Going to Suna. Take care of stuff here okay bastard. Espesialy Hinata. -N

The note was jammed halfway through the slats of Sasuke's locker. Naruto's locker was empty.

The muscles of his leg twitched, ready to kick at every metal surface until the echoes rivaled the crashes. He sat down instead, on the disgusting locker room floor, and stared at the opposite wall.

Watch me win the championship, he'd told Father. And he would. Hang Naruto. He'd win every game, make all the goals, get Kiba to pass the pucks to him instead of-

No. He was good, but he wasn't stupid. Without Naruto there would be no championship. WoF didn't really do captainships-leadership was shared, rotated, collaborated. Same with coaching. But everyone knew who lead Konoha's hockey team. Naruto burst in years late, took months to learn to follow enough rules to stay on the ice more than a minute at a time, and was still the freaking compass they couldn't skate straight without. He played hard and fast and unpredictable, breaking apart opposing defense like a kid knocking down wooden blocks. Sasuke made the most goals. Naruto made the most assists.

Naruto's locker was empty. Did it mean the End—no more Team 7? Or was it a good sign, because Naruto took his gear for daily practice, and he'd be back in a week's time? Kakashi wouldn't tell them anything. He never did. Did Sakura know yet? Had Naruto shoved a note in her locker, or had he actually called? The image of Naruto climbing through Sakura's window had his jaw clenching and anger rising, and he kicked ineffectually at the bench, small bones creaking protest in too-stressed fists.

He heard footsteps in the tunnel and closed his eyes, breathing carefully, until his face was blank and posture untelling. He was on his feet before the door opened, slouched over his open locker, wondering what would happen if he just didn't skate today.

"So Naruto's missing, again," droned a lazy voice, and Sasuke swallowed an irritated huff: he'd recognized that shuffling footstep, but hoped he was wrong.

"Says who?" he challenged, voice flat. No answer came, and he swung around to meet the sharp, blankly unimpressed consideration of one Nara Shikamaru.

"It is a custody issue, isn't it?" said Shikamaru, watching Sasuke through eyes that clearly hadn't fully opened since he'd fallen asleep the night before. The distracting question of whether or not Shikamaru could pass entire days without raising his eyelids beyond half-mast presented itself for perusal, and was immediately dismissed.

It was exactly the kind of comment the idiot would make.

"It's not one of the foster organizations he won emancipation from after joining WoF, is it? Sakura seems a bit too starry-eyed for that to be the case," pressed Shika, entirely unperturbed by Sasuke's hostile silence. "You've been in a piss since the day Naruto got put in hospital. Which Kakashi-sensei had some ulterior motive for. Obviously."

This is why we don't talk to Shika, thought Sasuke, murderously. He's so damn nosey when he's not asleep.

"I don't like you either," Shikamaru said, maddeningly calm. "But if Naruto needs help, I'm going to give it to him. So are you. This will be much less of a drag if we begin with cooperating."

Don't be proud if it's the same as being stupid, whispered Sasuke's mental Itachi, in full agreement with Shikamaru. Not that it made anything any easier.

"...Naruto left."

Silence. Shikamaru's right hand slipped into a pocket, and Sasuke could hear the flick-flick-flick of the small metal cap of the lighter hidden there.

"Left. Left, or was taken?"

Flick. Flick. Flick.

"Here, genius." He meant to sound derisive, but he just sounded tired. Shikamaru accepted Naruto's note warily, read it swiftly.


Sasuke shrugged. Breathed in, deep, reluctant, made his body begin the motions of changing into hockey gear. The changing room would be crowded and clamorous soon enough.

"He'll be back," said Shikamaru, and Sasuke could hear how much he hoped he was right.




"He's gone."

He was just one more shadow in a room of slatted shade, wider and denser than the rest. He hummed acknowledgement, never turning from the high, dark window.

"Do you think he'll stay? In Suna."

No. Naruto would never run away. No more than time would lengthen, spread out and make room for the tasks he must complete.

"Give this to him. Make him hear it. Gaara is a second option, should Naruto successfully evade. Brat's life depends on it."


She left.

On with the game.




