project: masquerade
disclaimer:
i do not own naruto.
chapter:
sept: bathe the world in crimson confetti

notes1: i love this chapter.
notes2: check out lucky 13, my new sasusaku fic! :D

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—hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock

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The Red Castle was extremely beautiful.

Too beautiful, some might say, for such a vile Queen — too wonderful for such an ugly, unsightly creature to roam the corridors, to dine in the grand hall, to spiral and dance in the ballrooms. Each and every wall was a deep, rich crimson, the colour of blood glistening upon the floor of a battlefield — when the sun hit the windows, a pale red shadow was cast upon the ground below, bathing everyone around it in a pool of red. The grass about the Castle seemed to have been bleached of colour and there were no plants, no bushes, no flowers — only a single tree grew beside the castle, reaching high, high, high into the sky; the Tumtum tree.

Once upon a time, the roses which fell from the tree were both pure, startling white and deep, deep red — but now the Queen paints all of the roses red. Painting over that which was ugly, for him, was the same as painting over that which was pure.

Beautiful.

Oh yes, the Red Castle was truly exquisite.

It was magnificent, with tall, spiralling towers, which stretched high into the sky — so high, that they seemed to dwarf even the clouds. The blood-red looked as though it were a stain splashed across the sky; as if it wished to paint even the clouds crimson red, because the Queen wasn't quite happy with simply destroying all that was beautiful on the ground. No, the sky wasn't the limit for him — not at all.

He wanted it all.

All of Wonderland.

Absently, stood opposite the Castle, shrouded by the safety and comfort of the trees around her, Sakura wondered if the Queen would get it all — if he would manage to take and take and take, and even Alice and her merry men wouldn't be able to stop him. She glanced about her — first at the March Hare, who had fallen silent after his outburst of frantic movement at the tea party; he was cold, but electric, all at once — a blinding flurry of static electricity, which threatened to overwhelm them all. He was so tense, so close to breaking, so unbelievably cold. He hadn't spoken a word, not since the Mad Hatter had explained what had happened.

No, Gaara stood tall and strong, and silent.

Beside her, the Duchess wasn't quite as silent — she had turned, bunching her dress up in her hands, whispering lowly to her two loyal subordinates — friends — stood at either side of her. Suigetsu bent forwards first, expression carefully blank as red lips moved, murmured, so close to his ear — so close, that he could feel her breath tickling his cheek. So close, Sakura wondered, that it was quite amazing he hadn't fallen in love; but Juugo was smiling, watching them, his gaze every now and then flicking across to her.

He caught her eye, then, and offered her a smile.

She tried to return his smile, but found that she couldn't quite do it — the butterflies in her stomach threatened to overwhelm her, and so she simply settled for a little nod of her head, tearing her gaze away from him to look at the Caterpillar. He was so relaxed, that she found herself quite envious of him — his posture was slouched, and his eyes were skimming across the pages of his little orange book, one hand fingering absently with a badge pinned to his coat. He glanced up at her, sensing her gaze. He didn't smile; instead, he merely nodded, eyes cold and calculating, and she wondered if Gaara was at all that paranoid — if it was in fact her, being naive; the Caterpillar didn't seem like the best of all people to trust.

((like that dratted cat, she thought, and found herself scowling))

A hand fell upon her shoulder.

She glanced backwards, ever so slightly, tilting her head; and she found that a smile easily escaped across her lips, this time, at the mere sight of his face. Although he wasn't smiling, he seemed less tense than the others — static and alive. He brought out the Alice in her. His eyes were dark, dark, dark and oh so mad — they span and span and span, glittering black and red and black and red, circling and circling until it made her feel quite dizzy.

He spoke, then, his voice soft, but it echoed inside her head and filled her world.

"It is time to paint the roses white, again."

Sasuke reached out, then, cupping her face — his thumb brushed against her chin. His eyes never left hers. It felt tender, wonderful, beautiful, but dangerous. Because something, something, lurked beneath the surface, and she couldn't quite understand it. She nodded anyway, and he spoke again, hand leaving her face and, inwardly, she cursed the lack of contact.

"We're ready."

And she knew she was too.

She nodded, then, green eyes flickering to the Red Castle before her — and she lifted a hand, finger pointing carefully, steadily, at the building.

"It is time to march, merry men."

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"Little rabbit, little rabbit — would you like to hear a story?"

The Queen of Hearts bent forwards, doubling over fully as he peered at his prisoner — blue eyes widened in surprise, and then the boy cringed backwards, looking very much as if he wanted nothing more than to scramble away from the Queen. Awful, really — he wasn't all that bad a person, if only that darn rabbit were to look deep inside. Pathetic, truly — how such a pretty, pretty creature couldn't afford to look past white suits and white masks and red, red, red dreams — but the Queen simply smiled.

He was waiting for an answer.

The Knave seemed to realise that; he moved forwards, footsteps echoing, one, two, three, in the silence — there was a dull thud, and then the rabbit was sprawled across the floor, a nasty bruise forming on his cheek. It grew and spread like a stain. Behind his mask, the Queen's smile quirked downwards, and he raised a hand, stepping forwards.

The Knave sprang backwards as if he had been burnt, one hand flying to his glasses, pushing them up his nose — a sign of nerves, perhaps? — as he waited for the Queen to speak. He stayed silent, for a moment, before opening his mouth. "You may leave, Mr Knave. Your presence here has truly been appreciated, by both myself and this darling rabbit — however, I'm awfully certain we may be expecting visitors, rather shortly."

The other smiled.

"I shall make the Castle presentable, your Majesty."

"Do hurry," the Queen spoke, with an exaggerated sigh. "It would be just like Alice to arrive far too early."

The Knave nodded again, before turning, leaving the room with a one-step, two-step, three-step, four, until the Queen could hear nothing more of him. Instead, his gaze flickered back to the rabbit, still lying upon the floor — he hadn't moved an inch. He seemed quite frozen in fright. He felt his lips quirk downwards once again, and he crouched, reaching out to press his thumb gently against the bruise — blue eyes flickered up to meet red, before falling back to the floor again, and the Queen saw that the rabbit was biting the inside of his cheek, waiting for the worst to happen.

