first, lowering himself in carefully, and dropping the last five feet. Behind him, Sakura did the same. Sasuke jumps—landing cat-like on the ground. Together, they ran to huddle by the opposite wall.

The explosions continued. Naruto can't remember ever hearing so many people scream. He pressed his hand to his head, blocking out his ears and hummed.

Sasuke sat on his other side, tight lipped and knife out. His knuckles were white, eyes burning. Sakura was quiet, staring blankly out at the small patch of light that marked the door. She was still silently crying.

"Hey, Sakura? Is this your first raid?" He tried to sound light, conversational. His voice shook a little when a woman's scream interrupted him.

Slowly, she shook her head, no.

"Is this the first time you've been out in one?"

Careful nod. Her eyes were fixed on something slightly over his shoulder.

Suddenly, Naruto felt very sick. "What—what happened to your parents?"

She looked away, staring at the door. Naruto took the opportunity to look over at Sasuke. He twitched—creepy red eyes shone back at him.

"Sasuke—" he started to warn him, to tell the dork to turn it off.

"I know," Sasuke said, and kept staring around the empty pit.

"They died. They died in the…in the kitchen. At the table. They—they were waiting for me to come home."

Sakura paused, biting her lip hard. "I…was at the library."

On the other side of him, Sasuke was silent. Naruto thought he might have stopped breathing.

"There was—we had a crawl space under our house. You know, incase the bombs hit."

She stopped. Hesitantly, Naruto reached out and placed a careful hand on her shoulder. "I'm…sorry."

She laughed a little, "It's okay. They were going to make me be a lawyer anyway; they said another doctor in the family would've been a bad idea." Her grin was brittle and fake. It tore at his heart in a way that he couldn't understand.

"You survived," Sasuke said it firmly, decisively. Naruto looked over at him with a frown, wondering what the other boy meant.

"Yeah," Sakura agreed. Impulsively, she pulled Sasuke's coat around her more tightly. (She might've abandoned her shoes, but the coat had been easy to get on.)

"I survived."

Sasuke frowned at the grey sky. He and the others had been making their way back to their apartment, when he noticed how wrong something was.

Ash fell from the skies in wispy flakes. They landed wetly in Sakura's hair, making her look like an old woman. Sasuke's frown deepened as he stared around at the smoldering wreckage of the city.

"Hey," he said, turning to look at Sakura and Naruto, "Did either of you see anyone shooting down the planes?"

Naruto blinked at him, and smiled ironically, "Does anyone even have the stuff to do that? We were too busy running away Sasuke; I don't think either of us was looking around for crap like that."

Sakura, who had been disturbingly quiet, shook her head quickly.

Sasuke ground his molars together, dark eyes searching through the clouds. "So where'd the ash come from?"

Naruto rolled his eyes. "I don't know—maybe the fires?"

But Sakura had paused, turning to look with him. Slowly, her brow furrowed, "He's right," she murmured, "It's falling out of the sky…is there a volcano around here or something?"

"No," Sasuke replied. He felt uneasy, like someone was watching him.

Silently, the three of them made their way back to the ruins of the apartment, each caught up in their own thoughts.

The ash continued to fall.

The apartment was, of course, completely destroyed. They didn't stay long, just enough for Naruto to pull an old man out from under the ruble, and then they continued along their way.

After the three of them had wandered aimlessly for several hours in an attempt to get over their shell-shocked state, Naruto started talking again.

"Hey, should we go back to Tsunade? It's not like we have anywhere else to go—"

"No," Sakura said, her face suddenly intense. "We can't go there."

"But, why—"

"She won't let him in," Sakura said, jerking her head back to Sasuke. Naruto brooded on this for a minute—and then grinned. Impulsively, he leered at Sakura, who stepped away from him, her eyes suspicious and wary.

"Aw, I didn't know you cared!" He laughed, almost genuine.

"I don't!" She protested, too strongly to really mean it. Naruto cackled and swung her down into a headlock. He ruffled her hair, ignoring her increasingly prolific protests.

"Sasuke! Sakura cares about—"

"I do not!" Sakura hollered, stamping down on his foot brutally. He yelped, releasing her and hopped away frantically. Sakura chased him, ranting about how he had no tact and how this situation was completely inappropriate.

Sasuke snorted, messaging his temples.


"Hinata!" Ino whispered. Gently, she shook the other girl's shoulder. Hinata moaned and rolled away from her, burying her face in one of her arms with a muffled protest. Ino hissed like an angry cat, and shook the slumbering girl more forcefully.

Hinata woke up, her eyes wide and frightened. She relaxed quickly after Ino quickly whispered, "It's me—Ino."

"Oh," Hinata sighed. One of her hands reached outwards, tangling her fingers with Ino's.

Ino flinched. She hated it when people held her hand. Hinata, on the other hand, craved the simple affection, so just this once, she let it pass.

"We have to go Hinata," Ino whispered, tugging the other's arm gently. "We have to leave."

Hinata's pale, eerie eyes widened in the darkness, "Go? Go where?"

"I don't know," Ino admitted. Her eyes burned a little from old mascara and something else. "But I have to leave, and I can't abandon you. You're my friend Hinata, and we deserve better than this." Ino's voice grew harder as she spoke, a steely glint appearing in her eyes.

Hinata was quiet. Slowly, she levered herself upwards into a crouch so that she was mostly eye-level with the long-limbed blonde.

"I—I don't know Ino-chan…it seems so risky." Hinata mumbled. Her dark hair was tousled, framing her face messily. Bracing herself, Ino pushed a few of the dark strands behind her friend's ear. Hinata's eyes glowed, leaning into the chaste touch.

"…Please, Hinata." Ino mumbled. "I can't—I can't stay."

Mentally, Hinata agreed. But at least, so long as she remained here, she would have a place to sleep and food to eat. Hinata didn't like change, didn't like the uncertainty of the future. It was what had landed her here in the first place. "Why now? Why so sudden?"

Ino bit her lip, staring at her knees. "I—" taking a deep breath, she leaned forward and whispered her darkest secret into Hinata's ear.

Hinata's lips parted in distress, her eyes trained on the moonlit curve of Ino's shoulder. "Oh, Ino…"

"I know," Ino said, her eyes not looking at Hinata's face, ashamed.

Timidly, Hinata wrapped herself around Ino's tense figure in a partial hug. "Why don't you…just…get rid of it?" She spoke almost silently, hating herself for asking such a forbidden question.

"Because I—I don't want to. I want to keep this. It's mine." Ino's long bangs drifted forward, sticking to her smudged lip-gloss.

"I—okay. I understand." Because Hinata did, she did understand what it was like to want to hold someone.

And if Ino stayed here, what she said was true—she would not be allowed to keep this.

"Let's go," Hinata said, standing up and moving fluidly through the clutter of her small room. Haphazardly, she threw her things into a beaten shoulder bag, shoved some money into her pockets, and turned back to face Ino. "I'm ready."

Ino nodded sharply, and strode over to the window. Throwing it open, she clambered out, carefully lowered herself down, dangled for a moment, and then dropped the remaining ten feet to the ground.

She landed inelegantly, almost falling. Straightening hurriedly, she caught Hinata's bag and waited patiently for the other girl to follow her.

Nervously, Hinata lowered herself downwards, hanging from her fingertips as Ino had. Carefully breathing in-and-out, she pushed herself off from the wall—and fell.

The grass was cool under her feet—sprinkled with pre-morning dew. She slipped on it as she fell, crashing into Ino. The taller blonde swore softly, hurriedly looping an arm around Hinata's waist and dragging her upright. "Th-Thanks," Hinata mumbled. Her cheeks were flushed from exhilaration. Quickly, she pulled on her shoes.

The two figures walked off into the dark. One curvy and petite, the other tall and slim—both joined by past and future.

"We'll be okay," Hinata said, glancing quickly at Ino, "We'll be okay."

"We could," Sakura suggested, "Just sleep under a bridge or something. But first I want to get back into my neighborhood—I do have a job after all."

"What—oh yeah…" Naruto's expression became dreamy, "At the ramen joint…"

Sakura sighed, inwardly moaning, and said, "Yes. The ramen joint—joy of my heart."

Naruto drooled slightly. Sasuke hit him over the back of his head.

