A/N: Okay, not exactly the next chapter of Zanzou or Children, but... it's something? *sidles away nervously*

Big thanks go out to The Laughing Phoenix who is sacrificing time to beta this thing for me - though any remaining mistakes are still mine.

I don't own Naruto - you'd be seeing a lot more updates if I made my living off of this. This is rated T (though it may go up later) for violence, angst, torture/death, and a general darker plot than most of my other stuff.

The rising light filtered down through the dust and smoke still floating in the air, painting the world a hazy, surreal grey. Through the smog and the grime, a young boy emerged, picking his way listlessly through the debris of what had once been a thriving subdivision. Of what had once been home.

Weaving on his feet, choking on the gritty air, the child stumbled until he stood before the ruins of one particular house. Tears welled up in glassy brown eyes as the eleven year old dropped to one knee, a hand reaching slowly into an alcove in the rubble to touch the little blue window box still partially hanging from the fallen chunk of wall. Incongruously, the tiny white and blue flowers still peeked merrily over the rim of the box. The grimy, bloodstained hand touched lightly, tears spilling out as the small, calloused fingers traced gently over the silky petals before dropping back to his side.

Blocking out the ache in his body, dulled eyes drifted across the battered street. 'Shiori-chan left her ball out.' The boy thought, numbly noting the little red ball amongst the rubble. 'Her mamma's told her a million times not to do that.' But then he noticed the wet redness on the debris around the little toy, and his stomach twisted. 'No… please, no.'

Scrambling to his feet, the boy raced to the site, dropping hard enough to jar already-skinned knees as torn hands pulled desperately at the stone and wood. "Hey, hey" he called, forcing words through a throat sore from screaming cries of fear and battle, near babbling as his mind tumbled across itself. "Hey, come on, is anybody there? Can you hear me? Can…"

The boy's voice trailed off, dying as he uncovered the source of the red. A little girl, no older than five, lay amidst the wreckage, her body as broken as the rubble around her. Blood soaked into her soft blonde curls, matting them around her pale face. Or at least, what was left of it. His breathing growing harsh, mind shrieking incoherently, the boy tumbled back, away, up and on his feet and racing back to the familiar cheer of the little blue flower box.

Curling in on himself, the child huddled inside the confined space, resting his head on his knees as his arms wrapped around his legs. The ragged blue cloth around his head slipped, allowing the dented steel plate it held to slide down over the boy's eyes. He hissed in pain, hands flying to shove it back up onto his forehead. He almost ripped it off, almost threw it away – the boy didn't much feel like a shinobi right now, no matter what a school test and a little piece of metal said.

One hand returned to wrap around his legs, but the other hesitated, gingerly touching the bloodied bandage wrapped around his little face. 'Makoto-sempai said I needed to get that looked at' the boy recalled, briefly remembering the blue-haired Genin who'd put a quick field dressing on the wound. But that called up a later image of the same boy, face twisted in shock and pain as the tree branch he'd been flung into burst through his chest. When he'd first graduated – was it really only a month ago? – Makoto had seemed, at thirteen, so wise. So mature. But in those last moments… he'd been a child. Just a frightened little boy.

The wounded one shuddered, shoving the image into the back of his mind. There was no point going to the medical tents – even he knew that his wound wasn't bad enough to merit attention until the critically injured were dealt with. Tomorrow, then, at the earliest.

He curled tighter in on himself, mind blanking yet again. Vaguely, the memory of choking, overwhelming power drifted through his mind, his shock distancing him from the scent of blood and the screams of the dying. His last memory, as consciousness faded, was of blood red chakra and a fanged, evil smile. 'I wonder…' was the last sleepy thought. 'What was that thing…?' Alone, exhausted and injured, Iruka slept, unaware of the passing of time – or of the shivers that overtook him in his slumber.

