Crown & Anchor
I started this fic in February. Five and a half months have passed, and with this chapter, C&A has (finally!) hit 50,000 words. I seriously hope it won't take me another half year to finish this fic, though. D:
Chapter Thirteen: Meet and Greet
Naruto didn't understand.
My brother, Sasuke had said, and it was such a simple, heavy phrase.
They were close enough that their breaths curled together. Naruto studied the curve of an eyelid, dropped his gaze past a straight nose to thin lips that twisted with unhappiness.
Sasuke looked like he was in pain.
Naruto said, "Your brother?"
Sasuke let go of his hand. Naruto rubbed absently at his wrist and opened his mouth to ask again--What the fuck do you mean, your brother?--when Sasuke dropped his head against Naruto's shoulder and pressed closer.
A single moment of vulnerability.
Then he was gone and at the door before Naruto could even react. He said, "I'll be back soon."
Naruto opened his mouth, closed it. "What the--wait."
Sasuke didn't listen, so Naruto dashed forward and grabbed his collar, probably choking him in the process but who cared?
"What do you mean, your brother?" he demanded.
Sasuke made a strangled sound. Naruto said, "Right," and let go. He didn't apologize. The bastard deserved to be choked. "So? Does Orochimaru have your brother? Crime lords have a fetish for keeping people hostage, is that it?"
Sasuke put one hand on the door and the other at his neck, making an odd noise that might have been laughter were it not so miserable. "No," he said. "No, I didn't mean it like that. Itachi's--"
Naruto raised his hand; it hovered near Sasuke's neck, his fingertips a half-centimeter away from skin.
"Itachi's dead," Sasuke said. "He's dead. Hard to use a dead man as hostage."
"Sounds like Orochimaru's managing it to me," Naruto said. He shoved past his hesitation and put his hand on Sasuke's shoulder. Sasuke stiffened, but he let Naruto turn him around. He was pale, and his mouth described a thin line.
"You," Naruto said, "and your damn secrets."
He pressed a hand against the back of Sasuke's neck. Sasuke went willingly, except that Naruto didn't kiss him.
Hugs were more Sakura's thing, but it seemed the right time for them. Sasuke, less used to physical contact than even Naruto, never quite relaxed.
"My parents don't know," Sasuke said at last.
"That your brother's dead?" Naruto asked incredulously. "Wouldn't they know that sort of thing?"
"No," Sasuke said. "That's not what I meant."
He was trying to step away, so Naruto pulled him closer and held him tighter. Against his skin Sasuke's muscles were tense. He held his hands fisted at his sides, like he wanted to punch someone. Hopefully not Naruto.
It was very, very quiet in the house. Suigetsu and Karin must have left already. Naruto vaguely recalled hearing the roar of a motorcycle. Juugo was probably doing something vaguely menacing, like existing. Hopefully everyone had at least finished the tea.
Ah. Good. Sasuke had stopped quivering. He was still stiff as a board, though. Someday Naruto would teach him that, as much as Sasuke might want to play the part of the cool, stoic ass from some Asian drama, it was actually okay once in a while to show emotion. Hell, it might even be healthy. He relaxed his grip, ran his palms up Sasuke's back.
This was why Sakura liked hugs so much, he guessed. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was--
Naruto breathed in. Sasuke smelled of expensive cologne, and possibly of hair gel.
"If you really have to see Orochimaru," Naruto said. "Go see him."
He let go.
Sasuke didn't move, though. This time it was Sasuke running his hands down Naruto's back, stopping to rest at his hips. He leaned forward.
Three words. Just three words, quiet and flat against Naruto's ear. Each one hit him harder than a dropping anchor.
Unbelieving, he said, "You--what are you talking about?"
"Nothing." Sasuke finally stepped back, fingers regretfully skimming Naruto's sides. As if he hadn't just uttered an impossible secret.
Only then did he leave. Half-way through shutting the door, he paused. "My cell phone," he said, and pulled it out. Naruto took it numbly. It was a touch-screen, the kind of quietly complicated electronic that was probably more powerful than the beat-up computer Naruto used in his office.
He said, "Uh."
"Naruto," Sasuke said. "One last thing."
"What?" Naruto glanced up. Through the slit of space defined by the door and its frame, he couldn't make out Sasuke's expression. He felt suddenly cold.
"What I'm going to try to do probably won't work."
"This have something to do with that talk you and Juugo had?"
Sasuke said, "Yes."
Naruto cycled through a range of not-all-that-appropriate responses. He settled for a dry, "Try not to get too badly hurt," and a grin that was somehow real.