It took them an hour to walk back to where Sakura lived, and by that time, the sun had almost completely set. Sasuke twitched, peering suspiciously into the shadowed alleyways. Naruto glanced over his shoulder for what had to the twentieth time. Ahead of them, Sakura marched confidently. She knew these streets, and so long as she wasn't stupid, she knew she'd be okay.

Calmly, she approached the nearest garbage-can-fire-group. Naruto watched her go, making panicked little gestures and clearly indicating that he did not want her to talk with the evil hobos. Sakura ignored him and tapped one of the homeless men on their shoulders, "Hey."

He grunted to show that he had heard her. Sakura tried to look both tough and friendly, "Do you mind if my friends and I hang out here for the night?"

The bum barely even looked at her, staring suspiciously at Sasuke and Naruto instead. Immediately, the blond boy pasted his trademark smile on in an attempt to win him over.

"Is the idiot," the hobo's voice was low and gravely, "Going to accidentally set us on fire while we sleep?"

Sakura grinned. Naruto's jaw dropped in outrage. Sasuke muttered something suspiciously like, 'probably,' to himself.

"Don't give him any matches, and he won't." Sakura muttered as she plopped down by the hobo's side. She sighed happily, bringing her hands closer to the fire. Naruto joined her after a minute, mumbling obscenities under his breath. Sasuke rolled his eyes, flicking his lighter idly.

"Hey," the hobo poked Sakura's shoulder and pointed at Sasuke, "Do you vouch for him?!"

"Absolutely not," Sakura said darkly. She glared frigidly at Sasuke, "He burned my house down."

The hobo contemplated this. Sasuke glowered and hid his lighter back in his pocket. "She," he said, "Stole my coat."

"Ah," the hobo nodded understandingly and moved aside so Sasuke could sit. "Yes, women do tend to do that."

"Hey!" Sakura banged the doors to the restaurant open and marched in. It was odd, she had kind of missed this little hell hole.

"Sakura?! Where've you been—you missed almost two days of work!" The elderly owner popped his head out from behind the grill and frowned at her.

"Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. I broke my foot and an idiot burned down my house and then I got caught in that air raid," Sakura waved her hand dismissively—as if this sort of thing was just a regular occurrence in her life.

"…And you're still alive?!" The old man groaned. Sakura glowered.

"Thanks so much."

"Is it weird that since the cook just quit, I'll be promoting you instead of firing you?" He mused, and Sakura fought down a smile.

Naruto showed up to walk her back from work, though she wasn't sure if such an occurrence was good or bad. On the plus side, no one bothered her. On the other hand, the hobos seemed to have taught Naruto several lewd drinking songs. She sighed, "So, did you and Sasuke find a place for us to sleep?"

"Uh, I think Sasuke's doing that right now!"

"Oh, goodie," Sakura groaned.


"Can you see Sasuke house-shopping?"

"Er…" Naruto blinked, "Not…really…"

"Exactly. That jerk is so bad at human relations he's probably half robot." Sakura snapped contemptuously. Naruto peered down at her, eyes scrunched together suspiciously. Sakura noticed, and twitched minutely.


"Sasuke's annoying huh?"

"Yes," Sakura ground out pointedly, and shoved him into a wall before he could say anything else.

"We're living here?" Sakura's nose wrinkled disdainfully as she gazed around the mildew infested room.

"Actually, I am. You two can sleep outside—in the rain." Sasuke snapped at her, throwing himself down onto his sleeping bag and turning his back to them. Sakura hissed at him. She had a sneaky suspicion that there was a reason why her sleeping bag was the only one riddled with holes, seeing as Sasuke had been the one to steal them.

Grumbling, she crawled into her own and snuggled in.

"Hey, Sakura? How was work?" Naruto's voice broke through the silence, overly loud, and dragging her back from the tantalizing promise of slumber.

"Great, I got promoted. I make the ramen now."

Suddenly alarmed, Sasuke turned back to see Naruto, just in time to witness every muscle in the boy's body tense.


"What?" Sakura muttered, wary.

"Will you marry me?" Naruto sincerity-edged voice was over-ruled by the obvious hero-worship.

Sasuke groaned, and hit him with his pillow.

He had almost managed to go back to sleep when the window slid open. His training kicked in, and Sasuke tensed, listening intently. There was a soft sigh, and then the gentle thud of someone's feet touching down on the carpet.

He sprang forward. Shoving a forearm hard against the other persons neck he slammed them into a wall, body pining down the other's arms he—

The lights clicked on. Naruto and Sakura were at his back, faces alert and wary. So he hadn't been the only one standing guard…

It was a girl—a young woman. She was panting, her eyes large, blue, framed with too much make-up—"Don't come in, Hinata!" She yelled, twisting herself to look at the window, "Get out of here!"

Sasuke snarled, pushing down harder, "You bi—"

"Ino?!" Sakura interrupted, laying a hand on his arm. She looked shocked, her hair falling out of its ponytail, shirt slipping down over her shoulder.

Ino gasped, "Sakura?!"

"Ino—what are you doing here? Why are—Sasuke. Sasuke let her go," Sakura ordered suddenly, slipping into authoritative mode. Sasuke shot her an irritated glare, but backed off. Ino hissed softly, rubbing at the chafed skin on her throat.

Naruto stuck his head through the window, blue eyes scanning the dark alley and snagging on the small figure sprinting down it. Silently, he vaulted himself out and dropped down onto the dumpster. Leaping off, he ran after her.

For a second, nobody moved. Then Sakura crossed the room, sliding the window roughly shut. She cursed several times when the splintered wood caught. Upon finishing, she turned back to her companion.

"Ino…why are you still alive?" Sakura whispered.

Ino bit her lip, glancing sullenly at Sasuke. "Let's take a walk," she said, and dragged the bewildered Sakura outside.

Sasuke stood, alone, in the middle of the room. Mechanically, he locked the door behind them, and switched off the lights.

The rain drummed comfortingly against the windows.

"Maybe," Sasuke mumbled, pressing his nose flat to the glass, "One of them will be hit by lightening. If Santa decides I was a good boy, that is."

"I thought you died." Sakura said quietly, staring hard at Ino. "You moved to west side, didn't you? The entire place exploded about the same time your letters stopped coming."

The two of them were sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against an abandoned library wall. Ino grinned a little, and started raggedly pulling up grass, dumping the green stems into fluffy piles.

"Yeah, the whole place went down. I was hospitalized for over a month—god, that was boring." Ino smiled ironically, and scooted discreetly away from Sakura so that their shoulders weren't touching anymore.

Sakura's breath hitched, her face looking hurt. Ino pretended not to notice, occupying herself with straightening her hair.

"What then?" Sakura asked after a pause, and tucked her chin between her knees.

"The hospital blew up," Ino sarcastically laughed, and smashed her small pile of grass ruthlessly. "I sure know how to pick 'em."

"But—why aren't you dead?" Sakura whispered, wondering how many times she was going to ask that question.

"A nurse—his name was Haku—he saved me. Threw himself over me at the last second. He…he was so sad, Sakura. One of his patients had died earlier that day—Zabuza or something like that. I think—"

"Wait," Sakura interrupted, "The Zabuza? The terrorist?"

"Tried to assassinate one of our generals so he could command the regiment? Yeah, that's him," Ino nodded. "He was across the hall from me."

"Oh, God…" Sakura moaned.

"He looked really depressed and—I think he might've…died on purpose." Ino shuddered a little bit, and sunk her fingernails into the soft, wet Earth. "He didn't have to save me—we barely knew each other and—he could've just pulled me out of the way, he didn't have to—" Ino fell silent, remembering.

Sakura looked awkwardly over at her friend. She didn't know if she should hug her, or if that would just make things worse.

"You are damn ugly. Honestly. Whatever abomination responsible for your creation should be ashamed of themselves. Just looking at you offends me on a deep level. If you do not remove yourself from my presence, I shall be forced to burn you to the ground." The sarcastically pompous voice announced to the otherwise silent room.

The beaten over, mustard yellow chair made the mistake of not growing legs and running for its life.

Sasuke flicked the lighter open, "Excellent…"

"You know," Naruto wheezed, running in a dogged, zigzag line, "Even if I was going to smack you around, I'm too tired to do that right now."

The girl, who was moving forward at a pathetically slow pace, flapped one of her hands at him and started scaling the chain link fence blocking her escape. Naruto stared in barely concealed horror—the very thought of climbing making his skin crawl.

