... Hello :)

I'm incredibly sorry for the incredibly long wait... it was incredibly bad of me. I would like to gush out excuses, but I know they don't really mean much... Let's just say that I currently have one assignment overdue and two more quickly on the way to being the same - hahahaha... FML!

Anyways, thank you for the gorgeous reviews, they really mean heaps :)

(btw, this chapter really isn't my favorite... and I don't really know why I just told you that... really, I should just change it so it is, right? I guess I'm just trying to lower the bar a bit... and now you're setup to be disappointed... but I'm also feeling lazy because I didn't make it better... ah well...

Have fun, and let me know what you think... please :)


Four

It was Friday, and Sasuke had never felt less like going to school. The previous night had haunted him until dawn – his thoughts never subsiding or quieting enough to allow him rest, but consistently vague and nebulous enough to continue disallowing any semblance of constructive thought to occur.

However, if the sleepless hours had given the raven anything, it was that he desperately wanted answers… but also that he couldn't bring himself to ask the questions. What was he going to say? Sure, he wanted to know what happened to the blonde in the warehouse, how Shikamaru was linked to the whole situation, who the blonde and his redheaded friend actually were, but more than that – so vastly, overwhelmingly, inescapably more than that – was the will… the need… to find out what exactly was happening on a chemical, biological, unemotional basis between himself and the blonde.

But… from what he had seen and felt last night, the blonde had just about as much of an idea about all of it as he did.

And that means I'll have to work with him if I want to work any of this out…

And that scared the raven.

Immeasurably.

Stretching lazily before making his way to the bathroom across the hall, Sasuke sighed and contemplated his situation. As brazenly and emotionlessly as he could, he recalled the feelings that had swelled inside him a matter of hours ago. The haze, although vastly stronger and more… pink, was much as he'd remembered it. But there had been something else at work that time, something hotter.

Resting his palms on the marble counter either side of the white sink, Sasuke gazed at his reflection in the large mirror before him.

He kissed me… he thought the words pointedly, focusing on each one to make him realize that they were the inescapable, inexorable truth.

And I… He took a breath, allowing his head to sag under the weight of his internal confessions. The angle also let him gaze over his bare torso, which, as he remembered the warm, firm hands that had gripped him there the previous night, only served to reiterate his point.

He took a breath, bringing his head back up to stare at the endless onyx of his reflected eyes with pure Uchiha courage.

And I liked it.

Easing out a breath, Sasuke smiled, laughing despite himself. Really, finally thinking it clearly was a bit anticlimactic.

Nodding, the raven ran his fingers through his hair and stripped off his dirty sweat pants before stepping into the shower – the cool water soothing on his tired skin.

Today, I get some answers…


As soon as his class was dismissed for lunch, Sasuke rose from his seat and walked hastily out to the library, dodging teachers and students alike as he moved swiftly through the increasing hordes of people, who as a collective seemed to chatter like parrots and move like ants. He hadn't seen Shikamaru all day, and while the absence of the Nara, when he finally did need him, riled the raven a little, he at least knew exactly where he would be.

Heaving on the large, wooden door to the library building – a separate, older structure standing free on the Eastern side of the large campus – Sasuke felt his shoulders relax as a cool draft of air shed him of the weight of the heat outside. His burgundy blazer was heavy on his shoulders, and the fatigue left from his sleepless night had worn on his nerves, but a potent blend of courage and desperation drove him onwards. He wouldn't turn back now – he was too involved, and too interested to let it go.

The raven spied Shikamaru's spiky hair from the other side of the large, open space, his head just visible beyond a study group bustling noisily around a cluster of wooden tables that partially obscured where the Nara sat, completely still and from the looks of it, utterly absorbed in his book.

Sasuke, like most in the school, had considered Shikamaru to be stupid, or at the very least too lazy to try and learn anything, and while most of the Nara's teachers and peers had remained under the disillusion, Sasuke had since become one of the few who were patient, interested, or simply observant enough to realize that the projection was in fact very far from the truth. Shikamaru was not too lazy to learn anything. He was, in fact, just too lazy to share that he already knew everything that those around him were trying to teach. Sasuke's first suspicions had arisen when, in a particularly hot Wednesday physical education lesson two years ago, the teacher had announced that class would only end when a team won, and Shikamaru, on a seeming whim, had miraculously devised a strategic plan that all but guaranteed his team victory. He had then promptly gotten changed and headed to the library. Since then, little hints like sudden and unexpected eloquence and background knowledge in class discussions (whenever a teacher had pushed him to participate in one) had spurred the Uchiha on to become a slightly more than casual acquaintance with the Nara. Much like the way Shikamaru liked to surround himself with things he was interested in, Sasuke too shared a similar, if more mild, inquisitiveness towards the teen, and thus, their strange purgatory of formality and casualness had been conceived, as a means of convenience and entertainment for them both.