"Care to spar?"

Naruto looked up from where he stared into the unfamiliar contents of the suitcase he'd been left to unpack, mouth spreading in grateful answer to Gaara's suggestion.

"Sure!" Muscles rolled easily as he straightened and stretched, and it wasn't so hard to let his steps bounce a little, like they should. "Open hand, yeah? I got enough marks for them to freak out over already."

Gaara gave him this loaded look, but nodded along amiably anyway. "We could just play basketball," he offered, and Naruto shook his head swiftly.

"Nuh-uh. I got steam to blow. I'm not letting you up easy."

"Challenge accepted," said Gaara, one corner of his mouth twitching in what he passed off for a smile.

They walked cold stone hallways to a sun-drenched courtyard, Gaara taking the exchange of climate-controlled luxury interior for merciless Suna heat with perfect aplomb; Naruto shouting and staggering back with both hands over his eyes.

"HOW ARE YOU ALL NOT BLIND? And, I can feel my muscles melting—"

"Unprepared for the desert?" wondered Gaara, dry amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes, softening the habitual blankness of his face.

"Nah, just blind," said Naruto, and he followed Gaara to a corner where soft fine sand spread under tall palms, currently shaded by the courtyard wall.

They faced off. Bowed, one more gracefully than the other.

"On your mark," began Gaara.

"Go!" cried Naruto, and charged.

Naruto moved fast. Gaara hardly moved at all. As if held by roots spread strong and deep as those of the palms behind him, Gaara's feet sunk into the sand, limbs loose, gaze bright, face even. He shifted in fluid measures of weight and balance, avoiding hits by careful millimeters and striking once for every dozen dodges. Naruto attacked and barely defended, slipping and sliding in the sand and turning this to his advantage; he set up patterns just to break them and whirled down a relentless barrage of jabs and kicks until Gaara was forced to set his stance wide and fly into precision strikes and swift knee blocks just to stay standing. Naruto's teeth bared fierce in wide gleeful grins and then they both saw it: the long ribbon of crimson floating free from behind a pillar in the opposite corner of the courtyard, and the quick hand that whisked it back out of sight.

And Naruto started fighting stupid.

High kicks and three-sixty spins, jumps and flips and battle-cries and all the flashy crowd-pleasers he'd been trained in and was too smart to ever pull when there was anything more at stake than a mindless spectating mass to win over—ah, but there is a crowd to please, admitted Gaara, and resigned himself to a tiresome exhibition rather than a satisfying spar. A very special crowd of one.

Because Naruto was Naruto, Gaara went with it. He dodged indefensible leaps with useless cartwheels and backflips of his own, and could hardly feel silly about it, with the way Naruto's smile turned small with pleasure, and embarrassment, and gratitude. Their spar became an improvised martial dance, and their crowd stopped peeking to charge out hollering encouragement and trash-talk and ridiculous advice and Naruto's heart blossomed blue in his eyes like the Suna sun in the sky.

"Next time," said Gaara wryly, when Naruto had 'won' and was blushing brighter and sweating harder under the ministrations of his hyper and adoring mother, "we will just go free-running, agreed?"

"Whatever, you stupid Tanuki," said Naruto.

Be safe, thought Gaara, staring back with impassive face, and the words twisted around his ribcage, squeezed tight. For however long I can keep you...be safe.




"Talk with me," said Minato. "...Please."

The boy at the desk looked up slowly, kohl-rimmed eyes cool. Minato had recently filled in his surface-knowledge gaps with more intent research, of course; Sabaku no Gaara, youngest son of Kaze no Kuni's reigning monarch, twenty years old and gossip-page fodder from the tender age of fourteen. The age Minato's son was, now, and even if Naruto hadn't believed himself to be as much as four years older than his actual age, there were so many red flags going up about their apparent relationship, Minato hardly knew where to start. The fact that Kaze's Royal Family's PR department hadn't been able to keep their youngest prince's escapades in underworld crime and drug dens out of the press seemed as good a place as any.

"Come in and welcome," said the prince.

