A/N: As you may notice, I've taken down two chapters in this story and replaced them with this one. My imagination refused to go forward with this story - it insisted on going back and reviewing things that would have happened long before the original chapter 2. So I'm humoring it, and hopefully you readers will enjoy these 'history' details enough to forgive me for it.
Disclaimer: As this is in NO way canon, I must not own Naruto.
And thanks to the ever-patient The Laughing Phoenix for not kicking me when I asked her to beta this mess.
In the darkest hours of night, trees became a blur of mottled shadows, distinguished only by being darker than the space between them. Scrub brush blended with the sparse moonlight filtering through the thick canopy above, turning the ground into a patchwork quilt of black and deepest grey. The bravest of the night birds cautiously called out, finally beginning to return to the ravaged land.
But Iruka saw none of this, struggling as he was to keep his feet beneath him while the blond ANBU's speed threatened to leave the boy streaming behind like a bizarre banner. The Genin ducked his head, rolling his opposite shoulder forward to try and shield the child in his arms, and then focused his attention on the elder's feet.
Finally Iruka caught onto a rough approximation of the older shinobi's rhythm, and the grip on his wrist merely lengthened his stride without promising to send him careening out of control. Immediately realizing there was a decrease in resistance, the ANBU tilted his masked face back toward the boy for an instant.
The man watched the child for a moment, and then gave one sharp nod. That larger hand tightened once in warning before releasing him entirely, and the ANBU dropped back, taking his place among the outer circle of the fleeing group. The change altered Iruka's balance, making the Genin stumble briefly, but a light touch to his left shoulder provided just enough momentary support for the boy to catch himself, adjusting his stride as best he could.
Glancing over, he was startled into another stumble by the quick grin that greeted him from a young, unmasked face. The other boy, appearing about his own age, immediately reached to balance him again, surprise and embarrassment washing over broad features. "Sorry" the stranger blurted quietly. Iruka gave him a nod and then the boys fell into step, both too focused on their breathing and their footwork to be able to speak.
Suddenly the ANBU stopped, dropping into place so smoothly that it took another step or two for Iruka to realize that they weren't moving anymore. The Genin's head snapped up, looking almost wildly around, seeking the enemy he was sure must be there. His young partner tapped his arm, and Iruka nearly jumped out of his skin. Wide eyed, he turned to the other boy. "Ibiki called a break" the other whispered.
Iruka blinked. "Oh." Abruptly his panic bled away, leaving the brunet suddenly aware of his burning lungs and aching legs. He dropped heavily to his knees, curling over and trying to slow his breathing.
The other dropped beside him, shaking his head. "Nuh-uh, straighten up. Tip your head back – it'll open your airway so you can breathe better."
To Iruka's pleased surprise, the trick worked just like the other boy said it would, and he flashed his fellow youngster a small, hesitant smile. "I'm Umino Iruka" he offered.
The other boy flashed that grin again. "Tenzo."
Iruka craned his neck, and caught sight of a group of the ANBU clustered together towards the rear of the party. "What's going on back there?" he murmured, not really expecting an answer.
But Tenzo shrugged. "Don't know – I'll go find out." Apparently in much better shape than the other Genin, he jumped up and slipped away towards the adults. When the boy came back, his expression was troubled. "Sparrow's not doing so well" he nearly mumbled. "They're rebinding her wounds, but... if she falls behind again, Ibiki says we'll leave her."
Iruka winced, but he didn't doubt for a moment that this 'Sparrow' could be simply abandoned. A shiver ran down the boy's spine as he recalled the casual way that same man had ordered his own death. No, Iruka decided, he didn't much like Ibiki – and he definitely didn't want to be in the man's way!
A low, scraping sound echoed down dark halls, followed by the lightly panting breath of a child. Resting against the wall for an instant, the six-year-old summoned his strength for the next stretch. With a final heave, the boy fell to his knees even as the crate slid into place amongst the others scattered haphazardly throughout the room.
Forcing himself first to his feet, through four stumbling steps, and then onto his tiptoes, dark eyes peered critically through the window. On the ground, nearly inconspicuous amongst the other flames, burned a pile of wood and cloth and plastic. If one were very observant, one might be able to distinguish the bright, pastel colors quickly turning black.