Though, these days… Sasuke thought rather warmly as he slipped through a small cluster of students to make his way closer to the genius… he's reading much more of me than I am of him…

Shikamaru only noticed Sasuke's presence when he pulled out a chair and landed opposite him in silence.

"How are you?" the Nara asked, returning his laconic gaze to the page in front of him.

The conversational cliché caught Sasuke somewhat off guard, though he was too tired to laugh at the apparent, at least to him, absurdity of the question.

"Fine."

Sasuke watched as Shikamaru bit his lip and closed the book, laying it on the table in front of him with a soft thud, before leaning forwards. Abruptly, surprising the raven, a soft, knowing smile tinted his features with cool warmth. "Really?"

Too fatigued and annoyed to keep up the pretences he'd convinced himself he would, Sasuke felt himself deflate a little. "No."

"You know," Shikamaru sighed as he leant back again and stretched his arms over his head until he heard a satisfying crack, "I was beginning to think you were going to try and forget the whole thing."

"I already tried… and failed," Sasuke scowled, "an outcome, might I add, that was made somewhat inevitable by that blonde guy's surprise visit last night." He finished the sentence with slight shock. He hadn't really settled on whether or not he was going to divulge that he'd seen the blonde since they'd awoken together in Shikamaru's room, but the words had slipped out. Regardless, he didn't see what harm they would do, so he decided not to dwell.

Shikamaru, however, had other plans.

"What?"

The alarm in the genius's voice, though well hidden, was still evident to Sasuke's ears, and he found his eyebrows pulling together in confusion at the tone. "What?" he repeated fairly redundantly.

"He saw you last night?"

Sasuke frowned now, eyeing the Nara somewhat skeptically. "…Yeah."

The genius sighed, crossing his arms as he sat back. "Gaara said he was concerned, but…" the words, spoken to no one in particular, dwindled to nothingness as the Nara deliberated. Then, turning his gaze to Sasuke, he spoke more clearly. "He shouldn't have done that."

"You're telling me!" Sasuke took a breath as he checked the volume of his voice, glancing around guiltily as the silence resettled in the large hall. "He scared the fuck out of me."

"Did anything happen?" The implications of the question were obvious, but since the blonde's visit, the raven's definition of anything had been severely altered.

The blood that rushed to Sasuke's cheeks was bright enough for the raven to feel before it became particularly visible, but he still moved awkwardly in an attempt to thwart the Nara's acute senses in time for him to banish the embarrassing display.

It seemed to have worked, for Shikamaru didn't appear to have noticed anything particularly out of place, but Sasuke knew almost better than anyone at that point that the Nara was good at hiding things.

"Nothing like what happened in the warehouse," the raven evaded smoothly.

"I can't believe Gaara let him go to you…" The genius spoke, once again softly and seemingly to himself. Abruptly, he looked up at Sasuke and, upon glimpsing his mildly exasperated expression, smiled again. "How about you come to my house tonight?"

Sasuke shook his head. "My parents are coming back tonight, and I don't want to go to the other side of town – it would be a hassle to get back before the curfew they'll unavoidably give me this afternoon."

"No, I mean my house, you know, the one down the street?" He rolled his eyes as he stood, gathering five hardcover books into his arms as he did so. "And it's kind of insulting that you count that cesspool as my house. I do at least live somewhere inhabitable."

Sasuke smirked at the joking tone and matched the Nara's languid pace as they headed slowly back to the entrance of the large building in sync. "…I'm not sure I want to know."

"And I'm not sure I want to tell you," the Nara responded practically instantly, his voice impassive. Forcing off a yawn, he glanced into the raven's eyes, recalling in a moment of reminiscence the red that had drowned him in the warehouse. "But I guess we don't have a choice now."

Nodding slowly, Sasuke followed the raven back to the main seniors' block in silence.


"Naruto!" the blonde started at the sound of his name, though he remained silent as the syllables slowly dwindled into nothingness in the cool, silver night.

"I know you're out here!"

Naruto took a long, slow breath and rolled over so that he was lying on his stomach, the angle allowing him to inspect the back entrance to the Nara's large house in surprising clarity. Standing in the halo of the open door was Gaara, the teen's lithe frame hunched against what he must have felt was penetrating cold, even though Naruto could lie quite comfortably in the darkness in nothing but a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a light shirt.

"He's going to be here soon. You can't hide out here the whole time!"

Naruto scowled and pressed his face into the grass underneath him in an effort to block the redhead out and erase him from the world... at least temporarily… "Why not!"

He's rolling his eyes… Naruto thought with acidic certainty. I can feel him doing it…

"Are you going to tell me what happened?" Gaara shouted the question into the darkness, knowing that if he bothered to step further into the cold he'd be able to find the blonde in an instant.