Well, he didn't want to disappoint, now, did he?

He pressed his thumb down a little harder, watching as the other winced — as he did so, he turned his head sideways, tilting his head ever so slightly and staring at the other. Watching and waiting for anything. For a sign of weakness. The thumb pressed harder and harder, and the bruise began to spread; the White Rabbit's eyes narrowed, only slightly, and he let out a sharp breath — the Queen smiled.

He pressed and pressed — and, finally, the rabbit cried out, jerking his face away, pushing himself backwards; letting himself lose. Behind him, there was a clank of something hitting metal, and the little Dormouse let out a cry of outrage — a garbled string of words, no doubt following the general idea of how the Queen should hurt him, that little creature; not this big, beautiful rabbit, spread so prettily across the floor, eyes glistening with hurt and pain and fright and fury.

He flapped a hand in the Dormouse's general direction, however, gesturing towards the chessboard positioned in front of the other; but his eyes never left the White Rabbit, not even as he spoke. "It is your move, little mouse. Think carefully. Remember our deal."

Then he leant forwards.

The White Rabbit cringed backwards, and the Queen could not help himself — he let out a laugh, a deep chuckle, which echoed through the hall. It seemed to fill the room. Fill the silence. Fill the everything.

"I shall tell you a story, Mr Rabbit."

"…and if I — I don't want to hear it?"

"I'm sure you will," the Queen replied, easily, clearly. "It's an awfully exciting story — about a pretty little girl. She too had a white tail, white ears — pretty, pretty eyes, just like yours, I suppose — but not as beautiful. Brown eyes, not blue. A shame, really; your eyes are much prettier. I would quite like to see them glistening with tears. I would quite like to see your face contorted with pain."

There was silence.

"I wonder, will you scream as nicely as she did?"

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the cheshire cat sits curled upon the tumtum tree, tail twitching as he gazes down at the ground below him. a hand reaches for the collar clipped around his neck, and his brow furrows — he remembers something, if only for a fraction of a second, but the memory vanishes as quickly as it comes. he thinks it was a boy. he cannot completely remember. but he does remember the dormouse, with his quick ears and his quicker tongue, and he wonders whether he has done the right thing.

he wonders whether the tricksy cat has played it all a trick too far.

his eyes move to the sky.

"…and who will die tonight, i wonder?"

but there is no reply.

((and, up above, the jabberwocky watches on in silence))

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The Jubjub Bird brushed her fingers through her air — ink-blue locks shone underneath the glow of the candles, and her eyes were blank, as she tugged her fingers through her hair. One, two — one, two — she combed away, tugging at tangle after tangle; her hair fell long past her shoulders, blue-black, the colour of the night sky. She stood where she was, for a moment, gazing at herself in the mirror; seeing the cascading waves fall across her bare skin, splaying across her bare chest, tickling her goose-pimples.

She heard a door slide open.

"…beautiful," she heard him whisper, and her lips tugged into a smile — she reached forwards, grasping at make-up, painting her lips blood red, the colour of death and sin, outlining them were charcoal black.

"Bandersnatch."

Arms curled around her stomach, her torso, gripping her tightly — his fingers danced across her naked flesh, and she gazed at his features in the mirror. His skin was calloused; his fingertips were rough, oh so painfully rough, from clutching the oversized blade which hung by his side — the bottom half of his features had been hidden, a wad of material pressed over his lips and nose; but his eyes were gentle. They were oh so wonderfully gentle, contrasting with the rest of his appearance; they made her smile.

They made her love him all the more.

"I've told you," he whispered, his words breezing against her cheek as he moved closer to her, arms encircling her body. "There's no need for such formalities between… friends."

"Don't tease me so," she replied, lowering her voice to match his, biting her crimson lips, arching an eyebrow at his reflection, "Or I'll have to pull on my big girl gloves — and you won't like me as much, then."

"That's because I'll love you."

She laughed.

He raised an eyebrow, smiling beneath his mask — just two killers, they were, holding each other and laughing, oh the irony — oh, how God had to be laughing with them, at them, now.

Because this was nice.

Wonderful.

His expression turned dark.

"There is death in the air, Anko."

She didn't reply, and the conversation lapsed into silence — she moved away, then, pulling away from his clutching hands, moving over to her wardrobe. He stood in silence, eyes following her across the room, not bothering to look away, even as she began to pull on her undergarments — not that she minded, of course. Stood there in suspenders and stockings, it felt so beautifully normal — a little bit of life, mixed in with all the danger and the Queen. She pulled on a white shirt, with flowing sleeves, and then a corset, beckoning him over to tighten it; he did so silently, before moving away again. Paired with tight trousers and thick, chunky black boots, she was ready.

He was ready, too.

They'd both sensed it.

She spoke then, finally, reaching a hand out to him.

"We are death, Zabuza."

"So it would seem," he replied, placing his hand in hers — the other fell to his sword, brushing casually against its length — feeling the sharpness of the blade, as a bead of blood welled up on his index finger. "The Gryphon was calling for us."

Anko flashed him a scowl. "The Gryphon is always calling for you — sometimes, I believe he's the only person you could love more than me. It makes me jealous."

Zabuza laughed.

"There's no need for you to be — the Gryphon is a part of me. He is I, and I am him. We are one."

The Jubjub Bird's scowl darkened, and she crossed her arms over her chest, pulling away from him and moving towards her wardrobe. She busied herself, searching for the sharpest of weapons, purposefully ignoring him, in the hope he would vanish — but he stayed where he was, still grinning behind that awful mask, still watching her. He stayed still, even as she pulled out her trusty pistol and tucked it up her sleeve. He remained impassive, even as she strapped her katana to her back, the blade curved and wicked.

His eyes met hers, as she turned.

"But you are correct."

She raised an eyebrow.

"The Gryphon always calls for me — almost as loudly as you do."