But wait—he didn't have to be stupid about this; he could make her come to him.

"I'll buy you ramen!" Naruto shrieked, hoping that she wouldn't mind that his definition of 'buy' was suspiciously close to 'steal.'

Somehow, she was able to turn down his offer. Hinata flopped over the fence, sprawling painfully on the ground and making no move to get up. Her lungs were on fire—it was painful just to breath. Her fingers dove into her pocket, wrenching out her inhaler and slamming it to her mouth.

Naruto clanged against the fence, breathing hard as he watched her. "You have asthma?"

Hinata jerked her head a little, still clinging to her inhaler like a drowning woman. Naruto laughed shakily, "Damn, well now I'm the bad guy. Okay," Naruto grumbled, and backed into the wall, sliding down it gratefully. "You cool with this? No more running?"

Hinata tucked her knees into her chest defensively and shook her head. She pocketed her inhaler, coughed harshly into a cupped palm, and smeared red into her pants when she wiped her hand clean.

"Er—you okay?" Naruto asked uneasily, and reflexively checked the street for army men. No way could he get away from them right now.

"Please go away," Hinata said softly, peering through the chain-linked-metal. "Leave me alone."

"I'm not giving up," Naruto retorted stubbornly, "And you should really go to a doctor or something."

He laughed at his own joke, but stopped at the 'are-you-insane?' look Hinata was giving him.

"So…what happened after the hospital?" Sakura pressed, fiddling with the ends of her hair.

"And my life was thoroughly screwed over again?" Ino asked wryly, turning her head to look Sakura fully in the face, "What do you think I did Sakura?" It hurt to say that. It hurt to let Sakura down, to tell her that she didn't grow up to be a pop star.

"…Oh," Sakura said, falsely casual. "I—oh."

"What, you're sorry? Don't be. It was my fault—I was always the stupid one after all, right?" Ino said to her legs, face still hidden from Sakura.

"That's not true—" Sakura snapped angrily, only to be cut off again by Ino.

"Yeah, it is Sakura. You're not selling yourself off, are you? I was the one who did—God, I'm so stupid—I thought I could just pay off my debts and the adios the whole damn thing." Ino's shoulders were shaking, but Sakura still didn't know if she was allowed to touch her best friend.

"Look, Ino—you did what you had to, alright?" She tried valiantly to smooth things over, and sat forcefully on her hands. "It's not like—you were just trying to survive—"

"I know," Ino said quietly, and curled in on herself even further, if that was possible. "I know."

They sat in silence for a second, the wet air flattening their hair. Rain seeped through Sakura's sneakers, chilling her toes unpleasantly. Eventually, Ino uncurled, propping her chin on her hands to watch the steady drip of water.

"You're free now," Sakura said softly, tentatively reaching over to grab Ino's hand. "You left them—they can't do anything to you." Ino almost shrank away from her hand—but stopped, because this was Sakura, who used to braid her hair and eat cookie dough with her on hazy summers and biting winters.

Ino took a deep breath, "Not exactly."

Sakura waited—the beginnings of ideas forming in her mind.

"Sakura…do you still want to be a doctor?" Ino asked, face serious. Sakura nodded after a minute, eyes firm.

"Good—I need a favor. You don't have to deal with it right now—but you will in eight months." Ino looked away, her voice forcefully light. Sakura's hand squeezed her own—almost painfully tight.

"You sure about this? It's won't be easy Ino—having a baby never is." Sakura asked her friend as they walked back to the apartment together.

"I know." Ino said calmly, "I don't care."

Sakura sighed, and shoved some hair behind her ears, "I dunno if I can do it right—most doctors have months of training, and schooling, and—"

"You'll do fine," Ino said stiffly, "You have a long time to get ready."

Sakura groaned, rolling her shoulders back. She pulled the coat more tightly around herself, "What are you going to do when…when it's here?"

"I haven't thought about it." Ino admitted, a pang of worry splashing through her. Sakura rolled her eyes. "I—I guess I'll stay here."

"Good—I'll help you. And, I dunno, maybe if Naruto's still hanging out he can help too—" Sakura mused, tapping her chin.

"Can you kick the other guy out? He's kind of scary." Ino interrupted, raising an eyebrow and paying special attention to Sakura's reaction.

"Who, Sasuke? He isn't so bad—once you get past the pyromaniac asshole who burned my home down bit—" Sakura ranted, getting increasingly irritated as she talked.

"He's pretty," Ino interjected, a coy grin curling over her face. Sakura faltered a second—staring at her. That was Ino, right there.

"Well, yeah," she grumbled, snapping out of her nostalgic daze. "Still a jerk though."

"He looks at you a lot," Ino sang, and looped an arm around Sakura's shoulder quickly, before she lost her nerve. Sakura didn't seem to notice, being preoccupied with snorting.

"Oh, yeah, as in glaring."

"He's confused. I bet you he thinks that's what bedroom eyes are." Ino snickered, and flicked Sakura's forehead.

"Oh Ino, GROSS!" Sakura wailed, planting her hands forcefully over her ears. She shuddered once more for theatrics, and then looped her chain off of her neck, selected her key, and let herself into the apartment.

She dropped her key back around her neck, clicked on the lights, and froze.

Ino followed her inside and nearly dissolved into hysterical laughter.

Sasuke glared at both of them, legs crossed Indian style. He stifled a yawn and swiped quickly at his eyes. "What?" he demanded, scotching upwards on his newly stolen chair.

Sakura's mouth fell open, closed, and opened again. Her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head, and Ino was nearly on the floor laughing.

His face felt weird. Nonchalantly, he reached upwards and scratched at his cheek.

His fingers came away purple—and Naruto was snoring suspiciously on the floor, apparently doing his best to appear innocently asleep. A sense of dread seeped into Sasuke's, almost hesitantly he strode over to the window and peered at his reflection.

He had somehow transformed into a clown while sleeping. Just like Naruto's sleeping bag was somehow rolling towards the door. "You," Sasuke snarled, and stalked over to where his best friend was escaping, "Are dead."

Sakura crossed the street quickly, papers clutched to her chest. Something was very, very wrong

She had gone to the library earlier that day, hoping to do some research for Ino. None of her medical text books had said anything about the proper way to deliver a baby, so the library had been the next logical step. She logged on to the computer, researched—and then started browsing—reading up on recommended diets, popular names—

Funny how much you could tell about a person from their name.

It took her just under an hour to return home. Sasuke and Naruto looked to be on the edge of a fight, while Ino sat moodily by the window.

"Hey, Sakura-chan—" Naruto started to say before she interrupted him.

"Okay—guys," Sakura interrupted the glaring fest, and shot a quick glance to Ino. "There's something really weird happening. I was doing some research, and—well, just look."

She handed out the sheets of paper, and waited for them to finish reading.

"Most popular baby names?" Sasuke snarled, after a second of skimming.

"Just read it," Sakura snarled edgily.

"You are so annoying," Sasuke spat back, but began.

A couple seconds passed.

"Hey forehead—what are we supposed to be looking at?" Ino asked, raising one of her eyebrows and folding up her paper. "It's just a bunch of names."

"Every single name on that list is a boy name." Sakura replied in a monotone, her eyes dark. "And I know—it could just be a coincidence—but I checked the birth records. It was covered up at first, several official documents lie about it—but I went through each person individually—"

"What are you talking about?" Sasuke interrupted, his shoulders hunching, a prickle of unease making him aggressive.

She paused, and sighed heavily, "The point is…not a single baby girl's been born in the past ten years."

"What?" Naruto asked blankly, his eyes almost popping out of his head, "But—that can't be right! We're all going to die if that's—"

"Liar," Ino said suddenly, her chin jerking up spasmodically. Those around her stared in puzzlement as the blonde girl's face began to contort in rage. "You freaking liar—"

"I am not," Sakura snapped, "Lying about this. Look Ino, you saw the records, I got the proof right in front of you—"

"Sakura," Naruto interrupted, one startling animalistic canine pulling back at his lower lip, "There has to be some sort of mistake. That's not statistically possible."

"That's the point," Sakura hissed agitatedly, her hair starting to stand on end, "Something's going on here!"