Minato took the gilded chair offered him and held the reserved gaze directed at him, calculating how many questions he might get away with. That face was a mask, green eyes fathomless under the painted shadows and flagrant tattoo.

"I will tell very little about Naruto."

Well, that was direct enough. If Sabaku no Gaara had his own agenda for this conversation, Minato would hear it.

"I will hear a very little, then," said Minato, and Gaara's lip quirked.

The prince leaned forward, rested his forearms, entwined his fingers. "It seems I know more about your son than most," he said. "I... am not well versed in the positive aspects of relationships between fathers and sons, but I know this: of Naruto, you can be very, very proud."

What right do I have to pride? thought Minato, but something warm swelled wide in his chest, and he knew that pleasure might show a little in his eyes.

"Thank you," he said slowly, and watched Gaara to see if anything more telling might be forthcoming. It was a powerful strategy, just listening; but Gaara seemed as poised and self-possessed as the most effective career diplomats. "Thank you, for caring for Naruto." And then: "You say you know little of father-son relationships. I am also not at all an expert in... in that area." He paused, let Gaara assess him, let more than usual show in his face and manner. "I do know that I have failed my son enough for both our lifetimes, that I need to protect and free him, and that I will probably fail again."

"Free him," murmured Gaara, gaze slicing narrow through thick lines of black.

"He is not mine," said Minato, quiet and honest. "He is his own being, and my son, and I will do everything for him. Including... including letting him go."

"So that is why you allowed me to bring Naruto here." Gaara considered him gravely. "Your reputation for intellectual intuition does not exceed you."

Minato didn't pause for the might-be compliment. "That decision was up to Naruto. Much as I might wish otherwise, I have very little power over his circumstances, and none whatsoever over his choices."

"You have far more influence than you know," said Gaara, and for a moment it seemed he might say more, but silence settled sharp and still instead.

In his bones Minato wanted Sabaku no Gaara to have no ties whatsoever to his son. But wishes had their own place, and it was not in making sound decisions for reality.

"Help me."

Green eyes snapped to his, intent and unforgiving.

"Help me protect my son. Talk with me. Tell me what I need to know to save him."

Gaara's stare was reminiscent of looking into dark water: calming and warning, telling you more about your own reflection than anything hidden in such water's depths. "Save him from what, Namikaze-san?"

"I don't know," said Minato, and gripped the ornamented edge of the desk, desperation leaking through, and letting it. "You 'know more than most'. I know you know that someone's been tailing us, that your people have intercepted, in the past forty-eight hours, at least one person who may have been trying to get to Naruto. I know you have more intelligence, more background knowledge, and more connections with whatever—or whomever—took Naruto, hid Naruto, and let Naruto go. Work with me. Who are we fighting? I want to believe you are Naruto's ally—I want to believe we are on the same side—"

"I will always be Naruto's ally," said Gaara. "As for who we are fighting—the correct answer can only be given to the question of 'what', not 'who'."

"What? What—okay—tell me, Gaara-san—"

"I cannot. I offer no trust where Naruto has not given his first."

Minato's knuckles whitened, but the muscles of his face held smooth, pretending calm.

"These are your battles Naruto is fighting, not his," said Gaara, voice low, and a little rough. "He is a victim of the war you started—the war you thought you won." His back snapped very straight in his heavy stone chair, and at that moment everything that was Gaara was regal, was command. One palm raised, forestalling the questions clenched tight in Minato's aching jaw. "I do not fault you for your fight. It is a cause good men and women must stand, even die, for. But Naruto has fought enough. Return to Konoha; leave Naruto with me. Do not reveal him as your son. Do not let him choose; he will always choose to fight."

"My war?" echoed Minato, hearing each sentence over and over as they reeled round his mind, connected, disconnected, and still refused to make any sort of sense. "My war—what—the Revolution for Dignity? That's—civil disobedience—protest—activism—that's not a war, what war? Who are we fighting?" And as Gaara stood to match him as he leaned over the desk, hands splayed: "Leave him with you? And you talk to me about withholding trust—"

"You said you would protect him—even if it meant letting him go."

The challenge settled in the air, swirling with the glancing sunbeams.