The dawn rose slowly over the devastated city, highlighting more wreckage than intact buildings. The hard black eyes of the scarred shinobi passed briefly across the remains of his Village before returning to the forest outside of it. Ibiki's hands tightened into fists. The monster – Kyuubi, they'd called it, though Nightmare was more appropriate – had leveled large swaths of the forest before the Yondaime had taken the beast down at the cost of his own life. A humorless smile quirked the Jounin's lips. 'And I do not envy the poor bastards on crowd control when Sarutobi-sama, no, Sandaime-sama, has to inform the Village of that particular gem.'

The 'smile' dropped away as his gaze returned to his watch, and Ibiki let out a slow, controlled breath. His Village was so vulnerable right now – their Wall had a gap wide enough to march an army through, their people were exhausted, injured… But worse than the Wall, Ibiki's chakra sense still sang of the monster's chakra. Showing an uncommon lapse in control, the Jounin's lips twisted into a snarl. 'Right now' he thought, painfully aware, 'I wouldn't be able to sense a pre-Genin brat trying to sneak up on me, much less an actual shinobi. Having to rely on unenhanced senses – or even enhanced ones like Tsume's Clan – with our structural defenses so compromised is just asking for trouble.'

Ibiki took another slow, deep breath, letting his eyes scan carefully over the woods before him. 'One day' he reminded himself. 'Not even a full day, just give us a few more hours to recover from that thing's attack. We just need one day…'

Tokuma glared, using his irritation to cover his nervousness as the young Jounin made yet another visual sweep of the area. His fingers itched to form the seal that activated his Byakugan, but he knew better. All he would see was green – the visual negative of the Kyuubi's red chakra. The monster was dead, was gone, but it was still harming him. For a Clan accustomed to flawless sight, this was maddening.

The sixteen year old jerked slightly, eyes darting to a wooded area where he'd thought he'd seen movement. The young man stilled, expression intent as he searched the region carefully. Nothing. Slowly relaxing, he remained vigilant until he was relieved. Unable to completely dismiss his concern, he signaled to his replacement that he was going into the woods, waiting until he received a nod of confirmation.

As the teenager slipped through the trees, ranging a short ways out, he finally relaxed completely. No one there – it had probably been a bird or something. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, Tokuma never saw the shadow slip up behind him. All he registered was a sharp burst of pain before his world went dark.

A short moment later, and the sentry waved back as 'Tokuma' returned, slipping inside the broken Wall and moving wearily back into the dubious safety of the Village.

In the midst of Konoha, an infant snuffled quietly in the arms of an old man. Weary eyes remained locked on the view outside the window, but the child was rocked slightly. "Hush, little one" the old man murmured. Bright blue eyes cracked open for an instant, but the baby yawned and settled back down to sleep. Absently rocking the child, Sarutobi Hiruzen looked out over the mess that was currently his Hidden Village, narrowing his eyes in concentration as his deceptively sharp mind worked to prioritize his people's needs.

As the dawn brightened into day, and then began to fade into the warm light of afternoon, the old man – Hokage now, again, he reminded himself – worked tirelessly. He stood before his people with grievous news, offering strength and hope though he personally felt that there was little of the same inside of him. He looked over the patrol shifts, ensuring that his exhausted, traumatized shinobi did not strain what little stamina they had available to them. He glanced briefly over budgets, authorizing the access of emergency funds and stores to supply the shelters going up throughout his Village – if this wasn't an emergency, then Hiruzen didn't know what was.

Finally the sun was warm through the windows of his Tower, and his city buzzed with life, albeit much slower and more quietly than was the norm. But the old man closed his eyes for a moment, allowing his old bones exactly one minute to savor the heat. When his self-allotted time of indulgence was over, his eyes opened again – and his heart froze in his chest as he saw a dark wave sweep over his Village's eastern Wall.

Though his heart seemed to stop, his mind and body did not – the Sandaime Hokage dashed to sound the alarm, snatching up his armor as he vanished from the office.