Ino laughed harshly, her lovely eyes wide with suppressed fear and forceful scorn, "You can't be serious. Look, Sakura, you can't keep living in your dream world." Her voice lowered at the end of her proclamation, her expression flickering into pity. Sakura's jaw tightened minutely.

"I'm not making this up Ino," she said softly, her shoulders trembling from strain. "I'm not lying to you about this. This is real, I promise you." Ino shook her head sharply, and looked bleakly down at the floor. Her hands flattened over her still-flat stomach unconsciously.

"Sakura-chan," Naruto said quietly, "Are you trying to say that—that the army's been drugging us or something? C'mon—"

"Are you really that surprised?" Sasuke said suddenly, speaking up for the first time. He folded his paper fastidiously, and slipped it into one of his many pockets. Meaningfully, he looked up at Naruto, locking eyes with the other boy. Some unsaid message seemed to filter through them. "Are you stupid?"

Naruto's lips thinned and he pressed himself backwards into the shadowed wall. The whisker-tattoos on his face were abruptly thrown into sharp relief. Sakura started abruptly; for a second, Naruto had almost resembled some sort of monster.

"The army," Sasuke's low voice broke her away from her musings, "Is the only organized party that is powerful enough to do something this big."

"But," Ino interrupted suddenly, and her eyes flashed over to Sakura's challengingly, "The human race won't be able to continue if there aren't any girls. If they're altering the sex of the embryo's so that they'll all be boys—well, it just doesn't make any sense. Why would they be doing that?"

"Tradition?" Naruto guessed wildly, "The idea that men are more suited for military purposes?"

"That's crap and you know it," Sasuke said dismissively, "The sign-ups don't work like that anymore. Back with the original World Wars, females were still being oppressed. They aren't doing that now—if you haven't been paying attention to the street combs."

"And," Sakura added, "Even if it was the idea of physical superiority—we fight with guns and other pretty toys now. It doesn't matter if you're a guy and a three hundred pound linebacker or a size extra-small woman. All that matters is who shoots first."

"See?" Ino snarled, "It's ridiculous, there's no gain for them—"

"Maybe," Naruto interrupted her, speaking so quietly that Sakura wasn't even sure how they'd heard him. His face was still cast in shadow, making Sakura wish she had light bulbs and didn't need to rely on the sun for illumination. Naruto continued croakily, "Maybe it was a mistake."

Sasuke was watching Naruto carefully again, his slanted eyes narrowed speculatively, one dark eyebrow swooping downwards. "It could be the North-side," he said calmly, diverting the attention away from Naruto. "A ploy to thin our numbers."

"But—" Sakura frowned, "South-side's the one fighting for human experimentation, and altering the gender of an embryo's definitely going to fall within that 'forbidden category.' Does the north-side even have any genetic research?"

"Probably not," Sasuke agreed, "But they might, and it's the only thing making sense so far."

Ino bit her lip and asked, voice quavering, "So—does that mean I'll have a boy? I haven't—I haven't been injected or anything…"

"I don't know," Sakura said quietly, "I…I really don't know."

The four of them stood in silence, minds racing and hearts pounding. Sakura chewed on a hang-nail. Maybe they put something into the water system? Poisoned a crop? Or—what if it was an inhalant

"Hey," Naruto spoke suddenly, and his hands clenched together tightly, "What're we going to do now?"

Sasuke snorted, lying sideways on his armchair, his legs thrown carelessly over the side, "Something stupid, knowing you."

Naruto, for once, tactfully ignored him.

"Hey," Sakura spoke, "What about Tsunade? She'd know all about this stuff, right?"

But Naruto was shaking his head, "She'd know how to do a check up and shit, but there's no way of her knowing about this. Plus, she's hard to find. Old hag's always moving around…"

"The—are there any hospitals around here?" Ino wondered aloud, puzzled. Sasuke jerked his head to the side, and Naruto shrugged.

"The hospitals would have birth records," Sakura mused, "And probably some sort of compound check, so if we went through some files to see if people had abnormally high levels of…iron, let's say…"

"Patients go to hospitals," Sasuke grumbled, unimpressed, "Sick people. They ALL probably have some sort of chemical imbalance."

"So what do you suggest we do, just break in to the royal palace and hold the generals at gunpoint until they give us an answer?" Sakura snapped, her teeth grinding together loudly. Sasuke glared back at her, though his look was curiously empty of venom.

"We could," Ino mumbled almost-casually, "Check the North-side for little girls."

"But—" Sakura finally said after yet another prolonged silence, "How could we get over there? The border's a dangerous place."

"They aren't fighting along the whole thing," Ino pointed out. "Over to the west, I don't think anyone's guarding the sea."

"They are," Sasuke said dully, "That beach is so full of land-mines a mouse couldn't get through. There's a complex current system going on as well, so the water in the bay's flowing in a constant circle. They spiked the water with acid, and the rip tides will keep any boats from leaving."

"How much acid?" Ino insisted stubbornly, "We don't need to get out of the bay, we just need to go along the shore."

"A lot of acid," Sasuke said dully, not bothering to push back the dark bangs falling into his face, "Enough to eat through the hull of an iron-enforced boat in under half an hour."

"The rivers then?" Ino pressed on. Sakura shot a glance at the other girl, wondering why Ino was so desperate. She must really not want her baby to be a boy.

Naruto laughed, "I tried that already. Heat-sensitive barb wire, it sends an electric shock through the water and fries you."

"So basically," Sakura sighed, and leaned unconsciously against Sasuke's chair. "The only way through is to make a break for it on the front lines? That's impossible."

But Sasuke was watching her, his eyes cast upwards through his hair to rest on where she was leaning. An ironic smirk tugged at his face, unsaid considerations flitting through his head. "No," he said softly, "It's not."

Ino let out a shaky sigh, wallowing in the cold air. Her feet burned from the constant press of gravel, and her arms were crossed tightly over her chest for warmth. "Hinata!" She called, and stepped daintily across the street, ignoring the group of hungry-looking adolescents.

Ino slid through the alleys, her conscience weighing heavily on her shoulders. Hinata had given up everything, all her security and comforts, just to follow Ino, because Ino had asked her to. And then to repay her, Ino had taken off, reuniting with lost friends and interacting with new ones.

"Hinata?" Ino yelled again, hoping that the other girl hadn't taken off—or worse, gone back to their brothel. Her hope was starting to run out though; she'd been searching for over an hour now, and still no sign of the girl.

Maybe Hinata didn't want to be found. Ino sighed, and ducked back out to the main street, padding along dejectedly. The sun burned coldly overhead, offering light but no warmth; meaning that Ino should head home soon, else she'd be sick. Ino set a brisk pace, flitting towards a run-down park. She really ought to be heading home…

Instead, she crawled through the hole in the chain-link fence, brushed her knees off, and chose a seat on the still-remaining swing. The chains were rusted iron, and the entire structure shook warningly when Ino rocked back-and-forth, so she remained carefully stationary.

A soft snuffle came from the tube slide. Ino disregarded it, thinking to let whoever was inside continue their rest.

After some time, when her fingers began to feel as if they were burning, Ino rose, and started to leave. "You ought to get inside," she called to whoever was in the slide. Whipping her blonde pony-tail over her shoulder, she waltzed towards the fence.

From behind her, a soft voice beckoned, "Ino?"

The blonde froze, and then turned around abruptly, "Hinata!?"

And it was her, all cold-flushed cheeks and pale everything—definitely Hinata. Her eyes were that pale-pale lavender that Ino remembered, though her hair was starting to look a little ragged.

"Oh," Hinata breathed, "You found me." A small, gentle smile pulled across her face, "I'm so glad…"

"Hinata," Ino repeated stupidly, shocked. Abruptly, she took several long strides across the playground, and grabbed the other girl's hand tightly, ignoring the uncomfortable feeling it gave her. "Hinata, come on, you look frozen."

"I—I am." Hinata laughed a little, her forehead alarming hot to the touch, "Took you a while, Ino."

"I'm sorry," Ino said softly, "I—I didn't know where you were. Now please, come with me."

Hinata's face was guarded, her dark hair fluttering around delicate features. She panted a little, her already unnaturally flushed face darkening. "Are they…nice?" She asked lightly, eyes averted as she feigned disinterest. Ino blinked.


"Your friends," Hinata replied, and managed to sound accusing without meaning to. Ino flinched, but refused to withdraw her hand.