"Yes. I said I would free him." Minato pushed off the desk, towered from his full height, words cold, precise. "I said I would let him go. Not that Iwould leave him."

He stepped back, stared Gaara down, noted somewhere that the flat look he met now was a little less guarded, a little more accepting. There was too much to think, to solve, to do—"I chase every lead I get; I have for twelve years, because there's nothing else I can do. I will go to Konoha; I will leave Naruto—for now—because Kushina trusts you, and Naruto trusts you, and I trust them, if not you. Let's be allies, for all your cryptic crap. But Naruto will keep choosing, and keep fighting, if that's what he wants, because no one gets to decide in his place; but I'll never leave him, and you don't get to keep him in a bubble any more than I do. Like either of us could make a strong enough damn bubble..."

As he swept down the corridor, still grumbling, he heard a hum behind him, and couldn't tell if it was amused, thoughtful, or just agreeing with his sentiments on bubbles.




"We're changing the line-up," said Kakashi-sensei, and Sakura felt something sour clench and coil in her gut; she immediately pushed that negativity down. Yes, she missed Naruto—he was the kind of person who left a big hole behind, once he was gone—but it was because now he had family, and family was good, so good, and not only that but these amazing, rich, famous, beautiful people were his family, and even if he wasn't playing hockey with them anymore (even if hockey was just the drop on the surface, and all that was Sasuke-Sakura-Naruto was three eternities of ripples and the endless ecosystem below) his life was just getting better and better and he doesn't need us anymore.

"And please repeat everything I just said for Sakura's benefit," finished Kakashi-sensei, and Sakura traded her internal storm for being appropriately embarrassed. But Sasuke was glaring at Kaka-sensei, not at her, and that made her feel both better and worse.

The new starting line wasn't as obvious as she thought; it put Sasuke in center, Kiba left, Shika right, Sakura and Shino on defense, and Chouji as goalie—the only team member to keep his spot other than Shino. Those not on the starting line-up would keep their positions, for now.

"Also, Asuma-sensei will be rotating in as Head Coach. Thanks for working with me to get this season started right." He happy-squinted at them, as if that would make his parting statement any less hollowly soulless.

They started with passing drills, getting a feel for the new patterns and partnerships, and then did more passing drills, because things weren't going all that well for anyone. Sakura was counting on Kiba to give voice to the entire team's frustrations. He didn't let her down.

"JUST TELL US WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON ALREADY," he bellowed, whacking his stick into the boards for emphasis. Asuma-sensei started to whistle him off the ice, but Shino slipped in front of him, dropped his stick to the ice, and removed one glove with a flourish. Everyone stared.

"I, too, wish to hear an explanation," Shino declaimed. "Why? Because Naruto is our important teammate, and is too loud a presence to be effectively ignored, especially in absentia." And he dropped the gauntlet to the ice, with great ceremony.

Asuma-sensei sighed. "Kakashi? Tell me you got this, because I don't even know what to say, and I've got all the same questions."

Kakashi-sensei, halfway up the bleachers, sighed mightily, turned slowly, and sauntered back down. The team gathered in haphazardly, drifting to the boards from the ice or the bench, and for once nobody was talking or elbowing or sword-fighting with their sticks.

"Ah. So. As you all know, our Naruto has never had the most... stable home life."

Sakura narrowed her eyes at him. Yes, they knew.

"He was recently contacted by some previously undiscovered relatives, and has chosen to take some time off to get to know them."

"...That's it?" said Shika, once they had all stared at him for several uncomfortable seconds.

"That's enough," said Kakashi-sensei, and there was a rare bite to his tone, and nothing at all lazy in the heavy-lidded eyes staring back at them. Sasuke snapped his visor back down, stepped pointedly back into drill formation, and one by one the team peeled away after him. No one looked happy.

"Why didn't Naruto-niisan say anything before he left?" grumbled Konohamaru, gliding by wet-eyed and angry.

He's right, Naruto... thought Sakura miserably, catching a puck and sending it one mechanically. Why didn't you say anything? Why wait until you get back? ...You better come back, baka-no-Naruto.

I kinda miss you, baka-no-Naruto.