This time, he stretched his hand out to her.

"But your voices sound perfect together."

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"We need to move. All at once. We have the element of surprise—"

"—don't count on that," Kakashi cut across, glancing absently up from his book, his face impassive and his voice disinterested. "The Queen will know. He always knows."

Sakura frowned, glancing across at him.

"And what do you suppose we do?"

And Kakashi smiled.

"We catch ourselves a kitty-cat."

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The Mad Hatter stepped into the clearing, one hand absently playing with the brim of his hat, as he made his way towards the Red Castle. He walked briskly, with a purpose, but his shoulders were tense and his eyes were constantly moving — looking from the drawbridge, to the Tumtum tree, and back again, searching for any signs of movement. Careful, careful — he had to be awfully careful.

It was all part of Alice's plan, after all.

He noticed movement — a flicker behind one of the Castle's windows — and his eyes narrowed; tilting his head, he gazed up at the window, waiting for the figure to move. His features were bathed in shadow, but that stance — that everything — it reeked of the person he loathed most of all. He shoved his hands into his pockets, eyes never leaving the other; they stared at one another, still, silent, statues marred with scars. Sasuke felt his lips curl into a long, long grin, and his hand reached for his hat, plucking it easily off his head — he tugged his arm backwards, as his hat turned into a deadly weapon — and then, with a casual swing, he tossed it through the air. The blades glittered in the sunlight.

It span and span, spinning towards the window and the figure stood taunting him behind it; and then there was a crash of breaking glass, and it fell like rain from the window, tinkling down towards the ground. The figure — his brother, for that was all he could be — moved, then, lightning fast; and the Vorpal sword, so familiar, so deadly, rose, slicing through the hat so easily that Sasuke felt his heart sink.

"My hat."

"What a waste," a voice agreed, from behind him, and he scowled. "And it was such a lovely hat, as well."

He would have turned, then, but he felt something soft — something furry — loop over his shoulder, beginning to curl around his neck. He didn't have to look down to know it was the tail of the Cheshire Cat.

"…what a dirty trick," the Hatter spoke, finally. "I'm defenceless, can't you see?"

"Oh, you're never defenceless, Mr Hatter. I suppose you're here to get your rabbit back, hm?"

"You would suppose right."

"You'll be too late," the Cheshire Cat replied, and his voice actually sounded sad. "I've heard the Queen quite likes him — you'll never get him back, because the Queen never shares. I did tell the rabbit he was looking awfully lost. So are you, Hatter."

For a moment, Sasuke didn't reply. He let the tail tickle his chin; let it curve around his neck, looping like a noose — his fingers didn't move even once. No, instead, he kept his gaze on the window up above — because his brother had moved, now, and, with the glass of the window gone, Sasuke could see his features. He could see the familiar, sloping nose; the dark, dark eyes; and those scars, each one on his cheek — he could see the long, black hair, trickling over his shoulder like ink dripping down a page.

Oh, the dreaded Jabberwocky certainly didn't look like much.

But that Vorpal sword, clutched in his hand — that was something Sasuke feared. It was something everyone feared, bar Alice; and that's because Alice was brave. Braver than any man — any mouse — any cat — any rabbit — any hatter. Oh, Alice was the bravest of them all.

His eyes narrowed.

He didn't have time to hang around here. It was time he killed the Jabberwocky.

"Cat, if I knock quite politely, will you let me in?"

He could feel — no, he could sense — the other's grin grow and grow and grow. The tail tightened, pulled hard, and Sasuke dropped to his knees, playing the part of a broken doll — playing the part of a weak little hatter, when, in reality, he would sooner tear the tail from the kitty-cat's body, than let himself be killed by it.

Oh, how embarrassing that would be.

"If you say please."

Sasuke frowned.

"…please."

"Very well, Hatter," the Cheshire Cat spoke, and the world began to fade — slowly, gradually — and his voice became distant, echoing from very far away; there was a rushing, pounding at his ears, and he wanted to press his hands against his head, but he found he couldn't move at all. "As you wish."

The Cheshire Cat vanished.

And, with him, so did the Mad Hatter.

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"now, mr caterpillar?"

"not just yet, sakura. it's rude to arrive too early to a party."

"but we wouldn't want to be late."

"oh, that's quite true. the white rabbit would be awfully mad."

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the clock struck one

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Shikamaru pressed his fingertips together, gazing at the chessboard in front of him; his tail hung limply by his side, bleeding heavily — already, he'd lost five pieces; all necessary, he'd decided, in the long run; because he was going to draw. He was going to bring the game to a tie, and then what would that wicked Queen do — because, looking at his own rules, nothing would happen. They'd be wounded, yes, but they'd get away free.

With their lives.

Still, his breathing was shallow and he felt as though he'd faint long before he could do such a thing — and, as he glanced across to the side, he could see Naruto was faring only slightly better. He'd only captured three of the Red Queen's pieces, but the bastard had been slow and cruel as he sliced off the tip of his friend's long, white ears — they were stained red with blood, now.

Oh, it was all so unfair.

"It's your move, little mouse," the Queen spoke, with a smile. "It's rude to keep a friend waiting."

"It would seem you're not a friend, then," Shikamaru replied, easily, but stood up anyway — he walked easily across the chessboard, hands tucked into his pockets, before gazing at a pawn. He frowned, tilting his head ever so slightly, looking at the various pieces surrounding it — and then, slowly, he pushed it forwards a space.

The Queen blinked behind his mask.

"It looks to me as if you're stalling."

"Ah, it's an easy mistake to make, your Majesty," the Dormouse replied, with a soft yawn, making his way back to his earlier seat. "In reality, I suppose I'm just scared."

"That can't be at all reassuring for our little rabbit to hear you say."

Shikamaru snuck a sideways glance at Naruto. The other looked smaller than he'd ever looked before; no colour — no sunshine, no nothing. It was almost as if he had been drained of all hope — and he felt his heart sink. Absently, he found himself looking for the pocket watch — the White Rabbit's trusty pocket watch — but it lay broken on the floor, in front of its owner. And the Dormouse wondered whether they were running out of time.

