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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-20 08:29 pm

for: [profile] kodak_85

For: [profile] kodak_85
Title: Nescit Cedere
Rating: R (for horror)
Summary: If you need someone to save your baby, Naruto is your guy. He, after all, doesn’t know how to give up.
Warnings: As mentioned above, this story contains supernatural/horror elements and it was meant to be disturbing. Just in case I did it right, think twice before reading.
A/N: Many thinks to [profile] kodak_85 for the wonderful prompt, to mods of this community for their hard work and to several wonderful people who helped me. There is some info that should go with this story, but giving it here would give up my identity to anyone who knows me even a little. It’s not crucial for understanding what’s going on, so I will give it once it’s time for reposting. I hope you enjoy your reading and that you’re having good time with this exchange!
‘Nescit cedere’ is Latin for "He does not know how to give up."
Mod note: Reminder for the author/artist of this submission, please do not reply to comments signed in, if you want to reply anon commenting is enabled.


Nescit Cedere


There deep
Deep in the forest night
Children dance the waltz
They laugh
Whispering hand in hand
Just like children like to do
Their eyes
What are they looking for?
White dress flutters the beat
Their song
Starting to make some sense
Only if you’re listening…

lyrics to “Cradle of Forest”


With a funny mixture of satisfaction and guilt, Naruto darted a quick look to the passenger’s seat. It seemed that Sasuke was too busy looking outside to notice Naruto watching him, so he allowed his eyes to go up the shoulder wrapped in dark blue cotton, over dark hair falling over the stained material of the headrest and linger on the perfectly shaped jaw and forming bruise that stood out on the pale skin.

He’d put that bruise there. They’d gotten into a fight – again – just a mile or two back, when they had stopped for gas. Naruto‘s knuckles ached dully. He could still remember quite vividly the way Sasuke’s bone felt underneath them, but not the exact words that lead them to fighting.

“I can’t believe you two.” Sakura startled him out of mulling over the fight. She was still huffing, indignant and angry as if she didn’t know exactly what to expect when she made them come with her after their flight had been canceled. “Fighting like that - those people almost called the police!”

“It was just a fight, Sakura.” Sasuke answered without looking away from the window.

Even though his hipbone was rather sore, with the imprint of Sasuke’s shoe noticeable on bare skin, Naruto was still unable to quite look away from where Sasuke’s bruise was getting larger by the minute. He grinned on the words.

“A fight, yes!” Sakura countered, “over who was going to take the passenger seat! You are acting like a couple of twelve-year-olds – no, like a couple of fourteen year-olds, experiencing puberty for the first time and too stupid to deal with a little case of hormones!”

A short but complete silence followed those words. Naruto feverishly hoped that she didn’t mean it the way it sounded to him, because he wasn’t that obvious. Was he?

Sasuke didn’t seem like he would bother answering this time, so Naruto swallowed and muttered, “Geez, when did you turn into my mother? It’s not as if anyone got hurt…”

“Why are you clutching your side, if no one got hurt?” Sasuke threw over his shoulder, satisfaction obvious in his tone.

“No one got hurt,” Naruto repeated turning his volume up. “And even though someone became a lot uglier, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

A snort was the only answer, though Naruto saw Sasuke tentatively brushing over his bruised jawbone. What a vain jerk. Like a single bruise could really…

“A fistfight over a seating argument is a big deal.” Sakura huffed again, thankfully interrupting Naruto’s train of thought. “What are you going to do when you disagree of something important?”

“Umm, flip a coin?” Naruto suggested.

Sakura sighed and glared at him though the mirror. Naruto stared back, holding down a grin, until she had to return her gaze to the road.

After another glance at Sasuke - who was still looking though the window - Naruto followed his example. The setting sun was breaking though the thick treetops to meet his gaze, coloring the sky and edges of gathering clouds in red and orange. Naruto squinted and moved closer to the opposite window, until the shadow fell to cover his face.

They were driving though a forest at the moment. It was early fall, so the leaves were only just starting to turn dry and brown. It was still a long way from the naked, creepy look forests sometimes had later in the year, when branches would turned bare and the sky gloomy gray.

“Look.”

By the time Naruto followed her instruction and scanned the view though the windshield, Sakura was already slowing down. There was a woman in the middle of the road, waving for them to pull over. Her face, bare arms and knee-long white dress were sprayed with blood.

“What the hell?” Sakura said, summing up Naruto’s feelings very well.

“An accident, maybe?” Sasuke suggested as Sakura stopped the car a bit to the side.

On the closer look, Naruto recognized her. “It’s that woman from the gas station! The one that dropped stuff and I helped her pick them up!”

He hurried out of the car. She was so nice to him; she smiled and said thanks and all. And now, she was all… bloody.

“My baby!” The woman gasped before Naruto even reached her. She grabbed his shoulder and waved toward the forest behind her. “I can’t get her out!”

“Out of where?”

“Out of the car!” She tugged Naruto forcefully along as she stepped back toward the direction she showed him. “Please help me!”

“Did you have an accident?”

Naruto didn’t wasn’t aware Sakura and Sasuke followed him until he heard those words. The woman glanced at Sasuke and nodded jerkily before tugging Naruto along again. He sounded too calm given the circumstances, maybe even a bit cold, but it helped Naruto grab hold of the situation. He stopped, refusing to allow her to drag him any further before he could get some information out of her.

Sakura and Sasuke walked past them to look around, further down the road and between trees.

“Your kid is trapped in the car?” Naruto asked gently, resisting her pull. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it out. You stay here, okay?”

She opened her mouth, as if to say something. Nothing came out. Naruto added for good measure, already moving to where it seemed as if Sasuke have found it, “Sakura works in a hospital; she’ll take care of you.”

“I volunteer at the hospital.” Sakura automatically corrected him before catching herself and speaking to the woman in softer tones. “But you’ll be fine, let’s see…”

Naruto couldn’t hear the rest. He hurried over where he last saw Sasuke standing. From the edge of the road, the forest ground was descending toward the west. With sun already completely down, it was easy to see the car’s broken headlight blinking. They had slammed right into a tree, but not before managing to avoid a few others. It was deeper into between the trees than Naruto would expect a car could get, but close enough for the light to come through.