For the next two days, a battered Konoha fought desperately to drive out the Kumo invasion. Its shinobi struggled bitterly, aided by their knowledge of the terrain but hampered by their injuries and exhaustion. Steadily, they were driven back, forced deeper into the heart of the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

The Leaf shinobi, one by one, were struck down and shackled, captured and killed. Civilians shivered in their homes, surrendering instantly when one of the Kumo nin broke down their doors and praying that, somehow, their families survive this new disaster with no further losses. Still the running battles raged on, the Will of Fire blazing in its people.

And through it all, a small boy with a face nearly as wounded as his heart slept hidden amongst the wreckage, haunted by pain and fevered dreams, unaware of the shudders that wracked his small body as what was left of his world burned around him.

When Iruka woke, he felt sick, shaky and weak. His head ached fiercely and he felt so cold. His stomach cramped badly, though the very thought of food was enough to induce a roiling wave of nausea. Pulling himself from his resting place, the boy looked around himself in confusion. His body told him that he had somehow slept much longer than he had intended, but fires still burned in the streets, blazing in the dark night. 'Shouldn't those be out by now?' he thought, unease creeping into his mind.

Pulling himself together as much as possible, Iruka slipped into deeper shadows, one hand reaching for the kunai in his weapons pack. Ducking under and around rubble, the boy stilled as he heard a sound out of place in the quiet. Regulating his breathing, quieting and slowing the hiss of air, fever-glazed eyes sought out the source of the noise even as he pressed further back into the night. After a heartbeat, two shinobi strolled down the broken street.

Iruka almost called out, almost came out, but something about them pricked at his instincts. Their outline… wasn't quite right. The eleven year old waited, hesitating in his hiding spot as the pair passed near one of the fires burning nearby – and his breath caught in his throat as the light flickered across the hitai-ate tied proudly across their foreheads. 'Kumo? Here? Wha… How long was I out? What's going on around here!'

Iruka waited until he was sure that the foreign pair was out of range, and then he slipped away. His eyes cleared, adrenaline pushing away the last vestiges of the fever running through his body as he moved as quickly and quietly as a Genin was able. He hid quietly from a few more strange shinobi, noting with rising terror that they were too relaxed – as if they had already won.

As he slid through the darkness, the boy came to an open stretch that had once been the courtyard of an apartment complex. Watching warily, he stepped into the space, moving lightly across the ground. He was just across, just into the shelter of cover again, when he felt warm steel against the back of his neck. He didn't want to think about the warm wetness that dripped down onto his back and shoulders, he didn't. But after a moment, the tension in the weapon relented.

"Konoha" his captor breathed, and the next thing Iruka knew there was a larger body all but slumping over his. The boy clamped his jaw to contain the startled squeak that wanted to escape, twisting awkwardly to try and help this apparent ally. His eyes widened again, and he couldn't help the horrified words, though he did at least remember to keep his voice down. "ANBU-san!" The youth leaning against him wasn't much bigger than Iruka himself, probably still in his early teens, with wild silver hair matted with blood and grime. But the tattered body armor and the cracked porcelain mask were unmistakable.

That masked face tilted up to his and Iruka had the distinct impression that the other was glaring at him. And then his breath was stolen as the ANBU shoved a small bundle into his chest. "Get to the northern wall, be there when the clock strikes the hour. I'll meet you if I can" the teen wheezed, his words slurring with exhaustion and blood loss. "Tell Almanac, 'Wolf said take him too – Sensei would want it.' You got that, kid?"

Confused and frightened, all Iruka could do was to stammer his understanding. "Tell Almanac that… that Wolf said Sensei'd want to take him, too."

A soft snort, and the faint impression that the older boy smirked at him. "Close enough. Go!" With a shove to Iruka's shoulder, the ANBU launched himself away from the Genin – and straight at a Kumo shinobi that Iruka hadn't even noticed. He hesitated, confused, but a snarl from the ANBU sent him racing north.

Finally, miraculously, reaching the Northern Wall – or rather, what was left of it – Iruka peered down into the bundle in his arms. A soft sound escaped him as bright blue eyes peeked up from under baby-fine blond hair. The odd markings on the infant's cheeks made Iruka briefly wonder if the baby had been hurt during the attack, but then his brow furrowed.