He heard the scrape of a piece being moved across the chessboard.

There was a clatter of a pawn dropping to the table.

"Ah, whoopsie daisy — it would seem you've lost another pawn, mouse," the Queen spoke, reaching across the table and clutching the Dormouse's tail — he winced as he was pulled through the air, where he was then held up unceremoniously in front of the Queen of Hearts. "You're awfully silly. I'm afraid I'll have to take another bit of your tail, because of such a stupid mistake. Of course, I am willing to cut a deal."

He tried not to look too interested.

"In return for your life, I'd like it very much if you killed that darling rabbit."

Shikamaru frowned. "Can't we come to a compromise?"

"Of course not!"

"What a troublesome thing to say," the Dormouse yawned, trying his hardest not to show his discomfort — oh, how his tail burned — oh, how it hurt! "I'm afraid I can't agree to that deal."

And then he was flying through the air, eyes wide in surprise, as he thudded across the table top; he only just managed to shield his face with his hands, and he landed awkwardly on his right arm — he swore he heard a crunching noise, the sound of bones snapping. He only just managed to pull himself to his feet. The Queen's expression was hidden by his mask, but the Dormouse was quite willing to bet that the other was frowning — gingerly, he attempted to move his arm; it hung limply, painfully, by his side.

Ah, definitely broken, then.

This time, when his gaze met the White Rabbit's, he saw that Naruto's eyes were quite gratefully. Silly rabbit — had he thought he'd accept such an awful, troublesome deal?

But the Queen of Hearts was less than amused.

"Hurry along then, rat — hurry along to your pretty little funeral. You're going to die, now — a hero's death, perhaps, maybe — but you'll die nonetheless."

The Queen smiled.

"And there's nothing at all you can do to change that."

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"Where is my darling Hatter," Alice fretted, hands clasped in front of her as she walked to and fro, biting her lip. "Oh, where on earth has he gotten to?"

"Perhaps he's gotten lost," the Caterpillar ventured.

"No," the March Hare disagreed. "He's having fun."

"Messing around, more like," the Duchess snapped, with a little frown. "I don't think he realises that we've got so little time."

"That much is true," Tweedle Dee agreed. "We don't have much time at all."

"I suppose you could say we're running out of time," the Mock Turtle continued. "And what will happen when it's all gone?"

"Ah," Alice finished, with a sigh. "But that doesn't at all answer my question—

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the jabberwocky stands beside the broken window, gazing out at the courtyard below — he is clutching the vorpal blade so tightly that it bites into the palm of his hand, and oh, how it hurts. but he stays still as a statue, eyes ever so slightly narrowed, but his expression impassive otherwise — and he waits.

he should have known that that dratted cat would betray them.

such a tricksy individual.

now, he is just waiting for the mad hatter; because, no matter what alice has asked him to do, his little brother will inevitably be drawn towards him — no matter how many lives could be saved, if he did otherwise. he will be there soon enough.

they will fight.

still, he cannot help but wonder—

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—where on earth is my darling Hatter?"

where on earth is that dratted hatter?

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"…twinkle, twinkle, little bat — how I wonder what you're at."

The Hatter sang, as he pulled that annoying Cat along behind him — dragging the other by the tail, oh, how that must sting, but the silly kitty had walked straight into the Hatter's fist, so he was hardly to blame.

"Up above the world so high—"

The Cheshire Cat let out a little groan.

Absently, the Hatter kicked him in the ribs.

"—like a tea tray in the sky."

He came to a halt just outside the grand double doors, which opened out onto the grounds below; if he opened them, Alice would step inside, and they would save the White Rabbit together. But, as he gazed out of the window next to him, he could see the tower — the tower where his brother had stood, where the glass was shattered, where his wondrous hat had been sliced so horribly in half — and he found himself quite torn.

If he were to let Alice in, he might miss his chance to slay that Jabberwocky.

His fingers danced across the lever, which would lower the drawbridge.

"…twinkle, twinkle… little bat…"

With a little sigh, he pulled it open.

After all, the White Rabbit was screaming for him.

"…how I wonder what you're at."

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M

A

S

Q

U

E

R

A

D

E

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and one by one, the merry band danced across all of wonderland
and two by two, the merry band danced to the sound of time falling apart

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Upon reaching the Red Castle, and stepping through the gates, Sakura was pretty surprised to see that they were met with no resistance; the Cheshire Cat, unconscious, with a slight bruise forming across his right cheek, lay motionless beside the lever, where the Hatter had unceremoniously dumped him. She found her spirits rising, however, the moment her eyes met Sasuke's, and she let herself smile, reaching a hand out for him.

He took it gently.

Her gaze moved across to her followers — the March Hare, so wonderful, so beautiful — the Caterpillar, still reading that awful book of his — Tweedle Dee, his arm still in a sling, but his face so peaceful, smiling so innocently — the Mock Turtle, with his little smirk and his ice-white hair — the Duchess, all red lips and red dresses and red dreams — and her wonderful, wonderful Hatter. They weren't ready, not yet; she didn't have any armour, let alone any weapons; and now was not the moment to kill the Queen — now was for stealing the Vorpal sword; for saving the Dormouse and her lovely Rabbit.

But they were as ready as they would ever be.

"Let's go."

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"t'was brillig and the slythy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
all mimsy were the borogroves,
and the mome raths outgrabe—"

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He waits.

He waits in the dark, stood silent, stood motionless, the Vorpal sword flashing by his side. He waits, because he spends all his life waiting. He waits, by the broken glass and the tattered hat. He waits for his death. He waits for the Hatter.

He waits.

Oh, how long he waits!

Beware the Jabberwock, my son — the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch! Beware, my son, for he lurks in the night — and oh how long he waits.

((for time to run out, perhaps?))

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The first to go was the Caterpillar.