He jumped over the trench, running over uneven surface into the forest after Sasuke.

By the time Sasuke reached the car, Naruto caught up with him. They approached carefully. It wasn’t that they thought it was as easy as movies suggested for a car to blow up, but the smoke and hissing noises it was producing were scary.

It was horrible. There was glass everywhere, blood splattered around. The front part of the car was smashed so badly, you could barely see that there were people still sitting in the front seats though the mess of bent aluminum and shattered window glass. The driver was twisted horribly; Naruto couldn’t even tell the gender. He was quite grateful, as he approached, that he couldn’t see the faces. The woman that stopped them for help was very, very lucky she had survived.

Sasuke peered inside, shielding his eyes from reflection. As Naruto stepped closer, he glanced back and frowned, “I don’t see a kid inside.”

Naruto looked for himself. There was a booster seat in the back, one of those upright ones that suggested that the baby was old enough to sit. He squinted to take a better look around, but aside from the pieces of the glass and bent metal, blood and a thick branch that was peeking through a window with sharp shreds of glass sticking ominously, there was nothing. There was no kid. There was nothing alive in there, as far as Naruto could see.

“Shit.” He swore, grabbing for the handle of the back door. “Did it get out on its own? How big is this baby?”

It took effort – that didn’t do any good to Naruto’s already bruised side - but the door finally yielded under his forceful pulling and opened. Sasuke, in the meantime, managed to unlock the other one.

“Not too big.” He said. It took Naruto a moment to realize that Sasuke was answering the question he had asked, so he looked up from moving a large piece of glass out of his way. Sasuke was holding something… something that looked quite weird to Naruto in the poor light, like a plain Jack-in-the-Box toy. His confusion must have showed, for Sasuke explained, “It’s a disposable baby bottle. I don’t think this child was big enough to walk.”

“Maybe it crawled out?” Naruto suggested.

It was a farfetched idea. The windows on the back were not broken, just severely cracked, so the child would have had to crawl over the dead people in the front. And it would be debatable if even that way there would have been enough space between the branches and the tree trunk and bent metal to inch through.

Naruto got around the car to look it better at the front part. There was less smoke now, but he couldn’t find an acceptable path. And even if the kid got though that mess, it was a long way down.

Baffled, Naruto started looking around. Sasuke followed his example, but he was wearing a deep, doubtful scowl plastered on his face.

There was nothing. Not a single trail, neither crawling marks on the ground nor odd pieces of ripped clothing scattered.

“This doesn’t make any sense.” Sasuke said. “There was obviously a kid in the car. How did it get out?”

Naruto, who was at the moment on his knees looking under the car, looked up, “Maybe someone got here before us?”

Sasuke met his eyes. “I guess, but the doors were jammed.”

“Maybe they were re-jammed.”

It was getting rapidly darker. Maybe up on the road the visibility wasn’t disappearing as quickly, but down there, in the midst of large, thick trunks of old trees, it was becoming hard to see.

“We should look around.” Sasuke said.

It was likely a good idea to search as much as they could, just in case no one got there before them and the baby actually managed to crawl out on its own. Naruto readily accepted. “Right. Take that side?”

Sasuke nodded and turned to the direction Naruto indicated. Naruto took off to the opposite side.

He found nothing. There were some sharp bushes blocking an entire side off. Aside from that, everything was the same, endless tree-trunks and seemingly untouched forest ground. When it became so dark he couldn’t see anything at all no matter how much he was squinting, Naruto located the crushed car by the blinking light and headed back.

It was eerie, walking through the woods alone at night. It almost felt like someone was walking alongside with Naruto, just out of the sight, watching him as he stumbled over bumps and soft cushions of piled up leaves. There were no sounds to hold his attention, nothing aside from his own uneven steps yet he couldn’t help the goose bumps that rose up his arms as he strained his ears to catch hums of the forest.

Naruto shrugged off the feeling quickly, too worried about the missing baby to dwell on a childish fear from the dark. Maybe Sasuke had more luck.

It was clear that hope was in vain as soon as Naruto approached the wreck again. Sasuke was already there, watching the darkness intently in general direction of the side Naruto was searching. When Naruto came close enough to be seen in the blinking light of the car, he visibly relaxed.

“Nothing?” Naruto called.

Sasuke shook his head. “Nothing.”

“What now?” He had no idea what they should. A flashlight, at the very least, was necessary for further search.

“Sakura must have called the police. They will arrive any moment now. They will organize a search party, with reflectors, maybe even dogs. Let’s go back up.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we should wait here until they come?”

Impatiently, Sasuke told him, “We can’t do anything. It’s too dark.”

“Maybe there is flashlight in the car?”

The car was rented for the occasion, due Sakura’s insurance calculations. Naruto had no car of his own so he wasn’t sure, but surely some independent light source was required as standard equipment. Sasuke looked doubtful, but he nodded, “Maybe. It’d be helpful.”

“Come on, then!” the sooner they found some light, the sooner they could come back and search. Naruto headed up toward the slightly elevated road first, barely looking where he was stepping in haste. The ground was bumpy at best, but the thought of tripping and getting hurt wasn’t impacting strongly enough to make him slow down. Besides, Sasuke was matching his pace swiftly.

Well, he was matching Naruto’s pace swiftly for a bit before he started to slow down. Naruto looked back, “What?”

Sasuke lifted his head, unmistakably finding Naruto’s eyes in the dark. He was frowning, “Nothing, just…”

“Did you see anything?” Naruto demanded, unable to help the thrill of hope.

But Sasuke was already grabbing toward him, shaking his head, “It’s just a weird feeling, nothing to…”

“Like someone’s following us?”

“Something is more likely than someone – an animal. Hurry.”

Naruto let Sasuke take the lead and he followed. But once his awareness to the feeling was awakened again with Sasuke admitting he’d been feeling as well, it was hard to ignore it. It was like sharp knife grazing the back of his neck, uncomfortable and alarming. He kept turning until he was spending most of his time looking back and to the side than forward – and worse yet, he was well aware Sasuke was doing the exact same thing. They blundered, slowing down by the second.