Finally allowing his trembling legs to give out beneath him, the little boy collapsed, curling tiredly on the floor. As his eyes passed over all of the boxes painstakingly dragged into place, a curl of satisfaction arose. There was nothing soft or hospitable in the room – nothing to indicate that it had, only that morning, been a nursery. All of the toys, the crib, all of the large pictures, they all burned below the window. Small pictures hidden away, formula poured down the sink... there was no trace left of the infant who had so recently occupied the room.
'They won't know you were here, little brother.' the boy thought. 'So they won't know to look for you. It's... the best I could do. Good luck...' As exhaustion finally dragged him under, there was a small, bittersweet smile trembling on Itachi's lips. It was the last he would wear for over a decade.
All that registered was a booming, echoing sound. Fast, but uneven, this sound rushed through, defining the world within its reach. "Boss." The soft call pierced briefly through the pulsing echo, but the one addressed did not notice it. "Boss, you gotta wake up." Again, the quiet words sounded, more murmured against skin than spoken.
"Come on, Boss, don't do this. Get up." The concern – no, the fear in that voice stirred something visceral in the addressed. Weary eyes forced themselves open, squinting until the blurry edges resolved themselves into a small, damp pug peering down into his face. 'Wait... down?'
"Report" came the single reply, the rasping word forced almost silently from a raw throat.
"We lost them" Pakkun reported, his stance relaxing now that Kakashi was awake and coherent. Sort of. "You've got some nasty wounds – and I tried to bandage that right leg, but, uh, you might want to re-do it – but we're safe enough for now."
One grey eye flicked down to his leg, and bleeding hands absently retied the sloppy binding over the deep gash. Gathering his breath, the teenager levered himself off of the ground, one of his other nin-dogs moving to brace him when he swayed dangerously. "How long?" came the next question, the Captain's sharp mind fighting to work out whether he could still catch up to the other would-be escapees. Cold snaked its way down his spine with Pakkun's flinch.
"You've been out for about ten minutes – we were on the move for almost four hours." Kakashi blinked once at his pack, crowded close and seemingly fighting not to whimper. 'Puppies' he remembered. 'They're barely more than puppies.'
The young ANBU forced a smirk he didn't really feel, and reached down to ruffle Shiba's crest. "All right, guys" he ordered. "Let's go find our team. Pakkun, you're on point. Bull, cover him. Everyone else, flank out. Stay low, stay quiet... stay alive." And the ragged pack slipped away into the darkness.
In a large, near-empty house on the far side of the burning Leaf Village, a tiny child mumbled tearfully around the fingers crammed into his mouth. Pale blue eyes swept the small, dark closet, searching with all the intensity their owner was capable of. He was tired, he was wet, and he was starving. His daddy had been gone forever and ever, and his babysitter had shoved him in this little place and left him there! There had been running, and yelling, and now it was all quiet and dark. The air smelled funny, and he was scared. "Papa...?" the child, just over a year old, called yet again.
For the first time in hours, a sound answered the frightened little boy. The closed door opened, and a large figure stood outlined in the light.. "Now what have we got here?" A low voice asked.
The baby cheered instantly. "PAPA!" he crowed, excitedly bouncing in place.
The figure chuckled, but there was little amusement in the sound. "Not exactly." The figure crouched in the doorway, revealing a battle scarred shinobi, but the little one was familiar with the sight of steel and armor, and was not yet old enough to understand the difference between the symbols on the hitai-ate of his family and this new man. "Now, who are you?"
The child drew back slightly, wrinkling his tiny nose as the sharp, coppery scent in the air intensified around this man. Not quite steady on his feet, the toddler tripped on his blanket and fell, landing hard on his bottom. Tears welled again in those too-blue eyes, and small fingers jammed themselves right back into his mouth. "...'m Neji" he mumbled.
A sharp, predatory smile spread across the elder's face, though he quickly schooled it into something a little less intense. "Well, Neji-chan, let's get you out of here, huh kid?"
Neji cringed as the shinobi reached for him, fingers leaving wet red smears across the child's blue jumpsuit, but the man bounced him lightly, and then swung him up onto one broad shoulder. Fear forgotten, the baby laughed in delight. "Horsie!"