They had barely turned the first corner, when a shrill, horrid giggling filled the room — it echoed through the hallway, bouncing off the walls and doors. It pierced Sakura's heart and made her blood run cold; and it proved to her, so obviously, how unprepared she was — she was flinching at the easiest of things. Then came the sound of scraping — of metal scratching across the marble floors — and a beautiful, beautiful woman turned the corner.

Beside her, the Duchess grew still.

"Beware the Jubjub Bird!"

Sakura frowned, biting her lip — she noticed how the rest of her party seemed to tense, hands involuntarily flinching towards weapons; and she wished she had something more than her pistol, concealed beneath the folds of her dress. She found herself silent, as she tried to think of something to do — of anything to do — but Kakashi stepped forwards, holding a hand up lazily, smiling.

"Ah, Anko — how nice to see you again," he drawled, with a little wave.

A katana was flung through the air, the blade curved and deadly — it flew just past the Caterpillar's face, and he dropped his hand sheepishly. The sword was jerked backwards, pulled back by the black satin ribbon attached to the handle, yanked back towards their attacker, the Jubjub Bird. Her features were contorted with anger.

"Kakashi, you traitor," she spat, "How dare you return here!"

"In my defence, it wasn't my idea," the Caterpillar shrugged. "If it were up to me, I would never set foot in this dreadful place again."

Sakura wondered if it were just her imagination, but the Jubjub Bird looked wounded.

"I'll handle this," Kakashi drawled, waving them away. "If you take that doorway, just over there, you'll cut out a good chunk of this maze — and you won't have to sneak past Anko, either."

She blinked, before nodding once, gesturing for the rest to follow her — the March Hare, surprisingly, clapped a hand upon the other's shoulder, murmuring something soft to the other, in a near whisper; and then he too followed, passing past Sakura and slipping through the door. She saw that Kakashi was smiling, a little knowing smile, and she wondered what it was Gaara had said that had made him so happy — after a moment, she decided she didn't need to know. With a little smile, she ducked backwards, continuing the journey.

"Goodbye, Caterpillar."

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The Cheshire Cat pushed himself upwards, blinking blearily as he gazed about him — everything hurt; his head, his face, his arms, his legs — his entire being. He was throbbing, in constant pain, even as he flicked his tail back and forth; his tail ached. He'd broken a rib, he was sure of it — that awful Hatter had gone flat-out insane, kicking and singing and singing and kicking, and unconsciousness had sort of been a heaven.

Whatever.

He was up and awake now, and the Queen would never forgive him if he simply curled up and felt sorry for himself.

Still, a little cat-nap wouldn't go amiss…

—no! He pulled himself together, shaking his head, ears lying flat on his head; and he sniffed, absently, smelling the Hatter and his Alice — and there, mingled with all those fresh scents, was the smell of the Dormouse, all sad and fearing for his life. And that lost little Rabbit. The Cheshire Cat felt almost bad.

Still, he thought as he began to fade away, it was about time he paid a visit to the Queen.

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the Jubjub Bird is a terrible beauty.
((and he mourns the love he lost))

"I will enjoy killing you."

The Jubjub Bird took a step forwards, dragging her katana across the floor behind her — the scraping sound filled the air, metallic and harsh, and the Caterpillar had to resist the urge to snap his book shut and press his hands against his ears. Instead, he settled for a slow, drawling sigh, muffled by his mask, eyes never leaving the page in front of him. He didn't stir, not even slightly — not even as Anko took another step forwards, eyes narrowing, shifting her katana slightly. He didn't move, not even as he heard the noise of a blade slicing through the air; it came to rest just above his book, in front of his nose.

Only then did his eyes flicker upwards.

She looked awfully angry. Furious, in fact. He wondered if he had pushed and pushed and pushed her too far — ignoring her, shunning her, belittling her, in his own little way. Absently, Kakashi wondered if it were too late to apologise. Judging from the hatred shining in her eyes, he decided that yes, it probably was too late.

Oh, he was always too late.

So he settled for a small smile, snapping his book shut with one hand, the other reaching below his coat — because he would go all out against the Jubjub Bird, because he owed her that much, after refusing her so much, time and time and time again.

"Oh, Anko — it would have never worked out between us."

She let out a little snarl, and the katana sliced through the air — Kakashi only just managed to duck in time, and wondered why he never quite managed to say the right thing. Anko followed him, jabbing the blade forwards, and he pushed himself backwards, springing through the air and landing easily, supporting himself on the balls of his feet and his fingertips. The two stared at each other — rather, Anko scowled, breathing heavily, hair falling in front of her eyes, and Kakashi tried to work out why it wouldn't have worked out between them.

"We're two complete opposites—"

"—we're not talking about this," Anko hissed, lunging forwards again, slashing out with her katana; this time, Kakashi only just managed to fling himself backwards — and he wondered, absently, why he felt so reluctant to use his weapon.

To fight back.

…against Anko?

The last time they'd fought, it had been a playful fight. She'd disarmed him, pushed him to the ground, and they'd tumbled and rolled and laughed and shared a moment and—

She swung her blade again, the sword singing as it flashed through the air, and he threw himself up and over her, landing neatly behind her. She was quicker, this time, swinging herself around almost immediately, and slashing out at his back — the blade cut across his skin, shallowly, thank goodness, but it still stung. He let himself fall forwards, rolling immediately as the blade — having been once again flung through the air — clashed with the ground he'd been lying upon just moments before.

This time, before she could tug the katana away, he wrapped his hands around the black ribbon, tugging forwards; she staggered, and he darted forwards, punching outwards — she only just managed to bring her arms up in time to block, and they pushed apart, panting heavily, the pair of them.

He eyed her absently.

Why were they fighting, again, when truly he loved her so?

((it's an awful thing when you forget who you're fighting for))

—and none of that changed the fact that he was fighting against her.

This time.

And now was not the moment to be rethinking past decisions.

"It would never have worked out between us, Anko," Kakashi repeated, and he pulled his weapon — a thin, narrow sword, which seemed to crackle and shine with a wonderful sort of energy — from the folds of his coat. "We would have been perfect, but it never would have worked."