Half a month in, and the only word for what she was seeing was wilted.

"Aish," huffed Kushina, catching Naruto leaving face prints on a windowpane. Again. "A few weeks in the desert, and you've crumpled up like a delicate rainforest blossom."

The kid cringed a bit, looking up with eyes that were big enough and guiltyenough to knock away her cheery, teasing, forcibly nonchalant facade in one artless blow. Ouch.

"Mom," he said, and she could hear how alien it still felt on his tongue, even though he took just about every chance to say it. And made up some opportunities of his own, for practice. "Um. Am I, umm, late for something? Again..."

"Yep." He was halfway off his windowsill already, so she pushed him back down with a firm hand on his shoulder. It was a strong shoulder, but he settled back with those blue eyes asking all the silent questions. "You missed lunch. I ate all the ramen. Now you have to sit and talk to me while Gaara's chef makes more."

Finally, some life in that face. She grinned smugly back at her son's heart-rending wail ("You ate the ramen?! But, but, ALL? Gaara always orders so much! And—and—it's for me! Gaara always gets it for meeee!"), blew miso-scented breath in his face, and folded her limbs into a comfortable criss-cross on the cool marble window ledge. A very expensive sunscreen protected them from the full glaring force of light and heat of Sunagakure noon, and through it Gaara's rather epic rock garden dropped into the glorious hues of the sea of sand. Because he saved me, me and everything, was Gaara's flat and honest explanation. I would have brought him home years ago, had he been willing to come.

Like he's willing to stay, thought Kushina, watching her son sadly. There was nothing about this Naruto that didn't make her sad. There was joy and relief and amazement and gratitude and I-can't-believe-this-is-true, more love and fear than her skin and guts and bones could contain—and cold and clinging to it all was that quiet ache—soul-stretching sorrow. She mourned what had been, what could have been, what might be. Her baby. Her. Minato. The family they had been, the one they could be, the one they would never be.

"Naruto," she said, and wasn't sure what to say next. Those eyes again. Would she ever be able to just look at them, and not feel a thousand things scraped up raw from the fleshy depths of her heart? "Naruto, sweetheart... do you want to be in Suna?"

He smiled a smile so practiced, it passed as professional. "Yeah, yeah! Gaara's cool, man! I mean, check out this palace of his—and this is just his getaway. You should see the real thing, in the capital. And have you been in the garage? I know grown men who would scrunch up and cry like little babies if they could see that line-up of billion-yen cars!"

Kushina raised an eyebrow at him. "Do you like cars, Naruto?"

He looked so taken off-guard and uncertain she might have laughed, quick as the expression was before it disappeared behind that polished grin. "Sure, I like cars! Fast cars that look... pretty... and are really fast. I should get one. Or three. Heh."

She raised the other eyebrow, made her mouth a flat line, watched his smile turn sheepish, and decided to let it drop. "So. How long are we going to stay with Gaara? If we're moving to Suna, we should get our own place. Much as I love the ramen and the pool and the silky sheets and all, there's such a thing as over-staying."

He turned serious, eerily-but-endearingly mirroring Minato. "I... dunno. I'm not sure why Gaara wanted me to come. But you guys were all worried about paparazzi and stuff, yeah? So actually I've been... well, it's probably stupid."

"Tell me what 'it' is, and I'll tell you how stupid."

"Ouch, Mom! Not everything I say is stupid! Sheesh. I won't tell you anything—"

"Tell me or no ramen."

The look he gave her was almost dangerous, but he caved with fair grace.

"Fine fine fine. So, um, I heard D...Dad talking something about a... a press conference-thingy. Before he left. We should do it here."

"Here?" Kushina frowned. "Here as in Sunagakure? Why Suna?"

"We can change my hair," said Naruto, and the words were tumbling quickly now, like he could make his point better if it came out faster and more urgently. "Make it, you know, like it would look if... if it wasn't, um, black. Hide the scars. It takes a lot of makeup, but I know how to do it. I'll be wearing those new clothes Dad bought, I don't look like me in them anyway. We can make it all vague and police-speak-y. You know," and his voice deepened comically, "'Due to the ongoing investigation, further details are being withheld at this time' blah blah blah. And... and you can tell everyone that I'm the kid you lost, and all, but make it not look like me."