For a moment Sasuke didn't reply. Then he said, "You too," and closed the door. Naruto, cell phone in hand, was left standing alone, those three words echoing in his head.
With only Naruto and Juugo in the house, it seemed bigger.
There wasn't much to do. Naruto didn't dare touch Karin's room, and he dared even less to go outside. He'd rather be killed by boredom than cold, thank you very much.
He was close to changing his mind, though.
The day passed slowly. Naruto raided the kitchen; lunch was whatever instant food he could find. No ramen, which was a crime that took three full hours to get over, and then only because Karin and Suigetsu came back.
Naruto opened the front door, watching Karin swerve to a stop. Suigetsu staggered off the back of the motorcycle with the pale, waxy expression of a survivor. Karin just looked pleased, tucking her helmet underneath and arm and asking what was for dinner.
Naruto looked at Suigetsu. "Something that won't feel too bad coming up the other way, I guess."
"I am not going to throw up!" Suigetsu snapped, and then put a hand over his mouth and looked green.
"I was just playing around," Karin said, looking even more pleased. "It was a long ride back," she explained to Naruto. Then she frowned, remembering that she didn't like him. "Where's Sasuke?"
"Went off to see Orochimaru," Naruto said shortly, thinking of the phone he'd left in the master bedroom.
Karin and Suigetsu straightened. Or at least, Karin straightened, and Suigetsu made a valiant attempt.
Neither looked happy, though Naruto suspected Suigetsu's concern had more to do with him trying not to be sick rather than any alarm on Sasuke's behalf.
"I knew it. I knew it. We should have given you to that snake bastard and--"
She slammed her hand down on the table. It trembled. Naruto took a step back behind Suigetsu, which was rather like hiding behind a crumbling wall during a hurricane but made him feel better anyway.
The sound at least summoned Juugo. He opened the door to the living room and looked back and forth between them. His expression was serene as always, but--
--something was slightly off.
"Why the fuck did Sasuke go off to see Orochimaru?" Karin demanded.
Juugo supported Suigetsu, grasping his upper arm. "There's some tea left. Or maybe you could make some more," he said, looking at Naruto. Naruto shrugged.
"He's off to convince Orochimaru of his loyalty. Yes, I know," Juugo added at Karin's dumb-founded expression. "That's what he said."
"Aw, leave off it. He can take care of himself." Suigetsu looked piteously at Naruto. "Tea?"
"Right, sure," Naruto said, thoughtful.
"No. You're coming with me."
Suigetsu stared at Karin as if she'd just asked him to marry her. "What?"
"We did what he asked. We found Tsunade," she bit out. "So now we're going to find Orochimaru."
"You ain't ordering me around, you bi--"
The helmet hit the wall by Suigetsu's head. Flecks of paint drifted to the floor. Even Juugo looked surprised, staring at the helmet like he was wondering where it had come from. His gaze followed the gloved hand, the slim arm, all the way to Karin's furious expression.
He said, "Hm."
"You. Are coming. With me," Karin said. "And we're going to find Orochimaru."
Naruto, still by the front entrance and therefore safe from harm, grinned at Suigetsu. "It's okay! I'll pack your tea," he said.
"You see?" Karin smiled at Suigetsu. "It's called compromise."
She put the helmet back on. There was a half-inch dent in the wall. Suigetsu examined it carefully. "Yeah, sure," he said. "We'll go."
Karin and Suigetsu returning, and then leaving again, was like a rock in a day otherwise flowing with boredom. It didn't take long for Naruto to retreat to the master bedroom.
He didn't watch TV, never really saw the point in it, but now he wished there was one. He just wished something would happen.
He rolled onto his stomach. Sasuke's fancy-ass cell phone glinted at him. He had managed to turn it on; a few minutes of fiddling had brought him to the contact list, which included Father, Mom, and no Itachi or even Brother, because apparently he was dead, and dead men don't have numbers.
Sakura's number was above Suigetsu's.
What was she doing right now? Having fun with her family, hopefully, and not getting caught up in any giant fuck-ups. Naruto let his head fall onto the mattress, smushing his nose against wrinkled covers. He should make the bed.
He should also call Sakura. No--he wanted to call Sakura. Although he'd probably change his mind after he told her what had gone down.
"It's not like I'm afraid of her, or anything," he told the bed. Outside, the wind whistled, like it was calling him out on his lie.
He threw his legs off the bed and picked up the phone. It vibrated when he tapped the call button. OUTGOING CALL flashed at him. With a sigh, Naruto brought it to his ear.