And, although it hurt his heart to do so, he fought.

.

.

the Bandersnatch is a fearsome warrior.
((and shun the frumious bandersnatch))

The second to go was the Duchess, although the Mock Turtle protested quite heartily — because he didn't want her out of his sight; because he loved her.

Not that his protests worked.

The Duchess was a fearful woman, after all — perhaps suited for the Bandersnatch, in her own little way; and it was the least she could do for Alice — for Sakura — she reasoned, as she flung herself forwards, lifting her weapon — her precious ladle — high into the air, before slamming it down upon the Bandersnatch's sword with a resounding crash. His fingers closed around her wrist, but she twisted, breaking easily from his grip. She span again, hitting with the ladle once again, her skirt clinging to her legs and being just a general nuisance — but Zabuza easily stopped her, with a small smile.

"This isn't fair."

Karin sprang backwards, eyes narrowed in determination and frustration, as she stared across at the Bandersnatch — he looked unruffled, unaffected, and his breathing had barely changed at all. In fact, he offered her a smirk, as he shifted his blade slightly, balancing the weight across his shoulders — and it was such a ridiculously big sword, as well, to the point where she couldn't help but scoff when she first saw it.

Oh, still, she remembered the Bandersnatch.

He was strong.

Ridiculously so.

She shifted slightly, reaching down and bunching up the bottom of her dress — then, with a tug, she ripped it away, shortening the material and freeing her legs; they were, for lack of better words, her greatest weapon. She didn't usually fight but, when she did, she would swing her ladle with all her might, and then go in for a kick — because that was how she rolled. "What isn't fair," she replied, figuring it was best to humour the other.

"You're a little girl," Zabuza replied. "This isn't fair."

"Are you afraid you're going to be beaten, grandpa?"

He grinned.

"Hardly."

.

.

There was mist.

Inside a castle.

It confused and scared Sakura in equal measure, and she found herself pleased as she realised the Hatter was still clutching her hand — more to comfort her, she supposed, than to comfort himself. Or to perhaps stop himself from drowning. She didn't know which; Sasuke was an enigma, when it came to that front — and she liked it. But that wasn't what she should be thinking about; she was in a rush, after all. She had to save Naruto.

Something scratched her cheek — it clattered to the floor just behind her, and she froze, eyes wide in disbelief. Glancing backwards, she saw a thin, sharp needle, with a deadly point — senbon, she realised; they were being attacked, from out of the mist.

A hand closed around her wrist.

She only just managed to stop herself from screaming, as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the Mock Turtle.

Suigetsu tilted his head, "…I'll handle this."

"Handle what, exactly?" She whispered, keeping her voice low, because she was scared.

He smiled.

"The Gryphon — a deadly warrior, who goes by the name of Haku," Suigetsu paused, for his small smile turned into a full sharp-toothed grin. "I've heard she's pretty."

Sakura smiled.

"Go get her, tiger."

"Will do, Alice — you go on ahead. I'll see you when you've got that stupid rabbit, okay?"

And, with a little wave, the Mock Turtle was the next to vanish.

.

.

Next was Tweedle Dee.

One second, he was there, stood smiling next to them, ever so slightly wary — the next thing Sakura knew, the wall behind them seemed to have exploded, and a monster burst through; a monster in the form of a sickly pale boy, who moved with such speed that she barely even saw him, as he raced towards her. He was carrying a sword, the handle made of pure white bone — human bone, she thought; the bones of the people he'd killed, perhaps? But she saw red, raw wounds across his body, and she wondered if it were perhaps bones from his own body, but suddenly the blade was slashing towards her, and she was certain she was going to die—

But suddenly someone was in front of her.

Juugo.

He caught the attack with his bad arm, letting out a yelp of pain — but his free hand, his good arm, shot out, gripping the attacker's arm and flinging him bodily through the hole he had earlier made. It was speed versus strength.

Juugo's face lit up, with barely concealed joy — and it was such a naive, innocent joy, that Sakura felt her heart throb.

"Brother!"

Beside them, Sasuke grew cold.

"Tweedle Dum!"

Tweedle Dum — Juugo's brother, she realised, and there were some similarities, she thought, after a while; the shape of the eyes, the slope of the nose, but not many — pulled himself out of the wreckage, coughing into his hand; blood spattered the ground below him, and she saw Juugo falter, pain evident in his eyes. She moved to take a step forwards, but Gaara stopped her, placing a hand gently in front of her; and so she stayed where she was.

Sasuke gripped her hand.

"We need to go."

Juugo waved her away.

"It's fine, Sakura," he spoke, voice cheerful but so obviously fake, "Brother and I have some catching up to do."

She brushed her hand across his cheek.

"Be careful," she whispered, before turning and running, following the Hare and the Hatter, to find the Rabbit.

Tweedle Dee's smile faltered.

"…I'll try."

.

.

The Queen of Hearts gazed lazily at the chessboard, black and white blurring into grey as he rested his head in his hands, waiting for the Dormouse to take his turn; he was growing awfully bored. Every now and then, his stare would stray to the White Rabbit, and he would quirk his head, having already decided upon the outcome of the game — whether the Dormouse won or not, the Rabbit would die; it would be such a shame to miss such a beautiful opportunity.

Still, it would be just as entertaining to see that little rat completely crushed, as he realised everything he'd done had been in vain. He was oh so insolent, yawning as he trekked over to a bishop, and moved him three spaces to the left — the Queen peered at the move, sighed heavily, and then moved his King once to the right; oh, he hadn't been in check, he knew that, but the mouse was stalling, and it was annoying. He would wait for the mouse to slip up, as he had to do so eventually.

And, the moment he did…

Well, the Queen smiled, he'd be waiting.

"How fun," a voice drawled, and the Queen's head jerked to the left — there stood his pretty Cat, collar still in place, a pretty blue-and-black-and-purple bruise forming on his cheek, "How thrilling."

"Cat," the Dormouse spat.