"Mostly," she managed a smile. "They all want to meet you Hinata."

Hinata laughed; a dry, rasping sound. Ino stomped on her alarm, firmly telling herself not to panic. Hinata shook her head from side to side, disbelief and irony claiming her. "Meet me?"

"Yes," Ino said firmly, "So please come."

"Is he there?" Hinata asked shyly, pale eyes brilliant and arresting, "The one who chased me?"

"Yeah," Ino nodded, "But he isn't so bad—he's not going to hurt you, though he can be kind of annoying sometimes." She forced a laugh, which sounded mechanical. Hinata considered her, and then raised her other hand, resting it lightly on Ino's face.

"Don't—don't…leave me again," Hinata brokenly commanded, and Ino nodded vigorously.

"I won't, I promise."

"You don't need to wear anything to be a part of the army. They know you by the tattoos, barcodes, if you wanna be picky." Naruto was explaining to Sakura, carefully sliding the sharpie over the skin on her back. She frowned, shivering a little from the cold, wet feel of the marker.

"Then, won't they know I'm not one of them? I'm not going to turn up on their scanners."

"Hence the low profile," Naruto grinned, and started scribbling minute numbers below the parallel, vertical lines. Sakura grimaced.

"This has got to be the most retarded thing I have ever done," she mumbled, her muscles relaxing in relief as Naruto finished. He let out a sharp bark of laughter.

"What, voluntarily going front line? That's not half as bad as me."

"Maybe I'm just smarter," Sakura teased, holding her hand out for the marker. "Give it, I'll do you now."

"Oh please do," Naruto leered. Sakura threw the marker at him, her eyes narrowed in mock anger.

"Pervert. So, the plan is to just sneak around until the next battle? Then we run into the melee, avoid being killed, and sneakily switch over the sides?" She asked, and bit her tongue in concentration as she applied the mock tattoos.

"Pretty much. Avoid all the scanners, too."

"Yeah, I know." Sakura finished, and rocked back on her heels to admire her work. "Okay, I think you're done—"

The door to their base opened, revealing a grouchy Sasuke. Sakura blinked, idly wondering what had gotten him into such a bad mood. He paused on entering the threshold, his dark eyes drinking in Naruto and her. Self consciously, Sakura tugged her shirt down so the skin on her back was no longer exposed. She smiled forcibly.

"Hey, do you want me to disguise you?" She asked lightly, and failed to notice Naruto stiffening beside her. Sasuke froze for a second, and then spoke; his voice flat.

"No," he said simply, and fishing around beneath his coat, produced two acid-launchers. He tossed the weapons carelessly towards them. "Just point and shoot. Only use the acid close-range, use these," he tossed them some bullets, "For long range."

Sakura cradled her weapon gently, her mouth pressed into a thin line. "Okay, now we just have to wait for Ino—"

"She's not coming," Sasuke replied flatly, and started smearing camo-paint across his face. Sakura blinked, and began to protest, but Sasuke cut her off again. "We don't need very many people. Three's a good number, means at least one of us will be able to make it. Too many will make us stand out."

Naruto nudged Sakura lightly, and smiled with his eyes and mouth. "Don't worry about it,. Everyone's going to make it; Sasuke just likes being a drama-queen."

Sasuke shot him a glare, and threw the container of paint at him. "Put that on," he ordered, and marched stiffly out the door. Dipping his fingers obediently into the paint, Naruto reached over and, before she could stop him, drew a smiley-face on Sakura cheek. She scowled at him, and deliberately ran her fingers through his hair, coating the blond strands in green-brown muck.

Sasuke came back, rolling his eyes, and threw two dark, skin-tight suits at them. Sakura picked up the smaller one and eyed it distastefully—it looked like a wet suit.

"Soldier's garb," Sasuke told them coolly, already having changed into his. Sakura eyed him curiously. The suit ended just before his elbows and knees. It looked streamlined, silver and black, with no pockets and a hood to cover hair.

She grabbed her suit and slid quickly into her sleeping bag, did a bit of maneuvering, and then came out dressed as Sasuke was. Naruto popped his head out of his own sleeping bag and smiled approvingly. "Nice suit—"

"Shut up," Sakura grumbled, crossing her arms self-consciously. It took her a second to realize that Naruto wasn't the only one staring. "What?!" She hissed defensively at Sasuke.

He blinked, slow and deliberate. "You need to eat more," he said calmly, and turned away coolly. Sakura twitched, and blinked downwards at her figure.

"You," Sasuke commanded the two of them as the made their way down the street, "Are going to have to do exactly as I say." Sakura frowned at him, but didn't comment on the alpha-male attitude. If she hadn't already decided that he was a robot, she would have said that Sasuke looked scared. In a condemned sort of way. Naruto wasn't saying anything either, which was unusual, and made her think that there was something going on she didn't know about.

Sakura tugged uncomfortably at her clothes. She felt weird and bulky with her multiple layers, but this was the easiest way to do things. If they were walking down the street in soldier's clothes, people might think it was another sweep and react violently. For now, her jumpsuit was safely hidden beneath her civilian outfit.

The moon was out, Sakura noted. Full, and tinted green from the city's fumes. It was kind of pretty, so long as she didn't think about what she had to be breathing in.

The military base was less then half a mile away now. Her heart began beating faster, drumming hard against her sternum and reverberating within her ears. She forcibly slowed her breathing, fingers curling into tiny fists. She could do this. She would do this. She—

A strong hand pulled her sharply into an alley. She almost staggered, her hands bracing themselves against Sasuke's chest and retracting quickly, as though she had been burned. She coughed softly and falsely, studiously looking away from him.

Naruto grinned widely, pretending to press his face down onto his hands, holding it cradled there. "Aw…" He cooed, his foxy eyes curving upwards as Sakura blushed. "You two are so cute…"

Sasuke muttered something, and with concern Sakura noticed how bleak he sounded, like insulting Naruto wasn't really worth his energy. "Moron, get out of your clothes." Sasuke ordered snappily.

Naruto's eyes widened in fake-horror, "But Sasuke," he cooed, "People are watching us! We can't—not here—"

Sasuke hit him over the head irritably, a spark of anger over taking his haunted expression. Sakura laughed in a sort of horrified way, her hands clapped tightly over her mouth. She stripped down to her jumpsuit and waited for the other two to do so. The suits they wore had been designed with a hole strategically located around the area of the bar-codes, so that the skin was exposed and ready to be easily scanned.

Sakura checked Naruto's back quickly, "Your ink's not smudged, is mine?"

Naruto's eyes slid and lingered over her for a beat too long, "No."


"It's not," Sasuke said shortly, and stalked forward towards the base, his feet shoved sloppily into his combat boots. Sakura frowned after him, sliding her gaze over to Naruto, and indicating with her head that they should follow him.

Sakura tugged on the sleeve of Sasuke's suit, "Why're you so confident?"

Naruto twitched on her other side, shaking his head a little in warning. Sasuke stopped dead, his face still angled sharply towards the ground. Slowly, he looked upwards to the sky. "Because," he rasped, "It's not ink."

Sakura blinked, not sure she understood correctly. "It's a tattoo? Then—"

"Whole package," Sasuke corrected her with a suddenly violent snarl, "Tattoo, computer chip, tracker."

"But," Sakura stuttered, "You aren't part of the army—"

"No," Sasuke agreed, his breath hissing out between his teeth, "I ran away." He darted forward abruptly, as though he couldn't bear to stand with them.

Sakura watched him go, a blank numbness spreading through her. "He was—in the army? He killed people?"

Naruto was very quiet, but his hand touched her shoulder reassuringly. "He's still the same person, isn't he?"

She stood stock-still, mouth slightly open in surprise. Abruptly, she grabbed Naruto's hand and rushed him forwards, sprinting after Sasuke.

He hadn't gone far, choosing to pause and wait for them for the last few blocks. Silently, they made their way to the base. It wouldn't be hard to enter, the doors were unguarded on the civilian side. You'd have to be mad to launch an attack against the army.

Just as they were about to enter, a thought stuck Sakura. "Sasuke—what if someone recognizes you?"

"No one will," Sasuke said shortly, and continued forward. He paused again at Sakura's questioning noise, and cast a quick glance over to her. For a moment, no one spoke. Naruto shifted uneasily, looking between his two friends.