Sasuke let out some noise Naruto was ready to bet was cursing. He caught up and admitted, “I can’t see anything.”

And he should have seen something, if anything was there. They were not far from the road, and the blinking light from the crashed car was giving the forcefully made path enough light. The grass wasn’t high, there were no bushes. It was clear, save from the trees. If an animal was chasing after them, as every cell of Naruto’s body was screaming was happening, they should have seen it.

“This is creeping me out.” He muttered.

As if laughing in his face, a loud rattle of a heavy chain followed those words. Naruto automatically looked at the direction he was sure – he was absolutely sure – he heard it coming from. There was a broken, dry branch there, laying undisturbed in low grass; nothing else.

A sound of chain came again, causing a surge of fear that was bordering on panic to crawl up Naruto’s arms and back. Before he could react, Sasuke reached out, grabbed his arm and started dragging him.

“Hurry!’ he demanded. Naruto happily hurried after him.

The feeling of being watched, the grave presence, got stronger. It started twisting from slightly disturbing to menacing. The heavy chain rattled rhythmically – it took several endless moments before Naruto realized what it sounded like - it sounded like a huge, running animal was dragging it along.

Without thinking, he pushed Sasuke before him, “Run!” And Sasuke, as if he was waiting on that word the entire day, ran. Naruto followed him closely; they were both quite fast despite the uneven ground, but he managed to keep a hand on Sasuke’s back somehow. It was small comfort with the feeling of threat and terror literally chasing after them.

Naruto stumbled over a rock but he kept his footing somehow. The chain jangled closer, practically at his right, just next to his leg. Even though knowing that he wouldn’t see anything, he didn’t dare to look. He felt frozen in spot, with the sensation approaching, closing on him, sucking him it…

“Naruto! You stupid moron!”

Naruto recognized Sasuke with a part of his mind that wasn’t overwhelmed with paralyzing panic. It was hard to take the first step, but it helped that Sasuke was dragging him forcefully forward. He couldn’t feel anything following him any longer, because it caught up, it was all around him, pulsing with intent to capture air in his lungs and rip off his throat…

“Guys!” he heard Sakura calling from a distance. Sasuke yanked him one last time… And Naruto blinked as the feeling of peril disappeared. It drained out of him like water squeezed out of a sponge.

He glanced around, letting Sasuke drag him for awhile longer, until he got a sense of himself. They were up on the road already, white and red-and-blue lights everywhere, blinding him. The police arrived. Sasuke was leading them toward Sakura. Relief and worry switching on her face as she looked them up and down.

“What happened to you?” She asked, voice a frightened whisper, as soon as her eyes finished scanning Naruto’s face.

“Later.” Sasuke brusquely brushed her off before Naruto could speak up.

“Where’s the woman?” Naruto asked, finding his voice and will to speak with some effort. “Is she alright?”

Sakura let her mouth fall open. “But… she went back right after you, to help! I couldn’t hold her back! Don’t tell me she didn’t find you!”

Naruto, feeling shaken from her high, frightened tone looked at Sasuke, at loss for words. There was no need to talk it over; they both knew she didn’t come back to the scene of the crash. They were there, searching around the car for awhile, even when they came back from the deeper search, she wasn’t there. Was she lost or…?

…Did that thing get her?

As if he read Naruto’s mind, Sasuke squeezed rather harshly his arm. Naruto was not even completely aware Sasuke was still holding on to him until that moment. He smiled gratefully. Sasuke turned to look at Sakura again.

“We didn’t see her at all after we left her with you.”

She shook her head, eyes wide and wondering, “What was that?”

“What was what?” Naruto asked confused, glancing at Sasuke for clues.

“That!” She pointed out at Naruto’s face. He frowned and tried to wipe it clean, mildly irritated – as if it mattered right then if he had some dirt on cheek.

Sasuke let go of his arm. “There is a lost baby and apparently a lost woman in the woods and who knows what else. We’re not talking about that now.”

“Talking about what?” Naruto wanted to know, though not enthusiastically. He sounded tired, even to himself. He felt tired. Half heartedly, he kept rubbing his face. “What am I missing? Is there something on my face?”

“Nothing I can see.” A stranger’s voice cut in. Naruto glanced up. A cop in his neat brown uniform approached them while they were talking. “Kakashi Hatake, head of local police. Where is the child?”

“Oh, yeah.” Sakura frowned. “Don’t tell me it’s…?”

“Not dead.” Naruto told her. “I think. But we didn’t find it. We looked everywhere, as far in the woods as we dared, but….”

“It was already too dark.” Sasuke added. “So we came back to get a flashlight.”

The cop efficiently took things in his own hands. He called for backup, ordered for a search party to be assembled. Naruto listened to him talking to his partner, into the radio and into his phone giving it only a part of his attention. Sakura dragged him closer to their car.

“You’re freezing.” She said when Naruto refused to get inside. “I’ll get you your jacket.”

He wasn’t cold at all. The shaking was an after effect of the fright he got. He felt torn, wanting to go right back into the woods but… No, no buts. There was a baby there, and that – that animal could hurt it.

“Is there a flashlight there?” He asked loudly, as she was already on the other side of the car. “It’s what we came back …”

“You are not going back there.” Sasuke interrupted. Naruto looked up, surprised at his sharp tone.

“Of course I am.” He actually believed Sasuke would go back with him. The thought of going back alone made his legs feel a bit weak. He ignored it. It would be better for everyone if Sasuke was safe, anyway. “But you don’t have to.”

“You don’t have to, either. He,” Sasuke gestured toward the cop who was going through the trunk of his car in search for something, “has this under control.”

“I still need to go.” Naruto tried to explain. “I told that woman I’d get her kid out. I can’t just leave.”

“Yes, you can. This is not your responsibility. There will be a search party assembled in a few minutes and I, for one, don’t want to stay here a minute longer than necessary.”

Naruto scowled at him, “You’re just afraid.”

“I’m not afraid.” Sasuke glared. Naruto was about to roll his eyes when he leaned in closer and added. “Why would I be? That thing wasn’t after me.”

Fuck.