A few seconds later Sakura said, "Hi! You have no idea how good it is to hear from you!" in a small, excited voice Naruto had never heard before. He rolled his eyes.
"Sorry," he said. "It's me."
There was a long, drawn out pause, like an expanding balloon of disappointment. Naruto looked out the window. Beyond the fence were trees, the clouds heavy and angry right above them. It was the kind of landscape students would have struggled to draw.
That was it. Naruto had expected yelling, or a painful lecture. He stared blankly at the wall. Why wasn't she angry?
No, wait. He'd called Sakura... two days ago.
Two days. Had it only been two days? Wow.
"Oh," Sakura repeated, like a stuttering iPod. "Okay. Right. Naruto... you're in Wave, aren't you?"
"Yes?" Naruto guessed.
"Did you see Sarutobi?"
"Great! I hope it went well." Naruto snorted. He opened his mouth, and--
"Why are you calling from Sasuke's phone? Weren't you two not talking? And why didn't you call?"
"It's complicated." Naruto threw his mind back over the past few days, shook his head. "And fucked-up. Sarutobi stole my damn phone."
Naruto could imagine Sakura's expression: the tilt of her mouth, her eyes, the way she must have scrunched up her nose. "What?"
"But he drugged me before that," Naruto added helpfully.
Sakura said, "What?" again, and then: "I'll be there as soon as--"
"Don't. I don't want you in danger. This whole mess is screwed up enough."
"In danger? And that's supposed to keep me away? Listen, Naruto, if you think I'm going to sit on my ass while you're in trouble, you're an idiot." A pause. "Well. You're already one. More of an idiot."
"Thanks," Naruto said, "for the compliment."
"You're welcome," Sakura said brightly. "So?"
Naruto explained, as best as he could, what had happened: the drugging, being trapped in that old house, the rescue. ("Not that I wouldn't have gotten out eventually," Naruto said, and Sakura just said, "Right.") He didn't tell her about the hug.
After that, he didn't know how to continue. He could sum up the bit about the hotel in a single sentence--we got my luggage, found out Anko was out looking for me, and went. And afterwards he'd say, To Sasuke's vacation house, and they'd dedicate a few minutes to not believing Sasuke owned a fucking vacation home, that rich bastard.
He could see it so clearly, but it wasn't coming out. Outside he could see it was beginning to drizzle. Inside it was just quiet, because Naruto had stopped talking.
Sakura finally urged him on. "So? What happened after you played at ninja and broke out?"
"We...." Naruto shook his head. He skipped the hotel. "We're camping at Sasuke's, um, vacation home right now," Naruto said. He rubbed his temple with his knuckles. "I found out a lot of stuff. I don't know, I don't really get it, it's confusing."
"Of course it is," Sakura said encouragingly, the way she had at college while they worked their way through homework. "Take your time explaining."
There was a shuffle; Naruto heard a voice--a woman's voice--call Sakura to eat. Apparently they were having fried chicken. Huh. Funny. Naruto had had fried chicken yesterday.
"Should I go?" Naruto said, suddenly uncomfortably aware that Sakura was visiting family. And now that same family was having lunch.
"What? No, I told Mom she can wait," Sakura said dismissively. "You're more important." She added, in a softer tone, "So? What did you learn?"
Naruto thought about his Dad, about how being the pet lackey of infamous big shots apparently meant you deserved to be killed in front of your son. He thought about Konohamaru, who was kidnapped still. He thought about his home and wondered if it would be the same when he came back, if it really had been messed with.
What came out was, "Since when did you own a drug ring?"
"I don't." The words came automatically. Realization must have staggered in late, because when Sakura said, "Who told you?" she sounded shaken.
She probably hadn't expected that. Naruto hadn't, either.
He said, "Anko." Sakura knew who Anko was. She liked the stories Naruto told about her. Naruto didn't. They often involved him getting hurt in some way.
"That means Sarutobi... but why would he care? Our operations are outside his territory."
Naruto had a feeling Sakura was talking to herself more than him. "Sakura," he reminded her. "Drug ring?"
"I told you, it's not mine," Sakura said. "I just sell them."
She said it matter-of-factly, the way Neji might call up his PI or Kiba might drop too many bills on the counter at a bar.
Naruto pressed the flat of his palm against his forehead. "Fine," he said. "It's fine. I don't really care." Which was a lie, but. "Just be careful."
"We will," Sakura said. "I'll tell Tsunade as soon as I come back."
