Time is frozen all around them, shellacked in shades of gold.

The battle isn't even close to over, but Ryuuichi is gone; that discarded headband is glinting in the corner of his vision, sparkling and hurting his eyes. A lot of things hurt, in fact, but for some reason his senses are stuck on the brilliance of the day around him, the metallic taste in his mouth.

Suzuki is there, suddenly, and shadows worriedly convene when she screams. It's the blood she notices- Ryuuichi's blood. It's all over her hands as she fingers his broken limbs, mixed with his, splattered on the rocks he hit on the way down. His head stings; everything is slow, dull.

Kazeki would like to close his eyes and die now, but somehow he knows that this moment will never let him go. So he stays awake to watch what happens, to see what becomes of them all.

-----

A Konoha night is like nothing you've known. Memorials could be built to the poetry in it, the sweet stink of autumn grass and something unspeakably clandestine in the air. Fireflies dance on the horizon; lofty clouds waltz before the moon, which glares down as if deciding to spare us for one more night.

Kazeki is thinking about all of this, when the wet towel hits him.

It is a chilly, pre-Fall evening, and the shock is unbearable; his mouth opens in a half scream as water pours down the back of his neck, soaking his shirt and back.

He is on his feet, armed, before Ryuuichi can even finish laughing.

They cavort over rooftops in the secret way Shinobi children do, leaping for joy and searching for blood. Through other people's hung-up laundry and across endless rooftops they chase, laughing maniacally. It is just another day of being a boy in Konoha, a Shinobi boy with no concept of the wars of their fathers.

But finally, like a rat is the perpetrator caught; Kazeki chases him up the side of a domed building, and suddenly there is only a cavernous leap in any direction, into the dark nothingness around the Hokage's Tower. They are at the top of the Hidden Leaf Village, with nowhere left to go but down.

Kazeki catches the side of Ryuuichi's face with his foot, groping in the dark; the give goads him into delivering another kick, across his friend's knees. Ryuuichi falters for a second, and it's in this moment that Kazeki prepares a hand seal; but his opponent will have none of this, and strikes forward to grasp, with the speed of a viper. Kazeki's shoulder twists sickeningly in the socket as he is thrown into the air, tumbling into through the dark until his vertebrae squarely meets the solid steel handrail at the roof's edge. The sound reverberates through the night, through the chill air with odd acoustics; but without reaction, Kazeki grinds his palms on pebbles as he twists, swiftly, and heads straight back for Ryuuichi; from below, he sweeps into a kick as Ryuuichi searches. The rustle of cloth touches his ears, and it's just enough to point him in the right direction; with inches to spare, Ryuuichi takes a solid stance and flings up his forearm- and for a moment they are locked there, like samurai with crossed swords. Kazeki is unable to gain his footing, and Ryuuichi cannot neither relent his arm or counterattack.

He'll remember this moment someday, he's sure.

But in the next second Kazeki is plunging into open air; Ryuuichi has bolted away, before he has a chance to react. His face nearly scrapes the ground as he throws hand over hand and wrenches his body into a roll, landing with his legs pulled tightly to his heaving chest. Body tensed, he whirls to protect the blindspot that Ryuuichi is surely homing in on.

But no attack comes from the dark; a cloud has passed over the moon, and Ryuuichi is gone. He's leapt off the top of the Tower, into the foggy and bottomless uncertainty of the dark.

Pausing, Kazeki swears inwardly; for a second he remembers how he hates his friend's foolish bravery; hates that he lags where Ryuuichi blazes, hesitates where Ryuuichi simply jumps.

But in the next second, the silence of the sleeping world is broken as Kazeki follows him over the railing, into the frightening descent.

It seems like he's always chasing Ryuuichi, trying to make him come back from the edge of somewhere that Kazeki can never quite reach.

----

There's a box in Kurenai's closet, with pretty beads tarnished by time; it was once dear to someone, as that someone was dear to her. But no one who saw Minami die has spoken of her since. The only time her name was mentioned by one of them, and only by one of them, was after the misty wake; it was a numb and apathetic morning, under a thick and ominous sky, one of the Black Sundays that come more than once a week to Konoha.

The two genin stared at a dusty table, the sparse habitat in which a rare and lovely creature had once existed; the silence was onerous, and no one was comfortable. Ignoring the burning, concerned gazes of their adult companions, the two children looked around, making no contact that would betray feeling.

Kurenai broke the awkwardness with a thick chortle, a grievous sound as she placed a woven grass box, turquoise and beaded, before her bent knees; kneeling, she was nearly at eye-level with the Genin, waiting to see distress. Hoping to see it, so she could comfort it.

"Your teacher wanted you to have a few things," she explained needlessly, distractedly; she was looking for Minami in these children, searching for the delightful, dancing green eyes of the comrade who had climbed this horrid mountain with her; the female Jonin who seemed imbued with some lightness which allowed her to hover, untouched, above circumstance.

But there was only absence, the lack of the team's other members sucking the meaning from her words.

The ANBU katana was thin, almost nonexistent in her hands; it seemed right to give it to the boy, and the only gesture he had made during this meeting was to receive it. He held it before his body in an unshocked manner, inspecting it with a wordless respect. To the girl went a bright yukata, a summer festival dress that Gai had admired Minami in when he was a boy. He tried to imagine this dour, tousled-headed girl in the bright robe, and wondered what kind of smile she saved for when nobody was looking. He truly wondered if she would ever smile again.

Minami had not been much, and hadn't left much behind; sweet folded things and a few dear possessions, and beside them two photographs: one of a young, orange-haired girl standing, mouth agape, between a fay looking blonde woman and a grinning, redheaded father; and the other of a few 'warm bodies' who were innocent enough to have fear in their eyes. Kurenai would keep this picture for herself, as Kazeki and Suzuki had their own copies. Heaped on the ground with grateful survival in their eyes, three Genin glanced up into the candid photograph, their sensei sprawled beside them in the grass.

It seemed impossible, every time it happened; but people disappeared, leaving only their distorted faces on glossy paper and the wonderful times you had with them heavy on your mind.

Kazeki left, and then Gai. Kurenai might have been alone, Suzuki was so quiet; but as the red-eyed woman gave the room a final glance, basket beneath her arm, the little girl who would become another name on the Shinobi monument, just as they all would, spoke up:

"Would Minami-sensei want to kill Ryuuichi, or just me?"

----

The world seems brittle, as though the night sky will shatter with dawn at any moment.

A little girl is waiting, not knowing what she will become.

He actually came; she hoped against hope that he wouldn't, to calm the butterflies breaking from their cocoons in her stomach. But he is there, hovering like a phantom, too wonderful to be believed; his eyes are sharp, cutting through the night and leaving no reality between their gazes.

There is no world without him. This is what she tells herself as she follows him, silently, past the village gates and into the hills and dales of the unknown.

Ah, yes, how fragile and tender the evening- just like a young girl.

Prequel completed.