“You’re just trying to scare me…” …And doing fine job out of it, Naruto added inwardly. He was the one who froze and Sasuke had to drag him along. It would make sense he was so afraid when Sasuke wasn’t because he wasn’t feeling that overwhelming dread.

“What are the two of you on about?”

Sakura was standing not three feet away, Naruto’s bright jacket and a flashlight in her hands and puzzled frown on her face.

“Nothing.” Naruto quickly said.

“We are leaving.” Sasuke managed practically at the same time.

“No, we’re not.”

Sakura wasn’t paying attention to what Naruto said, “But I thought we would help, join the search. I feel really bad for that woman, I want to help.”

“No.” The answer was loud and chorused. As Naruto glanced at Sasuke, almost – almost – amused, Sakura gave him his jacket. Sasuke continued. “You can’t. Neither one of you. We are getting out of here.”

“Aren’t you bossy?” Naruto muttered, with no intention whatsoever to do as Sasuke said. He was getting a bit angry and it made him feel braver. “Look, just stay here with Sakura and...”

“No, I’m going, too.” Sakura interrupted.

“You’re not.” There was nothing amusing about speaking like one this time. Naruto glanced angrily at Sasuke, but Sasuke was fixing Sakura with a glare. She rolled her eyes and lifted the flashlight, making the light dance over their faces before turning it off.

“I’ve got the light, so I’m going.” She announced. “You two do what you want.”

Sasuke reacted first, as he always did, but Naruto wasn’t far behind. They both jumped toward her. She let out a yelp as they grabbed at her hands, one each. Naruto managed to grab a hold on the long, silvery tube under Sakura’s fingers. He yanked it and Sakura yelped again, utterly confused, and resisted on impulse. As Naruto struggled to get her to let go, Sasuke grabbed a hold of the flashlight as well.

“Let go.” Naruto hissed.

“You let go.”

“I need it, you asshole! I have to go find that baby!”

“And what should I do?” Sasuke demanded with something akin a snarl. “Let you off into those woods alone or stay here with her?”

Naruto didn’t see why he said that like it was a hard choice. “Stay here with her!”

“What is wrong with you two?”

They froze, both still holding the flashlight firmly. Sakura yelled all the time, so it wasn’t her loud voice what startled them. It was fear in it. They were fighting her, fighting each other. As if it wasn’t enough there were… things lurking in the woods around them, Naruto and Sasuke were making situation even worse.

“Nothing.” Naruto said.

Sasuke, to Naruto’s surprise, let go of the flashlight and stepped away. He was still glaring, angry and upset. He didn’t look like he really gave up so Naruto pocketed his prize quickly and crossed his arms over his jacket so no one could suddenly reach into his inner pocket.

When he was done, Sasuke was narrowing his eyes – at Sakura. “Something happened when we were coming back from the woods. I’m not sure what, but something was following us. Chasing us.”

“You mean,” Sakura said, glancing around, “an animal.”

“I meant what I said. Something.”

“A wolf?”

“No wolfs in this country.” Naruto chipped in. He didn’t like the idea of a scared Sakura, but she was so stubborn. If she got scared, she wouldn’t want to go into the woods. It was the simplest way to keep her safe. His comment made her and Sasuke glance at him, so he shrugged. “Kiba said so.”

“Even if there were wolfs here, they’d be hardly be chained and invisible.”

Naruto resisted the urge to look behind him. There was something dragging chain with it in there, invisible…Bloodthirsty.

And a lost baby.

He wasn’t even aware when he started walking toward the track left from the crashed car into the black forest, but then there was Sasuke in his way, blocking it physically. They knew each other for awhile now, for a couple of years. It wasn’t love at first sight – maybe because Naruto got very defensive about being impressed by someone quite as much. It wasn’t important right then, but he was still sad about how little Sasuke knew him. He met Sasuke’s eye and said, gently, “You can’t stop me.”

Sasuke pursed his lips, as if to say that he did know that, but he nodded toward the far end of the road. Naruto glanced back, suspiciously. Not that Sasuke was particularly prone to tricks…

There was a line of headlights turning in several hundred feet down the road. He hadn’t noticed until that moment that fog wrapped itself around the area, dark gray and heavy on his lungs. It wasn’t so thick to hide those few shapes close enough to be visible. It just blurred them, alienating them further. There was tree with branches leaning over the opposite side of the road. Naruto couldn’t see the tip of it.

“They are well organized. Too well.”

The words were slow, deliberate. They almost startled Naruto, more with the soft tone Sasuke was using than because they came unexpected. He thought about it. “It must happen a lot.”

“Exactly,” Sasuke answered, as if he had proved some point.

“That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go and help him. I promised.”

“If you go, I’ll go with you.” Naruto, who was trying to step around him, stopped to protest but Sasuke wasn’t finished. “And if we both go, she will follow.” He tilted his head, as if in consideration. “It would probably even be safer than to stay up here all alone.”

Did he mean it? Would he leave Sakura alone just so Naruto wouldn’t go into the woods? Was it a bluff? Either way - he spit out, “You bastard.”

His words got lost in the sound of multiple engines coming to a halt not far away, but Sasuke smirked. He knew he won. It was a hard choice, but there were people already there to look for the baby, while getting Sakura in danger would be his sole fault.

There were a lot of people coming out the cars lined up on the side of the road. It wasn’t all that late – or Naruto didn’t think it was – but some of them looked as if they were dragged directly from their beds. There was a woman that had her housedress, obviously put on hastily over jeans and a sweater instead of a jacket. She was an odd picture. Two younger men were counting something between them and an older, impatient guy with them was hugging himself against the gentle wind. Only a few talked but Naruto couldn’t catch a word of it, it was all whispers and body signs. Only one single person, an older woman wrapped in a huge knitted shawl, nodded in greeting as she passed them.

Collectively they seemed normal enough, but they creeped Naruto out worse than the thought of going into the woods alone. He shivered.

Wordlessly, Sasuke pushed him a little toward Sakura and the car. With heavy heart, Naruto went with it.




Sasuke woke up abruptly, escaping the nightmare. His chest still felt heavy, as if burdened with lead and rusty iron. It was a disturbing dream, one of those that had nothing special in them but clutched painfully at your very heart anyway. He had been looking for tracks Naruto had left on the ground in it, but then the snow had started falling – or was it ashes? He couldn’t remember anything else, aside that his fingers had started hurting.