The Queen found his gaze flickering back to the little mouse, who was quivering in rage — in fact, he was quite angry indeed. The Queen's smile turned thin and cruel, and he lifted the mouse by what was left of his bloody tail, dumping him down on his palm and stepping over to the Cheshire Cat. The other merely quirked an eyebrow, grin never leaving his face.

"Eat," the Queen said, holding the mouse out.

And the Cat hesitated.

It was a slight hesitation, that was true — and then the Cat's paw slashed out, hooking around the Dormouse and lifting him high into the air, kicking and thrashing and scowling, but not making a noise. It was an entertaining sight, that much was sure, but the Queen couldn't ignore that hesitation — and so he snatched the mouse away, with a displeased frown. "I've changed my mind. Eat later — you had news for me?"

"Alice has entered the Castle."

The Queen's blood ran cold.

Absently, he noticed the Rabbit's bloody, torn ears stick upwards, and his face lit up in a brilliant, beautiful smile — it didn't suit him, he thought. He looked much better bathed in red and blood and pain and hurt.

Agony was such a wonderful word, after all.

"So kill her, Cat," the Queen replied, before turning back to the chessboard. "Get the Knave and kill her. Dispatch the Jubjub Bird, the Bandersnatch, the Gryphon — that sickly Tweedle Dum — and, of course, my beloved Jabberwocky. Kill her dead, Cat, and do not disturb me again. I have a game to play and guests to entertain. Be on your way."

With a little smile, the Cheshire Cat vanished.

And Alice was on her way.

.

.

the Gryphon cries out oh so loudly.
((that even the turtle cannot ignore it))

"Stop shouting."

Haku frowned, gazing across at the Turtle opposite — Zabuza had been the only one to ever hear his cries; not even he himself could hear them; and yet, this insolent brat could? His expression turned blank again, as he inspected his opponent; lanky in build, and too tall — it was almost as if he hadn't quite grown properly into his body. His white hair fell loosely into his eyes, resting on the nape of his neck, and his teeth were abnormally sharp — he reminded Haku of one of the Queen's loyal men, Kisame; the Number Three, if he remembered correctly.

"…you can hear that?"

"You're shouting loudly enough," the Turtle replied, nodding, "So quit it. It's unbecoming of a woman."

Haku blanched.

(This again?)

"I'm a guy."

The Mock Turtle looked appalled.

"That's just cruel — I thought you were hot."

That was it.

Haku was going to kill him as painfully as possible.

.

.

Tweedle Dum calls out for help.
((and tweedle dee cannot answer))

Brothers — they were brothers, although sometimes Juugo forgot that. Sometimes, he thought the boy staring back at him was a complete stranger; they had never looked all that similar to begin with, despite being twins. His older brother had been slighter, smaller, gentler, with kinder features and shining eyes — when they were younger, his hair had been a pale shade of red; but then the sickness had gripped hold of him, and he had turned oh so pale.

A shade of white.

Deathly white.

The Queen had come to both of them, in Wonderland, and offered his brother treatment — help — and he had gladly accepted. In the real world, he was bedridden — he could barely move, and spent much of his time asleep; as a result, he often trekked the world of Wonderland alone. And Juugo wished he could help him.

"Please, brother," he tried, ducking a kick. "Please, don't make me fight."

Kimimaro didn't reply.

"Please."

"You picked your side," the other replied, eventually, "As I picked mine. Don't act so naive, Juugo — one of us will have to kill the other eventually."

There was a silence.

"I'd prefer it if you killed me, in truth," Kimimaro spoke, carefully, lashing out again with his sword, "After all, if I were to kill you, it would be a waste. I would only die a few months later, no doubt. A complete and utter waste — but you…"

He smiled.

"You can live."

"We've discussed this before, the last time we fought," Juugo replied, shaking his head. "I will not kill you. I might hurt you, but that will be an accident! I won't — I won't kill you."

Kimimaro smiled.

"…we'll see."

.

.

"What have you done to that poor kitty, Mr Hatter? He looked quite bruised when he came to see me — his smile wasn't nearly as bright as usual."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"The Knave…"

He wasn't as terrifying as she'd thought he would be; with his snow white hair, pulled back into a ponytail, and his round, large glasses — if it weren't for his crimson armour, already dark with dried blood, she wouldn't have found him scary at all. If it hadn't been for the pure white sword hanging from his hip, she would have said he looked rather like a school librarian. If it hadn't been for his small smirk and his deadly gaze, she would have said he were utterly harmless.

His gaze flickered across to meet her.

"And you must be Alice. A pleasure to meet you, of course — I am the Knave of Hearts, although you may call me Kabuto," he paused, before his smile grew wider. "It is only polite, of course, that you give me your name in return."

"…Ino," she blurted out, before she could stop herself. "My name is Ino."

He frowned.

"It doesn't suit you. I was expecting something… prettier. Like blossom, perhaps—"

And Sakura's blood ran cold.

"—but it doesn't matter, anyway. The three of you — Mr Hare, Mr Hatter and dearest Ino — won't be passing me. This is where your journey ends. I'm sure it was a nice run, Alice, but the Queen will triumph again, and—"

"—and why do you want her to win?" Sakura snapped, before she could stop herself, fists clenched by her sides. "She's trapped you here!"

"He," the Knave corrected, absently. "He's trapped me here."

"The principle is still the same!"

"I suppose it is," he agreed, before shrugging. "But you've got your facts all wrong, Ino — who says I want the Queen to win? Of course, I don't want you to win, either, but that doesn't matter. I'm looking at the much bigger picture — at the Gateway."

"…of course," Gaara breathed, before holding up a hand. "Hatter, Alice — you two leave. I will deal with this nuisance."

"Big words, rabbit," the Knave smiled.

Gaara frowned.

"I am a hare," and, with that, he struck.

.

.

"We need to hurry," Sakura spoke, gripping Sasuke's wrist, as she tugged him along; she didn't know where she was going, but they had to get there, and get there quick, because, if they didn't, then — oh, she didn't want to think about it! But Sasuke was being surprisingly difficult, as he wrenched his arm away from her — she span around, placing her hands on her hips, "If we don't hurry, then—"

"Don't say it."