Kushina was watching him so hard it made her eyeballs ache. "What do you mean, make it not look like you?" she queried, and soaked in the intensity of his gaze and his voice as he put together his answer.

"So, like, the person who... who I was with... that person is playing with us," he said. "And we have to play too, because that's how the game is. I don't know what he wants." He paused, stared at his hands, jerked in a thick breath, continued. "But we should try to keep it between him and us. If the whole world's gonna become all interested in us, and reporters and stuff are gonna be following us, that's a different game. We should keep them that way. Separate."

Kushina listened well into the seconds of silence, watched the shadows sift through the sun shade, everything inside vibrating from mixed-up, full-throttle analysis-plus-emotion. "And Suna?" she asked, though she had an idea what his answer would be.

"Make it look like you found me here," he urged, eyes wide, arresting. "Let them think you found me here, and I've always been here, or for years at least, and we don't even have to have a story really, they'll make one up and sell it how they want—but don't make me be the kid from Konoha, who drove a bus and lived with Hinata, okay? Okay, mom?"

"Why not?" and the fear rasping dry in her belly, why did she feel it? "What's wrong with being the kid from Konoha, Naruto? And your friends there—they'll recognize you—tons of people will recognize you. You're on the WoF hockey team, kid. Everyone who's ever played with or against you—"

"Not without the scars," he said. "That's all people really look at. And the ones that might recognize me, they won't tell. Iruka-sensei won't tell. I mean no one ever recognized me before right? Even when my poster was plastered all over town."

That hurt. Hurt hurt hurt.

Not now. "I don't know, kiddo... we can do the first part, at least. Make it sound like we ran into you here somehow. Set up a publicity stunt or whatever. We can do that. But the rest—you're not two people. It's not like you can be just the bus-driving, hockey-playing Ichiraku Naruto from Konoha, or just lost-and-found Namikaze Naruto. You have to be both, because both are you. And that sounds really deep! Wisdom, dattebane!"

He gave her this smile, this little smile that showed too much of his heart, and she had to fling her arms around him and hold that stiff, strong, awkward boy, just to give herself a chance to wipe at leaking eyes before they betrayed her. They would need to talk with Minato, and probably Gaara too, and see what objections Rin may have (brilliant at coming up with worst case scenarios, that girl—could poke holes in any plan, just in time to make it watertight) and check in with Obito to see what he'd learned about Hinata, and that Sasuke kid, and... and the Nine-tails.

If he could find anything. And then there was the business of Minato haring off to Konoha because of something the prince had said, and Kushina still didn't understand it, but he was back in that mental place where every opponent he'd ever had—as a student, a sportsman, an activist, a politician—was a suspect in Naruto's abduction, and there were too many possibilities and too many connections and all but one of them was bound to be wrong.

Though Minato had plenty of conspiracy theories. And he was such a down-to-earth, benefit-of-the-doubt kind of guy, too.

Naruto started to squirm a bit, so she let him go, mussed up his hair, and challenged him to a race to the ramen.

And down the cold halls they ran.




Lights and noise and thick wafts of smoke and alcohol and the links of the cage and the muscle on the fisted limbs reaching for him—stop-breathe-focus-GO! And he had to really dodge this one, he was good at taking hits but too many of these and he'd stay down, maybe not get up. It was strange, Hina-chan was there, cheering for him, and as he whirled by he yelled to her HOW'S THE BABY? And a moment later he was slammed into the siding and her face pressed next to his on the other side of the links, and she said with her sweet smile that actually looked kind of sick, Oh I don't want it anymore, I threw it away, just like you Naruto-kun, and he stared and stared at her until she shouted Behind you Naruto-kun! And he thought he'd moved fast enough but when he looked down the knife was still stuck in his shoulder.