Still gasping for breath, Sasuke looked at his hands. Between the flickering of the TV screen, the light he had left on in the bathroom and the gray of the early morning outside, it was just bright enough to see that his fingers were red. They felt tender and sore, like he was trying to dig up though the mattress in his sleep.

Brushing his hair off his wet forehead, Sasuke lowered his head back on the strange, overly fluffy pillow. The sheets smelled like almonds, sickly sweet and strong, so he buried his nose into the inner side of his elbow, accidentally brushing the bruise Naruto gave him the previous day. What was it with B&B inns and flowery, fruity themes? Even when rooms weren’t overdone in silly patterns, like this one fortunately wasn’t, there had to be at least a ridiculous smell to make him sick.

The television blazed in violent blue, movements on the screen making dancing patterns on the walls and the ceiling, but the only sounds were coming from the next room. Naruto’s room. Sasuke focused on it.

It changed every two, three seconds. Before he could distinguish if it was a movie, commercials or a rerun of a talk show, the sounds were dying off for a second and then coming alive again as something else.

It was Sasuke’s third time to wake up, after long hours of struggling to get some sleep. Naruto was obviously in a similar state. It took a long time to shake off enough of the incident of the previous night and grasp at some normality.

Sakura drove them to the edge of the small town where the bright signs offering rooms and food were pointing, but even she looked pale, frightened and stressed out. He told her just a bit, just as much as he had to get leverage for the argument with Naruto. It was low of him, certainly, but he wasn’t regretting it. She would shake it off as soon morning comes, anyway.

She will, because he didn’t tell her about the feeling that went with it, the feeling of being tailed, hounded; like you are the pray with the hunter closing in on you. He couldn’t see anything, just like he knew Naruto couldn’t, but that didn’t help panic leaping into his mind, threatening to close him up.

It was the look on Naruto’s face that had brought him back together. He had caught a sight of it just where the headlights of their car broke though to illuminate the rest of the way up. Naruto didn’t look like he was just afraid, it was beyond that. It was expression of someone whose mind the fear had chased away from their head. Sasuke wasn’t even aware that he was dragging Naruto around until Sakura opened her mouth. He was too busy trying not to give into panic.

It ended well - as long as they never had to go back, or come back to this part of the country. With hard, selfish edge to what should have been a genuine wish for someone’s wellbeing, Sasuke thought, God, I hope they find that kid…

Because Naruto was feeling responsible. That woman, she grabbed him and talked to him almost as if Sakura and Sasuke weren’t there at all. She grabbed him like she had the sixth sense to tell her that he was just the person for the job, if your baby was in trouble. If anyone was in trouble, really – trapped in a burning building, or standing on the top of one, preparing to jump off, or drowning – Naruto was the guy to go to for help. No matter the cost.

It was hard, being in… caring for someone with a martyr complex.

In the next room, programs stopped changing. Naruto left his TV on a channel with some music. At first, Sasuke didn’t recognize it, it was just a vaguely familiar tune played on a trumpet. Then the rough, deep voice of Louse Armstrong arose. La vie en rose for the first time ever sounded eerie and overly sweet, like almond in the sheets, awakening nausea.

Sasuke gave up on sleeping. It was practically morning anyway.

The bathroom was connecting his room to Naruto’s. He wasn’t surprised that the door was ajar on the other side, as well. He pushed them, to open wider. The room was green where his was blue, but otherwise practically the same. Naruto was out of his bed, staring though the window. He acknowledged with nothing more than a slight movement of his head when more of the sickly yellow light from the bathroom broke into his room around Sasuke.

“Morning,” Naruto greeted after several long seconds.

Sasuke entered his room. The bed was a complete mess, sheets and pillows scattered over the bed and on the floor on one side. He pushed to the back of his mind any thoughts about almonds and stood next to Naruto, at the window.

“I saw Kaiza.” Naruto waved though toward the gray mist outside. Sasuke automatically followed it with his eyes. “He just got back.”

The fog was still thick. Naruto’s window wasn’t looking out at it, but there was a small river nearby. Branches of a walnut tree were breaking though the fog toward the glass to show off their black bark and prematurely withered leaves, clinging desperately with the last traces of life to them. The sight reminded Sasuke of his dream. He shuddered.

“Do you think they found them?”

Naruto’s voice was just a whisper this time.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke answered honestly. “Probably. They knew what they were doing.”

“But why did it take so long? D’you think…”

“I think you didn’t sleep at all tonight over something that was being handled by people more competent and fit for the job than you are.”

“Well, I promised her to help.” Naruto said with a glare. Sasuke met his eye with the intention to distinguish signs of tiredness and point them out, but all he could see was stubbornness in the set of Naruto’s jaw and challenge. “And there is really no reason not to help. We’re early, anyway.”

“We’re early for a reason. Sakura is the bridesmaid and needs to be fitted for her dress.”

“And she needs me with her to do what, hold the edges up?”

That was not a picture Sasuke needed in his head. He snapped, “Fawn.”

“Faw…?”

“You know, that thing that comes naturally whenever you are in same room with her.” A small, oddly familiar voice snapped at him in turn inside of his mind and mocked, Jealousy, Sasuke?

“I call it sucking up.” Naruto said. He attempted to lighten his tone, but there was no mistaking the puzzlement. “She gives heavier concussions than you do.”

Because you let her.

But Sasuke got the hold of himself. It wasn’t the moment for that conversation. It was never the right moment to give Naruto clues, his obliviousness was a blessing. He’d never live it down if Naruto caught up.

“We agreed to rent the car with her instead of waiting for the next plane.” He said in what he hoped sounded at least a little more patient and normal to Naruto than it did to him. “She needs to be there and you can’t stay here to wander around unfamiliar woods in search for a child that is already been searched for by at least a half the local population.”

“I don’t get you,” Naruto said - after giving Sasuke’s mini rant a few moments to settle. “Don’t you feel even a bit worried?”

“No.” Of course he was. More for Naruto – and Sakura and himself – than for some strangers, but he was feeling worry for those people as well. It wasn’t as if he wanted something bad to happen to a child.