Silence.

"Well, suck it up! He wants to see you and he'll be here soon!"

Naruto's body tensed with hope before he could stop it, but he quickly crushed the light, joyful emotion before it could infiltrate any more of him. "No he doesn't." He shouted back as he sat up a little. "He doesn't even know we'll be here, does he!"

"…"

"That's what I thought!" Naruto shouted at the hesitation as he crossed his arms and shut his eyes.

Scowling, Gaara tensed and walked off the back porch, bravely entering into the cold air of the darkness with frustrated grumbles of discomfort. He found Naruto not five seconds later, huddled behind a small tree with his arms around his legs and his head on his knees, his face wearing an expression consisting of a pronounced pout and disarming vulnerability.

Gaara swallowed, momentarily taken aback, before another shiver jumped down his spine as the cold air settled on his skin. "That's it!" He shouted as he grabbed the blonde by the wrist and hauled him to his feet with a surprising display of strength. There was nothing he hated more than the cold. "I don't care what the fuck happened between you two, this has got to stop. I know he hurt you in the warehouse, but you almost killed him first! He still has the guts to come to Shikamaru's house, and he must have anticipated that there's at least a chance you'll be here! I don't know what happened last night, but if he can come here, so can you!"

The blonde shook his head and deflated as Gaara began pulling him inside with both hands like he was some oversized toddler, but the action ceased as Naruto's head snapped towards the house – his whole body tensing and his eyes focusing so suddenly and completely that Gaara almost jumped back in alarm.

"What?" The redhead queried, his voice quiet as he reflexively tensed at the apparent distress.

There was a prolonged silence, in which Naruto became stiller and more watchful than Gaara had ever seen him before. The words, when they came, were only a slight, almost indistinguishable break in his intensity. "He's here."

Gaara frowned at the words, glancing back towards the house as the worry seeped out of him and his muscles relaxed. Inexplicably, he'd known exactly whom the blonde was talking about. "How do you kno-"

The redhead's words were cut off as Naruto pressed his palms against his temples and clenched his eyes shut, falling to his knees slowly as he groaned. "Ah!" He exclaimed, the tone worrying Gaara until he continued. "He smells so good!"

"What the fuck are you on, Naruto!" The redhead growled as he ignored the painfully enraptured expression dawning on the blonde's face. "Are you serious?"

"I told you before. He smells different!" Naruto half-moaned, half-growled as he was hauled back to the house by the collar of his shirt, though he kept one hand tenaciously pressed against the side of his head, the fingers kneading his golden shards of hair with growing strength. "I can't go in there."

Gaara continued pulling Naruto, ignoring the increasingly serious tone of the blonde's words as he focused on the warm light emanating from inside the home. As Naruto and Gaara anticipated, the doorbell soon rung out - the sound reaching them as a faint echo of the volume it would have been inside the house. However, it was at that sound that Naruto hesitated for the hundredth time, and that hesitation was when Gaara then turned around.

And that was when he froze.

"Whoa…"

Naruto stopped, his head clearing of the familiar scent somewhat at the sight of the redhead's widened eyes. "…what?"

"Are you… are you okay?"

The blonde straightened a little, eyeing the redhead with an uneasy, observant gaze. "Fine… why?"

"Naruto… you're Changed."

A bubble of disbelieving laughter escaped the blonde at Gaara's words, but the seriousness of both his tone and his expression quickly brought home the sincerity of what he was saying. Looking down at his body, Naruto saw that his hands, although not visibly darker in the colour-bleaching light of the moon, were sporting nails pointed and shaped so that they rather remarkably resembled claws.

Panic rising in his chest like bile, Naruto grabbed at his skull and turned away from the redhead to stagger closer to the large pond that sat before the sizable veranda. Collapsing onto his knees, the blonde peered into the crystal-still surface of the water and saw his reflection indeed reiterated the gravity of Gaara's concern. His hair was a little longer than usual and his skin a little darker, his eyes shone bright, glistening red, but more than anything else; peeping out over his lower lip were the tips of two white, canine teeth, their smooth surfaces cast silver in the moonlight.

Terror gripping him with startling speed, Naruto turned to look up at Gaara. The redhead simply stared back, watching with hawk-like concentration as Naruto frowned and struggled to speak. "I-I don't understand… I feel fine."

Gaara shook his head, confusion clear on his face, but he seemed to trust the words enough to move marginally closer.

"I don't get it…" Naruto repeated as he looked back into the pond. Gingerly, he touched his face with the tips of his fingers, careful to avoid scratching himself with the claws. "I feel fine. I don't feel like I'm Changing… or Changed…"

Gaara swallowed, uncomfortable with the strange turn of events. If there was anything he hated more than cold, it was surprises. "Something must be different… There's no reason…" the words became a mumble, the end of the sentence proving unneeded.