It didn't really hurt. So he just pulled it out, but he was angry, so so so angry and the guy he was fighting (who was he fighting? Did he have a face? Where did he put his face—) was laughing laughing laughing at him, so he shifted his grip on the still-slick handle and leaped and stabbed and braced to pull the blade out and stabbed again and it was harder to take it out this time, like it nicked bone, but he did and pulled back again blinking, face hot from blood that wasn't his, and one more time should do it—


The cage was gone—just the shiny red floor and the gasping body beneath him and the lights and the man gaping at him, blue eyes wide, disbelieving; he looked young and handsome and just like his posters, just like Naruto imagined him, because he didn't really remember him. And Naruto was so happy. Daddy! He shouted, and held up his arms, wondering where that loud plip-plop-plip was coming from, but then he giggled, because it was just the blood, dripping from his arms—


It's me, Daddy! It's me it's me it's me!

But the man wouldn't come any closer. He was so tall and cool-looking, with his clean white shirt and yellow hair—

Naruto... Naruto?

Naruto looked at the body at his feet. It wasn't breathing anymore. It didn't look like a big muscly man anymore, either; it was a boy, a really pale boy with a pretty face and kind eyes staring empty at the cold cold sky, because they were outside now, and Haku wasn't breathing.

Of course Haku wasn't breathing. Haku was dead.

He's dead, Naruto told his father, solemnly. I thought I was gonna die too. But you came! I knew you would come—

No, said Minato.

No no no no.

No, you are not Naruto.

Look at your face. You are not my Naruto.

Look at your hair. Not like my Naruto.

Look at your hands...

Red hands raised slow, dripping, plip-plip-plip—

But I am Naruto, said Naruto. I am I am I am

The man was gone.

He didn't want to leave Haku alone, but he didn't want to stay, either, so he whispered to Haku that he'd be back soon and started walking, maybe to where he slept, or maybe to Sasuke's house. The blood was gone—all gone—but they were looking at him THAT way, and when they he'd passed by on enough small, slow steps for them to think he wouldn't hear they'd whisper: Poor kid, did his parents do that to him? Or maybe he doesn't have any? He's little now, but if he's like that—he'll be one of them, won't he? They should probably get rid of him now—you can't reform those types—he's been marked like that—it's not like they'll let him go—they'll never let him go—never let him go—never let go—

Naruto woke sweating, rolled over, grabbed the glass of water he'd left on the bedside table, and tried to sit up.

Muscles seized, head pounded, chest ached, and he still wasn't sitting up. He set the glass down, unclenched each finger, tucked his elbows in to brace both hands on the mattress—left hand scrabbling a bit as slipped on the sheeted edge—braced himself, tried again. He tried to steady his breathing, figured out he was wheezing, couldn't figure out how to stop. He needed—he needed feet higher than head—panic attack—the dream—just—just be calm—

His torso hit the floor heavy and unbalanced, shooting pain through his shoulder and leaving him breathless for long, painful seconds. His right leg thumped down with it, numb and heavy like it was packed in ice, and he tried to lift it, get it back up on the mattress like the left one, but he couldn't breathe and couldn't lift and couldn't think. The edges of the dream burst and shattered, images fluttering, dissolving as they went; until he was left with one foot on the bed and everything else on the floor and no idea how or why or what.

There was this voice in his head shouting warning—commanding eyes to stretch open, voice to cry, lungs to keep expanding, taking in, collapsing, letting out—and he tried.

He was good at getting up. He could take lots of hits, get all the air slammed hard from his lungs, get the thoughts and the sight bashed from his head, block a strike so hard half his body went numb—and he could still get up.

Get up.


Not that dream, he thought, but he was awfully tired. There was something wrong with his heart. With the beat-beat-beat pounding into his aching ribs, there was something wrong with it. I really hate that dream.

"Naruto— Naruto!"

"It's me," he whispered. Maybe. The world was already black.





A/N: This chapter brought to you through the fantastic nerdfighting encouragement of my very first real-life friend to turn out to love Naruto like I do—and all the awesome hours of shared fangirling we indulged in (here's to many more!) – you know you who you are, but probably not how absolutely awesome you are. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

To all my other wonderful, wonderful readers who keep up with the story, and especially those who take the time to review—thank you, thank you, thank you to you, too.