"—he'll die."

"I know," he replied, running a hand through his hair. "I know."

"Then why have we stopped?"

"Because I can't run with you anymore. Because there is someone I must find — I must kill — while I still have the chance. Because you can continue on your own."

He raised a hand, as she opened her mouth to interrupt.

Dark eyes stared hard at her.

Her breathing turned ragged.

"Because I believe in you — in Alice — in Sakura."

She wanted to thank him, but he shook his head, turning away; he placed a hand in his pocket, raising his left arm lazily as he began to walk away — and she thought he looked so lonely, with his oversized jacket and his mismatched shoes. Like a little boy, wearing the clothes of a man much older than himself. Like a lost little child, screaming out for help. She wanted to run after him, wrap her arms around his waist, tell her she'd help him — see him through anything — but she couldn't; she had a rabbit to save.

And so she turned away.

"Good luck, Hatter."

"I won't need it, Alice — keep the luck for yourself."

.

.

—the mouse fell down

.

.

Triumph.

Triumph?

It was impossible. Utterly, entirely impossible. He had been playing to draw, to lose, at worst — he only had three pieces left, yet, each piece was surrounding the enemy King — the pieces were in the one position he hadn't wanted them to be in. Checkmate. Checkmate.

He had… won.

Oh no — oh no oh no oh no. Oh dear oh dear oh dear — he had won, he had won, he had won, he had won, HE HAD WON, HE HAD WON, AND NOW—

And now—

And now—

The Queen smiled.

"It looks like you've won, little Dormouse — oh deary me. That poor rabbit…"

His gaze flickered across to Naruto. Head down, hair across his eyes, fists clenched, bowed over, ears drooping — no, not the Naruto he knew. No cheery grins. No laughter. No sunshine smiles. No — no — no, this was so unfair.

"I'm not — I'm not doing it!"

"If you won't," the Queen smiled, "I will."

And he reached across for the bishop.

"Checkmate."

.

.

—where was he?

Where was the Jabberwocky?

Sasuke ran and ran and ran, coat flapping about him, distantly mourning the loss of his hat — it made him feel so much bigger, so much stronger, and now it was gone. He would have to visit the Lory and ask her to make him a new one. He would do it as soon as Sakura had rescued Naruto — they would have a day off, and he would show her the villages, the towns, her supporters. He would show her the bright side of Wonderland.

Just as soon as she'd rescued Naruto.

Just as soon as he'd killed the Jabberwocky.

And where, oh where, was his brother?

Where was Itachi?

He smiled, thinly — a game of hide and seek, was it? Very well, then.

"Ready or not — here I come."

.

.

He wasn't ready to die.

He would beg and plead, if he had to — screw dignity and pride, he didn't want to die. He had so much, he had so little, and none of it would ever be enough — and there was more. Panting and sweating, eyes searching for an escape, any escape, he decided he definitely didn't want to die. Not one little bit — that was a sense of finality he never wanted to feel, never wanted to come across, never even wanted to think about. But he was thinking about it now, because it was looking at him from across the room, in the form of a deadly blade — the Vorpal blade.

It was finality.

Death.

Looking at that blade, he decided he would never beg. Never plead.

Oh, but he wasn't ready to die.

Not now — not so young — not with his skin still so smooth, and his eyes still so fresh; not when he had the entire world to see — both worlds. No, thinking back, he didn't want to die, not one little bit. Not even as he saw the queen topple downwards, as he saw the smile curve across the other's lips, as he heard those last, beautiful, final words — so cruel, so clear; filled with a sense of dread but, at the same time, a cold sense of nothing.

That nothing would follow.

But everything would.

That nothing made his blood run cold and his heart skip a beat, just for a fraction of a few seconds, and, for a moment, he couldn't begin to think. Couldn't think of anything. Images flashed before his eyes — not his life, per say, but images — people and places; a girl with pink hair and gentle eyes — a boy with hair the colour of fire, burning, burning — and many, many others. An array of colours, at first, so beautiful, so brilliant — then pure, innocent white.

Then red.

And crimson red eyes.

And a smiling, smiling mouth.

The Vorpal blade rose; it was pressed against his throat, cold and cruel, already biting into his skin, and his eyes flickered up to meet crimson red. He wondered, absently, if they were the eyes of someone he knew well — eyes reflected in the eyes of someone he knew well, perhaps — before deciding it didn't matter. He would die either way.

His pocket watch would stop ticking.

The White Rabbit would stop running.

The Jabberwocky stood silent, strong, impassive.

And the Red Queen laughed.

.

.

Too late, too late.

Oh, she was going to be so awfully late.

Her fingers fell to her dress, bunching the material awkwardly up in her fists; and she was running, as fast as she could, pink hair falling into her eyes. She couldn't stop running. Her sword was clutched uncomfortably in one hand, the flat of the blade pressed against her leg, and she wore no armour. She was completely unprepared for the chaos which would surely follow. But that didn't matter, as she knew she was late, so awfully, horribly, terribly, awfully late—

—ahead of her, she saw a pretty ghost rabbit, hopping and jumping and running, and she knew she was late, so late, so horribly late, when it vanished

She stopped thinking.

Her heart continued pumping and her chest was rising, falling, rising, falling, but she wasn't thinking. Because, even as her hands pressed against the grand double doors, even as her sword clattered to the floor, even as she opened her mouth to scream, she knew she was too late.

And her world was bathed in red.

.

.

"Check—"

And the King topples down.

"—mate."

.

.

—hickory, dickory
dock

.

.

His lips curved into a smile, and his eyes closed — because now, at least, he knew he would never be late again.

And so Uzumaki Naruto fell.

.

.

notes3: did i mention i love this chapter?
notes4: & did i mention i should probably be doing drama homework, but i decided not to so that i could finish this? ;)
notes5: as always, please read & review!