“Responsibility?” Naruto shot next.

“No.” That one wasn’t even far from being true.

“Are you even human at all? You stuck up, emotionally retarded…”

“You’re yelling.”

“…Bastard.” Naruto finished, though softer. He hadn’t been really yelling, but he was starting to raise his voice.

It was much brighter outside, Sasuke noticed. The fog was turning white. He wondered if it smelled like dead things and dirt.

Naruto gave a frustrated sigh after realizing he wouldn’t be getting any answers and stomped away toward the bed. The mattress made a sound as he landed and Sasuke continued to look out through the window. He never really had a wish to stare outside, especially with everything there shapeless and unfamiliar, but he continued to do it anyway. His fingers still felt sore as he clenched his hands into fists.

“Do you really not feel anything?”

“Of course I do, Naruto.” Sasuke said, not bothering to hide the impatience any longer. He used the conversation as an excuse to turn away from the window and scorned himself for feeling the need to have an excuse for such an inane thing in the first place. It was just a fucking window. “If there wasn’t a search party out there, I would have continued searching for the baby, even with that thing – things – out there. But it’s being handled.”

Naruto was sitting on his bed, propping himself on his arms. His old red sleeping shirt had a hole down one side, Sasuke noticed sitting next to him. The smell of almonds hit his nose - and it didn’t make him feel sick at all.

“Yeah…” Naruto murmured. “It’s what I keep telling myself.” Letting his hand slide on both sides, he stretched on the bed behind. “And then I close my eyes and I see her face - she was crying, she was so upset and I promised, you know?”

“You promised because we were the only ones there and we expected to find the child in the car.” It was beyond ridiculous at that point. Why the hell would Naruto feel that much responsibility? Why did he always have to save everyone and everything? It was as if he had some itch deep inside – a consequence of being an orphan, maybe – something that had him needing to try extremely hard to make it better where anyone else would give up.

You didn’t mind when he was set on saving you.

The same voice from before – a disturbing hybrid of Sakura’s wariness and Itachi’s amusement – was a hypocritical bastard that missed out a point or two in the assessment. Like how badly Sasuke needed it, unlike a kid that was being looked for by dozens of people already. Or that he had minded it at the time. He had minded it a lot.

Sasuke squashed the second attempt of the voice to step forward with expertise that came to him with years of practice. It might have showed on his face, because Naruto asked, “Are you alright?”

He was feeling a little like his bones got weak from the cold and were not far from giving up on him.

“In need of a shower, I think.” He was in need of a long and hot shower, even though he would likely be freezing later. Naruto made a small noise in his throat, blinked and glanced away, like Sasuke had started undressing in front of him. “Why don’t you go and ask Kaiza about the results of the search?”

Naruto instantly jumped to his feet. He gave a quick, perfunctory smile and walked out of the room with a promise of seeing about some food as well.

Sasuke hoped the news were good. Kaiza, boyfriend of their landlord’s daughter and an employee of the inn, told them last night while settling them in that he was to be in the second group if the first one didn’t bring good results - something like a messenger who kept in touch with the rest of the town during his shift. They hadn’t seen him go out, so it was sometime after they retreated to their rooms, but the second group was obviously needed if Naruto saw him coming back early that morning.

Hot water helped – for as long as the shower lasted. The radiators were warm when Sasuke checked them, but not enough to beat the bone-chilling coldness of the morning, not even inside of his room. It took some time to towel the most of the wetness out of his hair and find the thickest shirt he had in his luggage. By the time he finished and descended the cheerful staircase painted white and green, there was greasy smell of sausages in the air. His stomach protested again with a sharp wave of nausea.

There were definitely more people seated in the kitchen than it was staying at the establishment. Actually, Sasuke was pretty sure they were the only guests at the moment. The lake on the other side of the village was somewhat popular with the people from the nearby city, but only in the summer, during swimming season – or so they were told.

The quiet, tired looking people wolfing in the breakfast as if it was the last meal they would ever get were obviously a part of the search party. He recognized a few faces from the road where they had left them last night. They must have come to the inn for the breakfast in an attempt not to wake their families so early in the morning.

He found Naruto at the table in the kitchen. Only one look at his face answered all questions Sasuke could have thought of asking – the search party was failing so far. In retrospect, the quiet seriousness of the people he had passed on his way should have been his first clue. But the frustration and worry in Naruto’s clenched jaw put it beyond doubt.

“Here,” Sakura called. He didn’t notice her until she spoke, but the spot next to her that she was offering for him to take was not two feet from the large black wood burning stove that was crackling wildly in the moderately quiet room. Sasuke took it gratefully. His hair was still very wet, but he warmed up even before the owner’s daughter – Tsunami – put a plate in front of him with a strained smile.

“Bad news?” He asked, mostly to avoid the food but also because the silence was stretching.

A couple of people on the other side of the table looked up. One shook his head, worried expression making it clear that the answer wasn’t, in fact, a no. Naruto pushed his chair loudly away from the table. His plate was still full.

“I’m going out with them when the next search party sets out.”

He looked up with that fierce defiance and determination that probably made bullies step away in alarm from their victims in high school. Sasuke wondered if Naruto expected him to try and drag him forcefully away, or just argue. He raised his eyebrows, making a picture of someone expecting the punch line. Of course Naruto was going to go out there, into those cursed woods, to try his best to find that baby. In the daylight, as faint as it was on a foggy morning, his greatest concern was what would happen if Naruto didn’t find anything, not some nightmarish being that barely felt real anymore.

“We all are, Naruto.” Sakura said. They both stopped staring at each other to look at her. She took a bite of sausage and waited for them to stop. When they didn’t, she demanded, “What? I sure won’t be going anywhere until this is settled and we can just as well help as much as we can. I talked to that cop – Kakashi - we met last night, so he probably put us on the schedule already. ”

So that was settled, then.

“But…” Naruto said. “I don’t want you to go out there.”

In the mostly quiet kitchen, Sakura’s laughter exploded like fireworks on Christmas morning, inappropriate and too loud. She smothered it quickly. “I appreciate your consideration to my comfort, Naruto. Now if we’re going to spend the day out, you should eat something. Both of you.”