It was the second time that day blank incomprehension settled over Naruto. He just looked out the window, not really understanding. The sky was darkening as the rain fell more heavily, transforming from a drizzle to a miniature flood. It was as if evening were coming early.
Naruto took a deep breath. "Tsunade? You mean Tsunade, one of the legendary three?"
"Do you know her?" Sakura asked, surprised.
"Sasuke thinks she kidnapped Konohamaru," he said. "Could you, um, ask?" Hope was blooming in his chest. He got up to switch the lights on.
"... Yes," Sakura said finally. "Yes, Naruto. I'll ask my boss if she's kidnapped someone."
"Please?" Naruto said. "It would really help with Sarutobi. Then I can just deal with Orochimaru. Look, it's hard to explain, but--" His groping hand found the switch; the room flooded with light.
There was a sound--like the hard fwush of a fabric through air.
Glass shattered. That fwush came again, only it wasn't that at all, it'd been a distant bang.
Naruto threw himself to the floor. The door banged open a second later, with no one behind it, but from the hall Juugo said urgently, "Through here!"
Someone was screaming his name. Sakura, Naruto realized. He'd dropped the phone. He left it where it was and went for the door on his elbows and knees, like a kid playing soldier. He hoped water wasn't enough to destroy Sasuke's phone, because if he had to replace it, it would cost him a kidney. Maybe both.
Why am I worrying about his phone? Naruto thought. He reached the hallway. It was completely dark, the walls gray and bleak.
"Why," Naruto said, "did someone just shoot our window?"
"That would be Kidomaru," Juugo said. "I wonder how many there are? Here." A moment later Naruto was staring at a bread knife. The serrated edges gleamed. It didn't look like a bread knife anymore. It looked like a weapon.
"What's this for?" he asked. His voice came out like a croak.
"Just in case." Juugo sounded serene. It wasn't Juugo anymore, though. He looked happy. No, that wasn't the right word. He looked eager. It was the kind of expression that suggested being shot at was the perfect turn of events for gloomy Sunday afternoons.
Outside, thunder boomed, sounding more like gunshots than the actual gunshots had. Naruto jumped.
He heard, again, glass shattering. Juugo cocked his head, deeply interested. Naruto looked right, left, and then right again, and wished he was a cow or a bird or anything else with 360 degree vision, please. The bread knife, half a foot of deadly metal, felt grossly inadequate. Not when, what's-his-name, Kidomaru, had a gun.
"Stay here," Juugo said. He'd reached the door to the living room. When had his voice ever been that deep?
He was suddenly very gone. Naruto heard a breathless sound, the kind someone might make if, say, 80 kilograms of murderous intent slammed into them.
Naruto stayed in the hallway, feeling like an obedient dog. He wondered if Juugo would be alright. He was a professional. But the guys attacking them were probably professionals, too, and what if there were more?
I wonder how many there are, Juugo had said, like it didn't matter. Naruto thought hard, clutching the knife. There had to be at least two. Juugo had hit one, and there'd been another shooting at the windows....
His shoulder hurt. This was an afterthought of afterthoughts. Later it would be important, but now there were more immediate matters to deal with.
Shouldn't have turned on that light, Naruto thought disgustedly. He looked at the bedroom, and remembered the phone he'd left in there. In the living room, someone made a strangled noise. Someone else was laughing.
Not the fake, maniacal kind from movies. This was breathless, the kind that edged out during strenuous exercise. Like running hard on the road.
--Or, say, choking someone else to death.
Naruto didn't know which noise he preferred Juugo to be making. He made himself think about the bedroom instead.
Would it be safe to go in there? Being near windows of any kind was probably a bad idea right now, but if he could get the phone, contact Karin or Suigetsu or Sasuke--contact anyone--then maybe....
The decision was taken neatly out of his hands when Karin's bedroom door flew off its hinges.
She's going to be pissed, Naruto thought, and leapt. Forward, not back, and his mind was stuck on what the fuck am I doing even as he ran towards the invader.
It was a fat man. He had red hair. He also had a gun, a little automatic that looked delicate and out of place in his hand. Naruto had his bread knife.
Juugo was still laughing in the living room.
It happened very fast. Later he would recall a blur of motion, gogogo, and--
A blow to his shoulder. Falling, and the flash-burn of agony.
Shit, Naruto thought, and then a leg snapped forward and he was two, three feet back, gasping and hurting.
He couldn't get up. His shoulder screamed, and his arm. Naruto looked up. His attacker had brown eyes, and he was frowning.
Naruto focused on the gun.