"Well… I can feel him." Naruto said, frowning as he unconsciously clutched the material over his chest. There was no need to clarify who 'he' was. "I mean," Gaara watched as something changed in the blonde's thinking, causing the idiot to smile and close his eyes as he succumbed to a feeling that the redhead was simply not privy to. "He smells so good."

Gaara started, jumping back a little as the words left the blonde's mouth in the form of a long, low moan. Whatever he was focusing on, it was powerful, and Gaara could almost feel the teen slipping further and further away from their conversation. But as he watched, his gaze quiet patient, and observant, it was the sudden and noticeable lengthening of the two fanged, canine teeth visibly protruding from the blonde's mouth that finally caused Gaara to act.

"Naruto!" he shouted, the volume breaking the blonde out of his trance. "Stop thinking about him!"

Naruto frowned as he got to his feet, a little entertained by the redhead's seemingly paranoid concerns, but it was only when he began to smile that he felt exactly what had so suddenly caused the redhead alarm.

Immediately, he slapped both his hands over his mouth. "I wasn't even thinking about feeding, I swear!"

Gaara shook his head, glancing back towards the house as the dim sounds of voices wafted out to them on the cool, night air. Time was running out.

"Mmm." Naruto groaned; his eyes closing as he frowned in an effort to resist the urges he was feeling. "I need to see him."

Gaara's eyes widened in alarm as the blonde began moving towards the house, seemingly caught in a trance.

"No! Naruto! Not when you're like that!"

The blonde shook his head, still not opening his eyes or moving his hands from his mouth as he groaned again, the strong sound muffled by his palms. "I'm fine, I don't know why, but I-"

"Naruto!" Gaara shouted as he wrenched the blonde back to face him. "Not like that! What do you think he'll do when he sees you! If there's any hope of him letting us help, not to mention any chance of letting us find out what his eyes were, you have to wait! Besides, we still don't know that you're not dangerous! You've never changed with your consciousness so intact – neither of us has. We can't take chances!" the redhead's tone was resolute and acidic. "Not now!"

Naruto shook his head as he clenched his eyes shut so tightly that he could feel them throbbing inside his skull. Everything Gaara was saying made perfect sense, but the feeling was there again – running through his mind with acidic stealth – urging, persuading, and manipulating him to get closer to the raven. He could feel him, standing mere meters away as he talked with Shikamaru inside the house. Just a few walls separated them now. He needed to get closer, and Gaara was stopping him.

No! His subconscious shouted the word at the darkness inside him with palpable anger as he forced his eyes open once again. No! Gaara's right! I can't go to him – not yet! Not like this!

"Go." Naruto said as he turned himself away with a barley-disguised wince of physical pain. "You need to be in there."

"What about you?"

"I'll go to the warehouse!" Naruto shouted back, already disappearing into the darkness that surrounded the Nara residence. "There shouldn't be anyone there this time!"

Gaara nodded, uneasy as the blonde sprinted silently away.

I don't like this at all


Sasuke shivered as he stepped into the warm home, Shikamaru leading him inside with light conversation that felt almost perverse given the weight of the situation. The raven nodded occasionally to the Nara's words, responding with sporadic huffs of acknowledgment or humor at the meaningless syllables flowing slowly from the lazy teen's mouth, but his calm façade was hiding a bumbling mess of panic. The Uchiha was, in all truth, simply trying to force his body to relax. His nerves were thrumming with alarm that was both unwarranted and unneeded.

But he couldn't help it.

Suddenly being in this situation was confronting, and while he had been the one to seek out the explanations that were awaiting him, his eyes were persistently glancing back behind him, to the entranceway and its promise of simpler, happier ways to pass the evening. But there was no choice now, and that was an inescapable truth. He had no right to back away.

Abruptly, attention snapping back to reality, Sasuke took a short breath as movement caught his eye. He realized then, with a start of disbelief, that Shikamaru had already brought him all the way through the home and to a humble, lightly decorated kitchen – the neat, white benches dotted with dirty plates and bowls, the small table by the wall supporting a glass vase filled with wilting flowers, and a pile of worn textbooks adorning one side.

It all seems so homely…

"Oh, Gaara." Shikamaru acknowledged somewhat lamely, the words forcing their way into the raven's heavy thoughts and bringing his somewhat beleaguered brain to reluctant attention.

Sasuke stared, his eyes slightly widened at the silence, though it didn't take long for logic to creep back into his thought processes. The Uchiha looked around for a moment before settling his dark eyes on the figure of a teenager. A redhead. A familiar redhead.

Gaara.