"Everyone I worked with—all the people in my unit…died." Sasuke said finally, and wrenched open the door.

Without even thinking about it, Sakura darted after him, gratefully for the reassuring pressure behind her that Naruto offered. The grey, dismal street was slapped away and replaced with controlled chaos. The room that they were standing in was empty, but distant shouting could be heard from all around.

Sasuke turned back, "It's easy to get in, but they'll have guards on the other side of the door. Naruto, you stick with Sakura. We're going to split up—they're launching an attack at dawn, and I want to get some work done before then."

"Work?" Naruto asked curiously, squinting one of his eyes against the harsh sizzle of the single, bare light bulb. "Dude, you need a vacation—"

"Do you still remember your way around?" Sasuke interrupted him woodenly, "Meet up at med-station 3 at five-hundred-hours?"

"Say five in the morning, jerk-off. You ran away for a reason, so don't start talkin' weird." Naruto rolled his eyes, and tugged on Sakura's exposed wrist. "C'mon, we need to hide for a few hours. Do some drills or something."

Sakura blinked, shaken from her shocked/sleepy daze. "But—what about Sasuke—"

"I'll come back," Sasuke said grumpily. He lead the way to the door, a stained steel barrier separating them from the hallway. Sakura blinked at him pleadingly.

"You promise?"


"God," Naruto interjected, "Have you guys been watching 'Days of Our Lives' again?" He ducked quickly, having anticipated the sharp kick Sasuke threw to his side. Without another word, the grim boy slipped into the hall.

Sasuke knew what would happen if he got scanned. His code had been marked out as a deserter's, so the second the computer recognized him, alarms would be sounded and soldiers would come running.

Problem was, he needed to get into the research facility, and research facilities came with scanners.

Smoothly, Sasuke lurked in the dark shadows of the building, his eyes straining against the darkness as he peered outwards, checking for an approaching soldier.

A group of three were drawing nearer, chatting softly to one another. Sasuke tensed, glaring intently, calculating how quickly he was going to need to move.

The trio had reached the doorway, one of them separating from the others and offering their back to the scanner, patiently waiting for the reading to finish. Every muscle in Sasuke's body felt like it was vibrating as he strained forwards against invisible barriers.

The door clicked, and Sasuke took a pace forwards—only to jerk himself backwards violently in the next second. The group hadn't taken any notice of him, and merely proceeded onwards.

Sasuke let out a breath as the door swung shut behind them, relaxing back into shadows. Sulkily, he glared at his object of frustrations—the sole security camera he had only just seen.

"What're they doing to them?" Sakura whispered fearfully, more to herself then to Naruto. Fresh screams were flooding from the detention center they had passed through several hours ago. Naruto grimaced, stirring half-heartedly at the gruel he had been given.

"Sweepers just came back, I guess. Those wailers are the slummers they just got from the streets."

"Are they torturing them?" Sakura shot back. She fidgeted on the wooden bench, her short finger nails drumming agitatedly against her knee. Naruto frowned, and kicked his heels back against the wall.

"Breaking them in. Tattoos and the microchips—they don't give you painkillers." All around them, dead faced soldiers loitered against the cafeteria's wall, legs splayed outwards, backs slumping forwards dejectedly. None of them paid any interest in what the others were doing.


"Well," Naruto laughed cheerfully, "Someone usually hits you over the head if they're going for amputation—or if you're really young." Disgusted with the food they had given him, he dumped it over the side of the bowl, watching the runny white paste puddle on the ground. Sakura looked on with unseeing eyes.

"Did they do that to Sasuke? Was he really young?"

"You kidding me? They got him the second he was born," he snorted, and scrunched up his nose at her. "Almost kind. A baby's nerves aren't fully developed."

"I know that," Sakura grumbled, resentful that he had assumed superiority over her knowledge of the human body. A prickle of interest sparked through her mind, "So Sasuke's parents were in the army?"

"His—oh." Naruto's face turned wary, "Forget I said that."


"Look," he interrupted her, face more serious then she had ever seen it. "I can't tell you about Sasuke's life, okay? I'm sorry, but—I can't say that." He trailed off rather lamely, begging her to understand, but refusing to relent on this one issue.

"Hurry up," Sasuke grumbled. He tapped his partially gloved fingers against the camera, "Come on…"

With an exhausted sigh, the camera stopped, whirling back from life—leaving Sasuke with nothing more then a half developed photograph.

A photograph with exactly the same picture as the view from the security camera.

Sasuke moved fast, sliding the frame into place with eye-blurring speed. On the monitors, the screen would blink—but remain unchanged. It wasn't a perfect defense—but it'd keep them unsuspecting for a while, and keep his face unseen.

The next group of three heading for the facility would not be passing through. Instead, they'd be waking up several hours later tucked beneath some bushes with massive head pains.

Sasuke dragged one of the unconscious men towards the scanner, holding the man perfectly still as the computer checked the code.

The lock popped, and he was in.

Scan done, Sasuke blinked back into normal black. Time for some creative problem solving.

Which meant that he tripped every damn alarm he saw—it was a public facility, after all. The bells wouldn't be ringing until they had a cross reference on his face. Sasuke knew this system—by the time the higher-ups even caught a whiff of an illegal cut-out being on thief turf, he'd be long gone.

Or very dead. It all depended on how well he remembered to fly an X-board.

They had installed cameras around the main computer. There was no way for him to use it without them seeing him—the stupid webcam was directly linked to the monitor. If he smashed it, the entire system would go into lock down.

He would just have to work quickly then, and hope that the person watching wasn't an old friend.

There were ways the military had of finding people. Just punch in their barcode number, and you could find them instantly by satellite. Numbers were recorded in records, permanent files, and the database.

It had taken Sasuke a while to erase the records they had on him, before he jumped ship. He wasn't the only runaway to have done so.

The person Sasuke was looking for wasn't listed in the records. Though, that was to be expected. If he was, the military would have gone after him for first class treason.

It was a lucky thing that Sasuke remembered the barcode number he needed, then.


He typed the number in, hoping his long bangs would hide his face from the camera for the time being. The screen flickered, data loading. Sasuke licked his lips, sparing a glance for the clock in the corner of the screen. 4:35 a.m. He had twenty five minutes to get his info, get out of here, steal three X-boards, and get to the meeting point.

This would be interesting.

"Data loaded," the computer chimed, and Sasuke's attention snapped back to the screen in front of him. A single red dot blinked, moving slowly along a street Sasuke didn't recognize the name of. He frowned, and zoomed out, searching for familiar land marks.

13th avenue, 14th, 15th…

All of the streets, Sasuke realized, were organized by numbers. South side was entirely made up of lettered streets. This meant…

That his target had to be on north side.

Sasuke grinned predatorily. Looked like following Naruto's lead had actually paid off, for once. Granted, the others might not like it too much if they found out about the little detour he was planning—but there were ways of dealing with that.

A savage sense of purpose surged up within him, and with a final look at the small dot, Sasuke fled, making sure to wipe the screen's data.

"So, what where you doing in a military camp if you weren't fighting?" She crossed her arms challengingly, bringing to light that thus-far avoided topic.

"…Well, I wasn't a soldier." Naruto's laugh sounded rather forced, "Anyway, you see that ridge over there? That's our blocker. They've got scouts walking along the top, incase the enemy launches a surprise attack. My guess is that the North-side has something just like it, a couple miles back or so. Between that space is where the combat takes place."

"…Great." Sakura drew in a deep breath, squinting at the soldiers several yards from her, trying to make out the large, bulky weapons they held, "Got any paper?"

"Nope," Naruto gave her an odd look, "Why?"

"I want to write my will," Sakura said, only half-joking. Naruto laughed weakly, looking slightly panicked.

"We can use Sasuke as a shield." He offered.

"Oh, but that would ruin his pretty face," Sakura muttered, trying for sarcasm and not pulling it off as well as she'd have liked.

"Thanks for the concern, Sakura," a voice spoke suddenly from above them. A second later, and Sasuke crashed down beside Naruto, panting heavily, three oddly shaped objects pressed between his arm and side.

Sakura blanched, and sternly reminded herself that this was not the time to blush.