He'd stared one down before, when he was twelve. No, that was wrong. He'd been staring at his father's back, at broad shoulders set firm, and then suddenly that same strong body had crumpled and Naruto had seen the gun.
That gun had been held by trembling hands, hands that belonged to a young boy with wide green eyes.
"No, that's wrong," Naruto said. The attacker stopped, but Naruto was speaking to the past, to memories that refused to settle.
He was calm. No, he wasn't calm. He was terrified and angry. He was going to die. He refused to die.
His hand moved on its own. The blade sank in easy, disgustingly easy. It must have been sharpened recently.
No. Something was wrong. Beyond that thin layer of calm, beyond the mess of fear and confusion that ruled Naruto's mind, he realized this: that man had fired the gun. That man had fired the gun, and he'd been aiming at Naruto, and Naruto couldn't feel his shoulder.
Another realization: Juugo had stopped laughing.
He was--in the hallway. Back in the hallway, and in front of Naruto.
Because Juugo was there, Naruto knew suddenly that he was safe. He'd done his part--he'd sank half a foot of metal into someone else's gut. Good boy, he thought to himself, and pressed back into the wall. He clutched his shoulder and ducked his head. It wasn't that he didn't want to watch. It was that he was seeing two entirely different scenes.
He eyes registered, like they might note background music, the shadows dancing on the wall, though, like an obscene puppet show.
Juugo was laughing again.
The gunshot was sudden, and sharper and higher than the one that had killed his father all those years ago. It was punctuation; afterwards there was just a vacuum of noise, surrounded by the regular beat of the rain.
"I killed him," Juugo said, and giggled like a child.
Good boy, Naruto thought, and fought the urge to echo that terrible giggle. He fought to the surface, dragging himself back to the present, to a now that was suddenly elusive. "There's one more outside," he whispered to the floor.
"I'm going to kill him, too," Juugo said. Naruto looked at him.
He looked the same--still clean, his clothes somewhat disordered but otherwise untouched. The blood had missed them. There was a nasty bruise on his arm, but otherwise the only evidence to what he'd just done was the corpse at his feet.
No. Not yet a corpse. He was making sounds, still, quiet gasping sounds that Naruto hadn't heard above the rain.
Naruto looked at the body blankly. He said, "He's not dead."
Bringing his hand down from his shoulder, he looked at the blood streaked across his fingers. A graze, he thought. No, not even that. Because if that bullet had hit him--
"He's not dead?" Juugo said, and looked surprised. He picked up the gun on the floor. Naruto looked away. The booming thunder covered the sound of Juugo correcting his mistake.
Afterwards Juugo said, "Maybe I shouldn't kill Kidomaru."
"Sure," Naruto said, weary. "Why not?"
"Because he's not a girl," Juugo said. "It wouldn't fit the pattern."
"Sure," Naruto said again, not listening. He stepped towards the bedroom, stopped. He couldn't go in there, not when there was a window. He might not get away with such a light wound, this time.
It struck him as suddenly unfair that he even had to think about this.
"Girl, boy, girl," Juugo said. "That's better, right?"
"What the fuck," Naruto said, "are you talking about?"
He was angry. He was angry, because he'd been shot at twice, because his shoulder hurt, because there was apparently a dead girl in the living room and a dead man just three feet away and because--
Because anger was easier.
"It's better," Juugo said, dreamily.
Because this was better, this sudden red haze fit, he was angry and somehow, somehow it was Kidomaru's fault. Naruto didn't know why but this made perfect sense. It was Kidomaru's fault, so Kidomaru had to go. Who was Kidomaru? Didn't matter.
Something else, something now small and scared underneath the fury said, No. It was over-ruled.
Naruto looked up and took a deep breath that didn't calm him at all. "Juugo, for fuck's sake, just shut up and get out there and kill the fool so I can get to that phone and call call the rest of your team, okay?"
Juugo looked back at him, slightly shocked. "But Kidomaru's not a girl, and if I'm going to kill boys now, you're closer."
He said this reasonably, because it was logical, or at least logical for the Juugo of right now. Naruto stared back and thought suddenly of Gaara.
"Juugo," he said. "Kidomaru. Go."
He remembered Gaara, how those slim fingers had curled around that gun, how he'd pulled the trigger and said, I didn't mean to.
Now Naruto was Gaara, and Juugo was that gun, and afterwards, if Naruto even spoke about it at all, he'd probably have to say, I meant to, because anything else would be bullshit.
He sat down, putting his arms around his knees like he had in that motel bathroom months ago. This time, he didn't shake, just quietly waited.
He wondered if Sakura had hung up yet, and how much she'd heard.s