Sasuke stared as he came into the kitchen from the backdoor, the pale face scowling as he wrapped his lithe arms around his body in obvious cold. The guy was clearly upset about something – his expression, while it did lighten somewhat as the heat of the home soaked slowly into him, never fully expanding forth from a concrete, scowling grimace.

"Where's Naruto?"

Sasuke's keen, dark eyes flashed back to Shikamaru as he spoke the words, the mention of the blonde igniting a new type of pain in his chest – a type that he immediately disliked.

Indeed, as the raven shifted unconsciously in the mild discomfort that followed, he failed to notice the way Gaara's eyes flicked to him, their hazel irises intense and calculating.

Returning his gaze to Shikamaru within the second, the redhead covered his own concern with another scowl and sat with a quiet huff at one of the plain white chairs around the small table. "He won't be joining us."

The answer was simple, but it still sparked a remarkably similar response from both the teens before him – Shikamaru and Sasuke simultaneously creasing their brows in concern and, on the Uchiha's part especially, growing confusion.

There was no hiding it now. He wasn't even trying to. The apprehension and reluctance on Sasuke's face was as clear as day. And Gaara made a similar lack of effort in hiding his obvious distaste with the raven.

Silence settled on the three teenagers as they stared at one another – Gaara too annoyed at the situation to find words and interrupt the icy inspection of the Uchiha who was stealing so much of his friend's attention, Sasuke too unnerved not only by the attention imbued to him through he redhead's persistent gaze but also by the very nature of the fact that he was in the position at all, and finally Shikamaru, who was honestly struggling to find an appropriate way to approach the tense situation.

Fuck… he thought, even the timbre of his mind reflective of the low, lazy tones with which he spoke. I'm stuck with a worried, pissed off Gaara and a confused, defensive Sasuke…

"So troublesome…" he muttered lightly as he sat forwards a little, the movement serving to sever the intense gazes twanging between the two before him. "So… where do you want to begin?" He asked Gaara softly.

The redhead ground his teeth for a moment, indecision clear behind his hazel eyes, but it didn't take him long to settle on a response – and Shikamaru knew merely by the set of his features even before he started speaking that it was the less convenient of the two. "How about we start with the fact that I don't like you," he spoke to Sasuke, and Sasuke alone, "I don't trust you, and I resent the fact that I have to explain any of this to you."

After a short moment of cool and lasting calm, anger swelled in the raven. His pride and (as much as he would like to believe otherwise) heritage forced the heat of anger up and over the chilling confusion and fear that had previously inundated him, to bathe his tired mind in dangerous defensiveness.

"What the fuck?" he asked, his gaze piercing as he straightened in his seat. His voice was just as calm and icy as the redheads own had been – a factor that, in a bizarre mix of social chemistry, made the words seem twice as loud and ten times as powerful. However, that didn't last long – his low tones gaining speed and volume with every syllable. "You think I want to be here? This is your fucking fault. You and that blonde monster!"

Shikamaru's eyes widened as Sasuke spoke on. He could see where the moves of each of the people in front of him were leading, and it wasn't good. In the end though, he just couldn't move fast enough.

Gaara had his hand around Sasuke's throat in a second, the anger that he had previously let simmer inside him and leak into his words and gaze, now oozing from his quivering body in waves of red heat. "What the fuck did you just call him?" he shouted into the pale face as he used the momentum of his movements to push them both to the floor.

"Sasuk-" Shikamaru started, hoping to hell the suddenness of the attack would shock the Uchiha into silence, but alas, the Uchiha name wasn't known for nothing.

"I called him a fucking monster! What the fuck else is he? He tried to kill me!" Vaguely, somewhere in the very back of Sasuke's angry mind, he felt a pang of icy guilt at the words. A flash – lasting no more than a fraction of a fraction of a second – of his…closeness… to the blonde, came before him, but before he could settle on it, the moment was lost – drowned in the penetrating heat of the redhead's glare.

And the redhead was glaring. He was melting with anger.

"Who the FUCK do you think you are?" he spoke, his voice – this time – completely, icily still. "What gives you the right to come here and call Naruto a monster when you almost killed him yourself; to demand answers and be pissed off when I say that I don't fucking trust you?" he took a stuttering breath, only really noticing his position when Sasuke's reflexes made him shudder slightly under the unceasing weight of the constricting hand around his neck.

Shaking his head softly, Gaara huffed a note of completely humorless laughter and moved away, every subtle tinge to his movements suggesting that Sasuke was, simply, not worth his effort or time. "You know what?" he turned to Shikamaru for a moment before he looked back at the raven, who (despite rubbing the tender flesh of his pale neck) reciprocated the attitude completely. "Fuck this."

"Gaara-" Shikamaru started, his tone unafraid in its exasperation, but cautious in its volume.

"No." the redhead returned simply, providing his answer without turning around. "This guy doesn't deserve my time."