“That’s a good advice.” While they were talking, the cop from the last night – Kakashi - entered the kitchen. He was probably coming from outside, as his scarf was still wrapped tightly around his neck, high enough to muffle the words. He walked to where the three of them were sitting, obviously there for their sake. “The third shift is taking over at nine – that means that each shift has about six hours out. You have to promise me you will stay with your assigned partners at all times, though. No wandering on your own, we already have enough work on our hands, we don’t need any of you to go missing.”

He waited for them all to nod their acceptance before continuing, “It looks like it’s going to be raining, so wear something waterproof if you have it or ask Tsunami to find you something. I’ll take you to the woods point, so meet me outside at eight-thirty.”

As if reacting to a secret sign, the man who was sitting opposite from Sakura at the table stood up after quickly wiping his mouth a second before Kakashi stopped talking. Engaged in a quiet conversation, they left the room together.

Sasuke forced a couple of bites down. Sakura finished breakfast first and knowing full well that none of them were likely to have brought waterproof clothes to the wedding, went to find them something. Most of the kitchen cleared up, but Naruto was still picking though his plate, so Sasuke remained seated.

The silence was uncomfortable. Naruto seemed to have been expecting something from him, but Sasuke had nothing to say. He still wished he could pack him and Sakura into the rented car and drive them as far away as possible – but he also wished the breakfast was lighter, that he didn’t have to wear someone else’s clothes and that he didn’t have to move every time Tsunami had to put another log into the stove behind him. Wishing for something else wouldn’t change anything; he would still do what he had to.

Kakashi came back with a file and notepad and interrupted the tense silence.

“We have a good half hour left before we have to leave,” He said. “So let’s finish this. I’ll take your statements so you could sign it right now and leave whenever you like.”

“We won’t leave before we find that baby – and that woman.”

Sasuke didn’t particularly like what Kakashi’s carful avoidance to acknowledge Naruto’s words said about their odds. He kept his mouth closed, though.

“Alright, so I wrote down what you told me last night.” Kakashi pushed a piece of paper toward them. “Is this right?”

The handwriting was spiky and easy to read but… “Just one statement?”

“Well, your stories were close enough. I have no time to waste, so either one signing this will do.” Kakashi explained. “Read though, just in case.”

Sasuke leaned over the paper, and so did Naruto. It was correct – if vague – saying that they were stopped by a hurt woman, who asked them to help a child out of the crashed car, went to investigate but were unable to find anyone to give help to and looked around for the missing child until the police came.

“Yeah, that’s what happened. “Naruto said. “But I left my wallet up in my room. Should I go get it?”

Only Naruto would leave his wallet in an unlocked room of an inn with so many people around. It would be pointless to argue about it right then, so Sasuke simply shook his head and gave Kakashi his ID. He signed the paper, grateful for the vagueness if the statement on it. If it told the complete truth, he would be putting his name under the declaration that invisible chains were chasing them.

“What’s that?” Naruto asked. He was leaning over the table, cocking his head under a strange angle to get a better look at the picture peeking from Kakashi’s folder.

Kakashi stopped making the note of Sasuke’s ID number to glance at it. “Coroner’s office photos. We don’t have a confirmation yet on the identity of the people killed in the crash, but the car was registered on the name of Asuma Sarutobi, so for now we are assuming it’s him and his family.”

Before he finished talking, Naruto stopped dead in an odd, crooked position over the table. Kakashi noticed his unnatural stillness at the same moment as Sasuke, but he finished his sentence anyway. Naruto grew as pale as a dead man, clearly in shock.

“Naruto.” Sasuke called him. It didn’t help; he kept staring at the picture, perplexed.

Kakashi looked over at Sasuke like there was no doubt that he would know what to do better than anyone. Sasuke reached and snatched the folder quickly, but Naruto just followed it with his eyes without protesting.

Sasuke took out the first picture from the file; the one Naruto was staring at.

“That is the woman that was sitting on the passenger’s seat.” Kakashi informed them.

“But she’s dead.” Naruto croaked while Sasuke felt his face draining of blood.

The person on the photograph, it was her. It was the woman with long dark hair in white dress, the one that stopped them and begged them to save her baby. The white face in the photo was obviously washed; all the smudges of blood were carefully removed of her face so they would the identification would be easier. Or were they even there? If she was dead, they couldn’t have seen her at all, so the blood Sasuke remembered so clearly – along with her – they couldn’t be real.


“Yes, I just said so. She died in the passenger seat, her neck was broken as she apparently was in the middle of trying to turn around and reach backwards when they hit the tree. I thought you saw her when you tried to open the car.”

“Her face was covered with her hair.” Sasuke explained, his voice hollow. “We didn’t recognize her.”

“So you knew her when she was alive? Can you tell me who she was? We assumed it was the wife of Asuma Sarutobi, but I’m afraid the handbag we found was mostly destroyed…”

“Oh my God!”

Naruto finally moved first. He jumped, quick as an eye blink, to put himself between the wide-eyed Sakura standing not far from the table and the photos. It was far too late, though.

Kakashi eyed her, “What’s the problem here?”

Even if Sasuke had the time to think of how to do it, it would have been too late to stop Sakura from saying, “That’s the woman that stopped us on the road last night!”

As the implications of her statement sunk in, Kakashi’s eyes widened slightly. She must be wrong, he would say. The woman had clearly never left her seat in the car, as she died on the spot of broken neck. There was someone else there, on the backseat with the baby; the dead woman’s sister maybe?

“I need to go make sure preparations are going well. “ Kakashi said instead of any of that. “No one is going to be upset if you change your mind about coming with us.”

“We…” Naruto glanced around to confirm it, but really. There was no going back. “We’re coming with you.”

Kakashi left them alone in the kitchen.

No one said a thing.


Sasuke was paired with a bulky guy who had his bushy red hair trapped back in a plait. He was somewhat relived that Sakura was off with Kakashi, even though they headed to a completely different direction. He was competent and seemed to have known what he was up against. She was better off with someone like that. Safer.