The baby's mouth was moving, wide open and breath bellowing as if the child were squalling – the little face was even beginning to turn red – but there was no sound. 'Is he mute?' But then Iruka noticed that the baby wasn't squirming either, and, peeling back the blankets the child was wrapped in, Iruka's eyes nearly bulged out. The child was swaddled so tightly that he couldn't move – in fact, a hurried check showed that the little toes were starting to turn pale and cool. 'Silencing jutsu, then' he thought, realizing that the ANBU must have been desperate to keep the child still and silent. Even so…

Iruka unwrapped the blankets, rubbing the little limbs gently as the pair crouched in the shadow of the broken wall. Once the toes were pink and warm again, he re-swaddled the child snugly, but not too tight. The little one quieted, relaxing once the constriction was gone and finally drifting off to sleep in Iruka's arms.

A smile pulled slightly at the Genin's lips as he cuddled the infant, waiting for the Tower clock to strike the hour.

Slipping out from the shadow of the wall, Iruka dared to step out into the open. Wide brown eyes searched carefully for any sign of movement – of this 'Almanac' – but there was only the silent darkness. Walking slowly, Iruka felt his tension wind higher and higher, ever aware that there were apparently enemy shinobi in Konoha – and he still didn't know how or why. So when cold steel touched the back of his neck – again – Iruka dropped instantly, curling protectively around the infant in his arms.

"Wolf sent me!" he hissed desperately as his eyes instinctively squeezed closed, entire body bracing for the blow he knew was coming. Except… it didn't. His captor remained still, though the blade never left his neck, and after an eternal instant Iruka more felt than saw other figures step carefully into the clearing, many holding bundles of their own.

One, tall and stocky and all but radiating power and authority, snapped quietly in a voice frighteningly devoid of emotion. "Explain." So he did.

"I was… avoiding Kumo agents, and a wounded ANBU agent appeared and handed me my package. He said 'tell Almanac Wolf said take him, Sensei'd want it' and sent me to this rendezvous. We were discovered by one Kumo shinobi, and the ANBU left in pursuit of him. I came to deliver the package, as ordered. Sir."

Finally there was emotion in that bland voice as the man bit off an oath. "Damn it, brat!" Somehow, Iruka knew that the man wasn't talking about him.

But then a man – another ANBU from the look of him – spoke quietly. "So what do we do with the kid?"

The stocky man – Almanac, he supposed – answered immediately. "We can't let him live. He's seen too much." Iruka's heart froze as his gut went cold. 'But…' he thought wildly, 'but these are my own people!' As the blade pressed lightly against his skin, yet another stepped forward.

"Wait" the man asked, handing the bundle in his arms over to another. The pressure eased as the new one stepped close, easing to one knee in front of the terrified Genin. "Hey," the man murmured, his voice warm as one hand lifted to cup the boy's face. Iruka looked up, hardly able to breathe, taking in the cold porcelain mask and the dirty blond ponytail. And then he stiffened, eyes rolling back as his body reacted to the utterly foreign sensation of him mind being opened, rifled through – not roughly, but too quickly to be truly gentle.

Once released, the boy went boneless, just barely able to twist enough to avoid landing on the baby he still curled around. Blondie looked up at the others, something odd in his voice. "Orphan" he stated, almost sadly. "And very determined to protect this child. Take him with us, Ibiki. He can't slow us down much more than the babies, and the way he holds that one says he knows how to deal with them."

A tense moment, during which Iruka tried not to hyperventilate, passed before the first man spoke again. "Yeah. There's enough Konohan dead, let's not add to it."

Another heartbeat of silence, and then Almanac – Ibiki? – nodded sharply and the blade removed itself from Iruka entirely. "Fine." He said to the group in general, and then turned a sharp tone on the cowering Genin. "You want to help Konoha? Then on your feet, boy. We leave now."

As the group began to move away from their Village – the blond nearly dragging Iruka by one arm – the shell shocked boy could only form one coherent thought. 'Wolf-san… what did you get me in to?'