He turned back a little further, this time regarding Sasuke with different eyes – a stare deeper and darker than the Uchiha had ever seen before. The raven was, in that moment, completely sure that the hazel-eyed being was seeing something he was simply not privy to. But what really got him was the way that practically reflexively, his eyes began to itch and thrum with energy. Uncomfortable, dark energy.

"I can see it," Gaara spoke, seemingly oblivious to the raven's discomfort. "He has no idea what's around him, and he doesn't want to find out."

And then, as soon as the redhead looked away, just as quickly as the feeling had come, it vanished.

A little unnerved by the display of sudden darkness in Gaara, as well as the feelings accompanying it, Sasuke took a long moment to gather his nerves. Gently, he began to move – softly rubbing at his neck as the redhead casually neared the edge of the room.

"Gaara," Shikamaru spoke, his voice suddenly a very different tone. It was almost pleading.

Sasuke watched, somewhat perplexed from his place on the floor, anger still seeping out of him in rebellions waves of heat, as the two entered an exclusively private exchange.

"I know," the redhead answered softly, his eyes revealing a startling moment of vulnerability as he glanced down at his feet, his featured cast in what looked remarkably to Sasuke like a hint of a tinge of translucent, evasive shame. "I know – I'm sorry, but I'm too worried about Naruto to deal with this asshole now."

"He has to find out sometime." Shikamaru continued, his words somewhat relentless. Though even so, Sasuke could feel the way the Nara's words were cautiously testing Gaara's patience, like a man creeping over thin ice in an attempt to avoid the cracks.

"I know!" Gaara shouted, clenching his fists so tightly that he missed the way the words caused Sasuke to wince in shameful alarm. However, when he spoke again, his eyes never once strayed to the now-standing Uchiha. "But he," the redhead paused momentarily to point a finger in the raven's direction – his lightly muscled arm practically cracking with the force of the movement, "is a fucking idiot, and before I'm going to be willing to give up any of my time helping him understand something he should have had the good sense to just fucking forget, he has to accept the fact that if he defines Naruto as a monster, than he is most certainly a monster too."

Wow… that's all Sasuke could think as the teen's words and anger slowly faded into his pale skin, their energy thrumming inside him like hot coals. That comment hit too close to home. A monster…

Shikamaru took a deep breath as he watched the redhead slowly work himself into more and more intensified anger, also subtly conscious of the fact that Sasuke had just sunken even further into himself. But there was really nothing he could do, and (as he was much to rational to disregard) some protective part of himself was also angry with the Uchiha for insulting Naruto as such, though the label meant little to anyone who didn't know his story.

"Tell him whatever you think he should know," Gaara spoke quietly as he turned away again. "I don't have the energy to deal with this now."

And with that, the redhead left – clicking the door shut with a calmness that seemed almost chilling.

Sasuke was struck into silence for a long moment as the events of the previous few minutes sank in. How the fuck did that happen… he found himself wondering softly as he turned his attention back to Shikamaru, who was looking rather pissed off in his own laconic way.

Apparently, Sasuke's question didn't actually need to be voiced.

"You and him are a lot a like, you know." The Nara spoke slowly, his tone remarkably calm given what had just happened, and the tired look on his face. But apparently things like this happened often enough to not be of great concern.

"Me and him?" Sasuke asked, his inflection disbelieving as he sat back down, once again pressing his warm fingertips against his neck as Shikamaru got them both a glass of water.

"Yeah. You're both very arrogant and very defensive." Shikamaru sighed the words as he placed a sparkling glass of clear liquid in front of the raven. "And he's very protective."

"Of the blonde guy?" Sasuke spat the words, the tone reflexive.

Shikamaru was still for a moment before speaking. "I can understand where you're coming from, Sasuke, but I'm not going to keep it a secret that I was siding with Gaara on this one."

The raven felt his eyebrows crease together in slight betrayal and not-so-slight anger. But before the blaming questions could come to the front of his already tired and temperamental mind, he quelled them and forced himself to focus on why.

"I know." He admitted, his tone betraying his tenacious anger at Shikamaru's comment despite his conscious effort to overcome it. "I shouldn't have reacted like that." He scowled, feeling his anger grow. "But he shouldn't have either."

Shikamaru bit his lip as he leant back, silent for a long moment. "I don't know – it's all a little more than confusing."

Sasuke took a long drink of the water in front of him, his eyes darting back to the door that the redhead had disappeared from mere moments before. Coming so far and going through all that hostility, Sasuke's need to find some answers had completely drowned his reluctance to run away from them, but with the redhead leaving and the blonde no where to be seen, he was left with no option but Shikamaru, and for some reason, that option made him hesitate.

"How did you get wrapped up in all this?" The words were spoken as quickly as they were thought, and Sasuke found himself inexplicably tense while awaiting the answer.