"You know what this is?" Sasuke asked, and shoved one of the mysterious objects at her. It was black, but oddly shiny in the light—like polished obsidian. One side had spongy, rubbery grippers spread across it. It was a little longer then her forearm, and about as wide as her foot. A small engine was strapped to the bottom of one of the sides.

Sakura shook her head, "No…"

Sasuke sighed like the world was ending, and looked almost pleadingly at Naruto, who shook his head as well.

"Great," Sasuke hissed sarcastically, throwing one of the things at Naruto. "This should be fun."

"Thanks for the optimism," Naruto whispered, mindful of the people dashing around them, "Now explain."

Sasuke sent him a long suffering look. "This is an X-board. Unfold them, you'll see that it's got three more legs."

They did so, delicately. The engine was directly centered, with the four legs extending outwards to form an X.

Sparing a glance at the people rushing unknowingly past them, Sasuke flipped a switch, and the board hummed to life, rising several inches, out of the bushes. Most of the people were already on the ridge top, and the others paid them no mind.

"Your boards are magnetic," Sasuke explained, "So use the grippers for traction, but don't worry about falling off. You're glued to the board, since there's quite a lot of metal in combat boots—which you're wearing."

"Great." Naruto said grumpily, "No one's going to have to even shoot—I'll kill myself by hitting a bird in a few seconds."

"The thing to worry about," Sasuke continued on, pausing to give Naruto a slightly satisfied look, "Is balance. Half the soldiers out there can't even move forwards, the training's so inadequate. So some blond idiot shouldn't stand out too much."

"I resent that," Naruto said grumpily. Tentatively, Sakura laid her board on the ground, and flicked the switch on. She stepped on carefully, feeling her foot latch into place. Bracing herself, she swung her other foot onto the opposite side.

The board tipped slightly as the side went down, but straightened immediately when she leveled it out.

"You move," Sasuke explained, jumping onto his own board flawlessly, rolling his eyes when Naruto smacked inelegantly into the med center. "By tipping the side forwards. The downside is, you move down as well. To go up," he indicated the center of the board, "You stomp on the engine a bit."

A streak of light slipped over the horizon, as the sun rose upwards, majestic in its splendor.

A bell rang, deep and mournfully. Up on the ridge, the first few people peeled off and sped into unknown territory.

"Cool," Sakura whispered, dread and adrenaline smoking her out and pushing her forwards. She stomped down hard on the center of the board, and rose rapidly, shooting straight forwards.

She stopped, twenty feet high, and started speeding towards the ridge, pulling out her acid gun as she did so.

"Faster," Sasuke urged. Naruto was between both of them, Sakura and Sasuke supporting either side. Together, they shot down the rise, tiny amidst the other cloud of soldiers. Sasuke had been right, Sakura realized. The entire thing was chaos—soldiers crashing into one another, boards zipping towards their fallen riders.

And the enemy was still a good mile away.

"Get in the middle!" Naruto yelled, keeping one hand on Sasuke's shoulder. He let go of Sakura's arm and wobbled precariously.

Sasuke was looking tense, flying hard. He moved forward in a sudden burst of speed, throwing the other boy off balance. Naruto squeaked, and lurched forwards. He almost collided with another rider before his board saved him.

Sasuke was moving off, leaning so hard he was almost freefalling. Naruto's arms wind wheeled, and Sakura caught a hold of him. "Step onto mine!" she yelled, "Just for balance—don't lean too hard. I'm not as heavy as you."

They slowed down, falling back into the main group again. Her head whipped around, searching for their other companion. She found him a second later, perhaps a hundred feet in front of them. Other people were crashing down around them, and the North-side had to be less then a quarter of a mile away.

"Sasuke!" She screamed, "What are you doing?! Get back and help—"

"We can't all survive this, Sakura!" Sasuke yelled back, "We're too big a target now, we've got a better shot at things if we split up." He pivoted, facing them fully, leaning backwards and gunning the engine.

Sakura's face paled even further. Without Sasuke, she and Naruto didn't have a prayer. "If you leave us, we're going to—"

"He's slowing you down," Sasuke's face was very, very cold. "Leave him, Sakura. You might make it."

"You…" Naruto's entire body trembled, his hold on her wrist crushing. "You…bastard, I—" Naruto sounded like he might've been clamping down a sob. A swirl of rage and grief poured through Sakura as she glanced over towards him. "I thought we were friends."

Sasuke breathed in sharply. "There are things…" He locked eyes with Naruto, "More important then friends. And this is something that I have to do."

Sakura thought that Naruto might have stopped breathing. Tears were pricking at her eyes, and she bared her teeth, wiping them hastily. How could he? How could he just abandon her—how could he abandon Naruto, who he was closer to then anyone else?

"…Weak…" Sasuke breathed, and slammed down hard on his engine, again and again.

Sakura scrubbed at her cheeks, the backs of her hands coming away wet. "Be a cannibal, Sasuke," she quipped bitterly. "Eat a rat."

Ino slid open the window, and clambered out awkwardly. Her bare feet burned from the cold, melting the first acid snowflakes with inaudible sizzles. She shimmied down the neighbor's fire escape, resting morosely on the ladder, swinging her feet through frosty air. Sometimes she just needed to breath

"Ino…?" A familiar, but forgotten voice sounded from below. Ino peered down, and gaped.

"What—Choji?" She slid down another few notches, scrutinizing his wide, kind face. Choji pulled his coat more tightly around him, and smiled up at her confusedly. The lines of his face softened into relief.

"…What're you doing here? I thought you died…" He trailed off, uncertainty erasing his happy expression. Ino tried for a grin, and pitched her voice back into its old, boisterous tone.

"It seems a lot of people've been thinking that these days. They usually say it with that same disappointed expression too." She laughed a little at the end, just so he'd know she was kidding. Choji still looked alarmed.

"I just…your town blew up. It seemed pretty unlikely…" He tugged on a lock of reddish-brown hair, tipping his head curiously to the side. Ino shrugged, and leaned out further. She didn't want to go into her past with Choji—not yet, anyway.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You still with your family? Mom still make the best cookies on the planet?" If there was one thing she could count on as discussion with Choji, it was food. It was therefore staggering to see his expression crumple. Ino steeled herself for the inevitable.

"…No. No, there aren't anymore cookies." Choji looked at the ground, and scuffed one of his feet. A little bit of snow melted on Ino's temple, and slid down to her chin. She shivered from the cold, and something else.

"Oh. I-I'm sorry…"

"It's okay, Ino. I've got a friend to hang out with—I just haven't seen him much lately. I think he met a girl." Choji's change of topic was almost pathetically obvious, but she chased it anyway, desperate for something.

"Oh yeah? Want me to kick his ass for you?"

"Ha, sure. Nara Shikamaru—he's got this growth coming out of his head. Hard to miss him."

The moist fog of Ino's breath did not come. It seemed that she had become one with the icy metal she sat on—immobile.

"…Did you say Shikamaru?" Her head swam, memories drowning. Choji blinked up at her in concern and a little hope.

"…Yeah, why? Do you know him?"

"Yeah, I do. Lazy bum." Her laughter was brittle, and shredded her throat coming up. Choji appeared to have not noticed, for he snickered.

"That's him, alright." His eyes curved up, reminiscing towards the asphalt. Ino's toes curled, trying to keep warm. She wanted to pull her arms under her shirt, but didn't dare loosen her grip on the ladder.

"Wait, so he—he was seeing someone?" A little panic flared sharply, and she squashed it firmly. Choji had begun bouncing on the balls of his feet—obviously, the cold was getting to him as well.

"I dunno, think so. He was always sneaking out at night—usually looked kinda excited about it. Well, you know, as excited as Shikamaru can be."

"So…so where is he?"

"I don't know. He left a few days ago, hasn't come back since. Maybe he eloped and they're down on a beach in Fiji. Doubt it, though." Choji bit his lip, and her panic rekindled, spurred on by guilt and dread.


"Just the way he looked last time I saw him. Kinda tense, sort of worried. Maybe they got into a fight or something. He only stopped by our place for a minute to grab his coat and a backpack of God-knows-what." Choji rattled the facts off hollowly, and with a jolt, Ino realized that he was just like her—clinging to the hope of return, no guarantees.

Maybe Ino couldn't fix herself. Maybe she was a weak, dirty girl who couldn't set foot in a church for fear of spontaneous combustion. But maybe there were still things for her to do.