Shikamaru huffed a note of humor at the question, his eyes closing slightly as he recalled memories the raven couldn't see. "I just watched." He spoke softly, letting his dark eyes connect with the Uchiha's own. "It's amazing what you can see if you look long enough."

Sasuke rolled his eyes slightly as he leant back, grateful for the calm conversation and the time it gave him to gather himself after Gaara's exit. "That's hardly an answer."

The Nara chuckled lightly, his fingertips drawing patterns in the condensation adorning the glass before him. "What do you want me to say? I wasn't attacked, I just sort of… I don't know… eased into it." Sasuke's silence urged him on. "I saw them around the house downtown a bit. I think they liked it there – just being around people. Then Naruto started talking to me," he sighed, a smirk adorning his features. "Gaara hated that, but eventually he came around too."

"What made them start talking to you?"

"I don't know," Shikamaru sighed. "I was just always there. And they trusted me," he sat forward a little, nodding towards Sasuke softly as he spoke on. "You, on the other hand, they didn't have time to trust – you were just thrown into it all. And besides that, now you've got Naruto on a loop. Really, it's no surprise that Gaara has no idea how to react to you." The Nara released a short note of laughter. "You're not exactly the most inviting person."

"That's not my fault." Sasuke continued, defensive. "And what does he think? That I should be more inviting? I'm the one who has to deal with finding all this out."

"And they're the ones who have to deal with letting you in on it." Shikamaru countered instantly, his voice calm and sympathetic despite the bluntness of the words.

Sasuke took another breath, scenes of the warehouse, and the previous night, coming back to him in uncontrollable waves. "I don't know what to do. It's not like I wouldn't forget it if I could." He paused for a moment. "Are you going to tell me anything?" He asked, the memory of Gaara's last words echoing in his mind.

"Hmm," Shikamaru sighed, biting his lip slightly. "I was debating that."

Sasuke rubbed his eyes, and as he spoke on, he couldn't keep the pleading tinge out of his tone. "I need something, Shikamaru. I can't keep guessing like this. I need to know something."

"I know, I know." Shikamaru spoke quickly as he sat forwards, recognizing Sasuke's frustration with complete sympathy. "I guess…" he hesitated as he struggled on where to start. "I guess what you've got to know first is that they're more normal than you may think."

The Uchiha took a long, deep breath. "I don't feel like riddles, Shikamaru." His tone was warning.

The Nara smiled, entertained. "It's not a riddle, Sasuke." he echoed the raven's words. "I mean it. I know what you saw, but that's not an accurate representation of who they are, or what they can do. And you shouldn't take it as one."

Sasuke found himself shivering before he could stop it, the involuntary action sweeping down the muscles of his back and arms like a wave of impertinent proof of his lack of control. "The redhead does that too?" He asked, thinking of the power and animalistic actions of the blonde that night in the warehouse… of the feeling that accompanied him in Shikamaru's room… in his own room…

Surely that prick isn't like that as well… I mean… I didn't feel like that when he was around…

Shikamaru hesitated after Sasuke's words, and that didn't help the situation. "Well… yes, but there's more that you've got to understand."

Sasuke felt the air filter out of his lungs in one, unstoppable flow of exasperation. Where the fuck does this all end?

"Naruto and Gaara aren't one of a kind – there are more of them." Shikamaru continued; deciding that just giving the Uchiha information was better than trying to navigate the waters of his remarkably warranted fear and uncertainties. He spoke on quickly, before Sasuke could settle on that last fact for too long. "Since about a hundred years ago, all the communities of their kind that had previously existed fell out of being. Now, Naruto and Gaara don't really know how many like them there are. Even now they're still finding clues on why they exist, where they come from, and what they are."

Sasuke shut his eyes and rested his elbows on the table so that his head could sag against his open palms. "Seriously?" he asked, the words muffled by the hands that pressed against his mouth. "Do they not have parents?"

Shikamaru spared no time in answering. "Naruto's an orphan, and Gaara was largely excluded by his family – or what little he knows of them – but that situation is also pretty complicated."

"So he does have parents."

"Around, no. Siblings, yes. But they're still extremely distant."

Sasuke let his hands fall to connect his gaze with Shikamaru again. "Why?" his tone was too overwhelmed to seem like he cared, but Shikamaru could sense his need to continue.

The Nara took a breath of hesitation, like Sasuke's words had just opened up another whole plethora of questions and answers on a new, more difficult facet of the topic.

"That's because… well… for Naruto and Gaara," Shikamaru stopped speaking for a moment, grimacing at the stumbling of his clumsy words. "Finding out information is especially hard for those two, because they're… different," he settled on the word with a grimace of distaste, "from the rest of the people that are like them." The Nara paused, spinning the half-empty glass in front of him with the palms of his hands, "Gaara's siblings, for example."