"Okay…Well, I have to go. My feet are freezing. I live right over there—" She jerked her chin upwards, indicating the open window. "So come over whenever you want. We'll drink water and pretend it's tea." Choji looked about as enthusiastic as her proposal had been. He started walking back through the alley, glancing over his shoulder once, watching the long-limbed girl scramble upwards.

"Sounds delicious."

Ino smiled and waved him away, then darted inside, roughly pulling on her shoes, coat—and slamming the door on her way out.

Someone was waiting.

Naruto was flying in front of Sakura, moving in a dementedly straight line, his feet planted and a dead soldier on hand as a shield.

Sakura zoomed through the air, dodging over careening X-boards and free-falling soldiers, some dead, some not. She was perhaps fifty feet from the ground, her gun in hand, still unused.

Two people were flying towards her, one of them a South, the other a North. The South seemed to have gone berserker, his machine gun spitting out bullets rapid-fire. The North was aiming carefully, her eyes wild.

Sakura screeched to a halt, board going on a diagonal slant, and threw herself off her board, plummeting head-first towards the ground, the bottoms of her feet clamped together. "Naruto!" She shot down by him, thirty feet up, "Behind you!"

Her feet separated, and with a lurch, she was connected again. With a little spin, she righted herself, and slammed down, shooting back up to her previous level. Half way there, the North's splintered board sparked down past her, followed shortly thereafter by the rider.

Impulsively, Sakura reached out and grabbed her arm, her feet grinding in for traction as she shifted hard right. Hysterical brown eyes met her own, the rest of the woman's face hidden by a helmet. Sakura's mouth opened—and she shut it again uncertainly. Tentatively, she smiled. A little sag of relief pulled at the North's brow—and then the veins of her eyes bulged horrendously, her gasp silence by the muffle of her helmet.

The South berserker had shot her in the back of the head.

Sakura's fingers numbed and the dead slipped through her fingers. A wave of hysteria washed over her—not just for the death before her, but all around her. Everywhere, she could see people falling, crashing, disintegrating. The air rang with the screams of guns and people alike, as slowly, the ranks thinned.

And it wasn't even seven in the morning.

Sakura leaned hard to the left, moving faster then she ever had before, her back heels lifted, one hand pushing the motor as she crouched, flying for the berserker. They were still spinning in a circle, shooting blindly. She flew until she was almost directly beneath them, then hit the motor as hard as she could, almost flying.

She came up beside him, instantly grabbing his attention. He shot—but she had already moved, pushing off of the board's uplift into a front-flip over his head. Her legs pulled in as a shield, feet clamped together, and she fired.

She could hardly miss from such a distance.

Her feet spread, and she found herself once again hanging upside down, almost surrounded by a group of North's.

She lifted a foot, slamming down, and spraying a swirl of acid even as she retreated. She righted herself a second later, and tried not to dwell on the screams. Now that she was higher up, the game was different. Sharp-shooters zipped about with more order, but still playing a deadly game. This was where the people with any experience came, Sakura realized, and hit the engine, just as she leaned down, zipping strongly to the side, away from a group of Norths.

Where was Naruto…?

Oh crap. She almost screamed with fear as she found him—small and reckless and so very, very brave; heading straight toward a group of fighters ganging up on another South.

A bang sounded behind her, and a glancing pain split through her arm. She gasped, and whirled, shooting several times before bothering to aim. Not wasting time to see if she had shaken off her attacker, Sakura sped down towards Naruto, her heart in her mouth, shapes and sounds blurring around her.

She watched as they surrounded him, shot. Watched as the bullet ripped through his shoulder, watched as acid ate through his boot and burned his skin. She screamed—raw and ripping, and wished and wished and wished she was faster, she hadn't left his side.

Some North had a rocket launcher, she realized. Who hell uses rocket launchers in close combat? What kind of mental would you have to be? Naruto seemed to have seen him as well, for he turned—his beautiful, blue-blue eyes shocked wide. His mouth opened, expression morphing into terror. Another gunshot fired, and red blossom crawled out of his stomach. Shocked, he toppled forward, loosing his balance even as the rocket was launched.


She was so close—so close…With a scream, she pushed off her board, hanging onto it with one hand and jackknifing it towards the missile. She rammed into Naruto from the side, realizing that by some twisted luck, the board would intercept. Not that it would do them any good—they were falling, bullets and acid showering around them.

And then a spinning, lethal thing came ripping through their ranks. Triangular, flashing razor blades had been attached to each end of the board, flecks of hot blood sliding off them. Sakura choked as burst of metal rain marked off the enemy group with pin-point accuracy. She adjusted her grip on Naruto, squinting as a spray of red decorated her face—and reached for the outstretched hand.

The leather from their fingerless gloves grated together, and Sakura gasped again at the jolting impact on her shoulder. Sasuke was already hauling her and Naruto up, as they slanted down. She handed off Naruto, who was barely conscious, and hit the motor for him, clinging to the board by her two hands.

"Get your foot on!" Sasuke roared, and seized her collar, jerking her up and nearly choking her in the process. She floundered, and by sheer luck kicked one of her feet up high enough for the magnets to pull her on. The wound on her arm was bleeding more heavily, and pierced through her in a sharp, raw way. She breathed in several deep, shuddering gasps, and unleashed a hail of bullets, her other arm holding Naruto across her lap.

"Bastard…" Naruto was laughing wetly through the blood in his mouth, "Knew you'd come back…"

"It wasn't for you," Sasuke snarled, and jammed on the motor again, shooting away from the melee and towards the enemy's encampment. Naruto was still laughing.

"'Course not. You're just a sucker for pretty faces." Naruto shifted in her lap, almost falling off. Her arms straining, Sakura held on tighter.

"I didn't come back for Sakura either," Sasuke said distastefully, not looking at her. Naruto snickered, his eyes already slipping shut.

"I was…talking about me…sucker…" He sighed softly, slipping down into unconsciousness. Sakura glanced at him worriedly, and pressed her hand flat to his stomach-wound, hoping the pressure would slow the flow for the time being.

"…Why did you come back?" Sakura asked quietly, watchful of the few remaining soldiers, all of whom were closer to the center then they were. Sasuke touched down to the ground, and lifted Naruto away from her, dragging the limp blond amongst the other, less lively bodies into a shallow trench.

"I don't know," Sasuke said flatly. His dark bangs hid his eyes from her questioning look. "Just did. Just a whim."

Sakura nodded awkwardly, and settled down beside Naruto, pulling up his shirt to take a better look.

Maybe that's enough.

"Took you long enough," Shikamaru raised his eyebrows when he saw her. Ino dragged her feet nervously, glancing over her shoulder. If her any of her former employers saw her, she was totally screwed. The only kind of runaways were the dead ones.

She quirked up half of her mouth, "I moved. Something came up. I'm sorry, I—I didn't stick around to tell you."

"What happened?" His face was decidedly cold. She didn't blame him. Being stood up for several weeks would put a damper on most people's good spirits.

She smothered the urge to put her hands on her still flat stomach. She still had time. She still had eight months. Ino bit her lip, and examined her shoes. "I…family stuff. I panicked."

Which wasn't a totally lie, but…well. Still.

"Oh. Who owns the bakery now?"

Bakery? What bakery—oh, right. The bakery she had invented to disguise her real profession. Ino pasted on a smile.

"I don't know—I left in a bit of a hurry. It's not like I owned the place, I just worked as a cashier."

"Mmn." Shikamaru tipped his head to the side and peered intently at her face, his eyes not as closed as they usually were. Ino forced herself to meet his gaze.

"What?" She demanded hotly after several seconds of wordless staring. Shikamaru shrugged.

"You tell me."

He turned around, and hoisted his bag up over his shoulder, walking away.

Ino stood frozen, watching his back. Her head ducked down, breathing coming in shallow pants.

"You coming?"

She looked up again, telling herself that it was the city air doing things to her eyes, and not anything else.

"Where are we going?" She questioned, and made herself stroll leisurely towards him. Something that might have been a smile pulled up Shikamaru's lips.

"You're buying me coffee. We have a date, remember?" He held out his hand invitingly. She searched his eyes, finding exasperation, patience, understanding—and something she couldn't recognize, but ran deeper then she could ever try to imagine.

She slipped her fingers between his. "I don't have any money."

"I know."