Sasuke, now leaning forwards, was fully enraptured in the conversation. In some inexplicable way, with this new onslaught of information, it felt much more like he was hearing the plot of some bad teen-fiction movie series than any real circumstances. And that helped.

Infinitely.

"What you have to know is that what you saw, in the warehouse, is an ability…" he paused, unhappy with the word, "no, a trait…" he settled with a huff, "unique to Naruto and Gaara."

"What's so different about them?"

Shikamaru sighed a little, shrugging. "Don't know. They don't really know either. But that transformation – the one you saw with Naruto in the warehouse – that's doesn't happen to all of them. As far as Gaara and Naruto know, they think it's got something to do with being a host of a greater source of power that others either can't be, or just aren't."

Sasuke groaned a little, feeling once again overwhelmed with the information being presented to him. His brain hurt, he was tired, and he was still angry – though now that poisonous mix of emotion didn't seem to be aimed at anyone in particular. "What the fuck?"

The Nara spared a smile. "I know, right?"

After another lengthy pause, in which Shikamaru almost began to believe that the raven had had enough for one night, the Uchiha eventually spoke up again. "So, besides that, what's so different about Naruto and Gaara? What separates the people like them if not all of them can do," he paused, feeling a little ill as he was forced one again to remember the transformation of the blonde teen, "…that?"

And why the fuck haven't I heard about any of it until now?

Once again, Shikamaru smirked and bit his lip in indecision. "When I started finding out about all this, I ended up getting so frustrated by Gaara's avoiding the question that I ended up forcing him to just give me a black and white answer. He'd danced around the topic for ages, giving me all these lengthy explanations about what they are, what he thought they are, and what he thinks everybody else is." Sasuke watched as the Nara's face sunk into a semblance of a grimace at the memory, causing a small touch of amusement to reach the raven's eyes as he spoke about the redhead's responses. "It was basically all non-essential crap. What it really boils down to – and you're not to tell Gaara that I told you this," Sasuke leant forwards, eager. "It all comes back to vampires."

Silence.

"…E-Excuse me?"

Shikamaru sighed, shrugging lightly as he leant back. "That's it. Vampires." He said, smiling softly. "Gaara will always tell you otherwise, but when you look at the basics of what he's saying, that's what they are – even if he'll always try to sugar-coat it and make it sound better."

"Vampires?"

Shikamaru nodded, somewhat amused by the sight of the confused Uchiha before him. "Vampires."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

A hesitation. "Do they sparkle in the sun?"

Shikamaru couldn't help it by then. He laughed, for longer and more fully than Sasuke ever believed he could. Really, he couldn't tell if the Uchiha was trying to be funny, was demonstrating his disbelief, or whether his brain was simply trying with all its denying, disbelieving might to make the situation seem any less real. But in the end, it didn't matter. It was real.

"Not that I'm aware of." The Nara finally answered with a light chuckle.

Shikamaru watched, still, as the Uchiha slowly exhaled a deep lungful of air and let his head sag slightly. "You know – all this just makes me feel like I haven't found out anything. I mean, fuck… vampires? Really?"

Once again, Shikamaru smiled and nodded. "Don't worry – there's still a lot to go through, and a whole lot more for you to find out." He sighed a little. "What's really going to be interesting is how you fit into all this."

"Oh yeah…" Sasuke breathed. "I forgot about me."

Shikamaru watched Sasuke for a long moment, noticing the way his usual posture was falling into a stance much more common for a teenager – a stance of defeat, and of complete and utter hopelessness. It was a state of being so far from his usual persona that the Nara couldn't help but feel a little unnerved by it.

"Just…" Shikamaru shrugged lightly, feeling sympathy overcome him. Really… when I found out, at least I was reasonably certain that I was normal. "I don't know… just look on the bright side."

"What fucking bright side?"

The Nara smiled then, unable to hold back after hearing such a childishly immediate response work itself from the raven – the words colored in a timbre of light blue with their defiance. Sasuke too, seemed to pick up on this fact, and allowed a soft huff to escape him at his own reaction.

Finishing the glass of water in front of him with one long, patient gulp, Shikamaru spoke. "At least things have gotten interesting, right?"

Sasuke didn't respond to that – mostly because he instantly recognized it as the inescapable truth. And it was a truth not only that this whole situation was interesting, but also that that it was – completely, utterly, and totally – a bright side.

When did my life get so fucking depressing that I would find getting mixed up in this shit a good thing?

He didn't know. But it had.

Looking back up to Shikamaru and deciding in his haze of tiredness and relentless confusion to forget his additional questions for another night, Sasuke smiled – this time the expression not forced in the least. "At least I'm not insane."

TBC