It would have been hard to orientate in the unfamiliar surroundings, but the villagers thought of it in time. He was sent to help cover one bank on the small river that cutting down the edge of the forest. It was impossible to get lost even in unfamiliar fields, clumps and groves if you were following an unbreakable line. On the other side of the river, he could occasionally catch a glimpse of Naruto between the bushes and trees. His side was mostly cleared up for cultivation a long time ago, though it was too late in the year to see anything growing. Small squares of soil were plowed, prepared for next season.

The grass was high, rich green despite being sprinkled with yellow and orange fallen leaves. Kakashi was definitely right about the weather. It took a long time for the fog to lift, maybe even until after noon. It was been hard to look in the beginning; flashlights weren’t helping much with white morning fog. And as convenient as the river was, it seemed that there were many more places for a small child to hide in around it. The river itself was tiny, but the banks were high and aslope. The land was uneven, full of holes and bumps, weeds were tall and dense. It was a slow, hard work.

And then the rain started and all that Sasuke thought was hard became torture.

The good side of it – if there was one – was that while struggling with the layers of mud on his shoes, rain drops sliding into his shirt and hands hurt from moving rocks and other nasty stuff, he didn’t have the time to think about other things.

Other things being chained invisible creatures and dead women begging Naruto to save their children. No wonder she was so set on having him promise her – it was some supernatural sixth sense that told her he would be just the person.

When 3PM came and Sasuke’s nice and thankfully quiet companion announced that it was the time to wait for the next shift to take over, it felt like they were out there for six days, not six hours. He was tired; all adrenalin long since drained out of him.

As they waited on a convenient spot in the open, it seemed colder than before. Sasuke stuffed his hands in pockets and attempted to distract himself.

“How would we know if someone had found anything?”

“They’d yell – or phone us. “ The man whose name Sasuke had forgotten fished out his cell phone to wave with it. “But we’d likely hear it first, sound carries around here.”

As if set just to prove his point, they heard Naruto complain on the other side of the small river. “But then – just until they come. Why would we just stand here, doing nothing?”

He was just across, though there were trees there to protect him and his partner from the wind.

“Aren’t you tired?”

Sasuke smiled to himself. Naruto wouldn’t even recognize the word, not when he had an agenda. A quest. Give him ten lines to write down and he would fall asleep in the middle of it, claiming he was too tired to finish, but this… He’d never grow tired of trying to save something, even if it was a stray dog.

What were their chances to get him to return, at least to the inn if not back to their trip, anyway? Not good.

“No, why would I be? We’ve just got here.” Naruto answered, unsurprisingly. “Hey, can I just take another shift? Instead of putting two new people here, just send someone to go with me. Or I can go alone, that’s fine, too.”

“He’s… determined,” Sasuke’s companion commented, startling him from trying to catch a glance of familiar blond hair across the river.

“He’s a moron.” Sasuke corrected him. “How do you cross this? Is there a bridge nearby?”

“There is only one bridge over, back near the town. You could jump.”

That was a monstrously bad idea with all the slippery mud. Sasuke started looking for the narrowest part nearby anyway. The stream was fast and high. Foam bubbling up in the rush was dirty and as brown as the eroding riverbanks.

Their conversation was overheard, or at least their voices, for Naruto appeared on the other riverbank just as Sasuke found a convenient taper. He was still wearing the horrible red canvas cap. It didn’t fall down even when Sasuke almost slipped at the landing and Naruto had to pull him up quickly to the other side.

Despite the glare he got, Naruto let go only after making sure Sasuke was stable. He grumbled, “Our shift is up.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

“I know that, too.”

Naruto frowned at the lack of sympathy. “Where’s your hat? Your hair is wet.”

Sasuke thought about the orange rag stuffed in his pocket. “I lost it.”

“On purpose?”

Well, it was hideous. He changed the subject, “Sakura will be waiting for us.”

“You’d better go back then and make sure she doesn’t worry too much.”

“While you take on another shift and stay out here to well into the night?” Yeah, no way. Sakura can worry all she wants – back at the inn, safe - if he doesn’t manage to talk Naruto into heading back.

“Yes.” Naruto said simply, as if answering a real question.

“No. If you stay, I’m staying too.”

Sakura wasn’t there for him to use her safety to pressure Naruto into going back. All he had was himself – and anyway, he meant it.

But it failed. Naruto stepped back from him and hissed, “I can’t believe you’re blackmailing me! Just go back – I know you want to! And I’ll come when we find the baby.”

When they find a baby. Like it was a matter of time.

Yeah, it was very hard being in love with someone with martyr complex. And Sasuke wasn’t a very patient person.

He grabbed Naruto’s jacket to keep him in place when Naruto tried to step further away, but instead he pulled him closer. “Do you realize – did it even occur to you that that child is dead? Because chances are, it is.”

“I’m not stupid! Of course I know I could be – it could be… But I don’t know for sure! So I have to look, because it’s just a helpless little baby and I promised!”

Naruto jerked himself free and without looking at Sasuke again, started walking down the riverbank again. There was nothing to do but follow after him. The dark would fall in just a couple of hours. Light was already dimmer – or was that just his imagination?

How did Sasuke’s fat companion jump over the river was a something to wonder about, but he didn’t question it aloud as he looked to find both villagers looking at Naruto walking away with worry.

“We’ll just keep following the river.” Sasuke told them. He wasn’t sure if they will take Naruto’s enthusiasm seriously enough to send another two teams to follow the river or not.

“Make sure you don’t go through your batteries too quickly.” Naruto’s now already ex-partner advised him. “I’m serious, man. If you notice your batteries are getting weak, head back immediately.”

He looked like he was about to say something else, so Sasuke lingered a second. Nothing came out. He nodded and turned to follow Naruto, who was going so quickly he was almost completely out of his sight among the trees.

Naruto wasn’t stupid enough to try to slip away, which was better for both of them, but he pointedly ignored Sasuke at first. The wind picked up, cold and full of rain drops that felt like needles where they touched bare skin. More than ever, Sasuke wanted to stick his hands into his pockets, for warmth. It was impossible, because the grass was getting higher and thicker as they moved and he needed to push it out of his way. It was harder than ever to press forward, but Naruto was looking as if took no effort at all, as if there was something dragging him though the dense, wet bushes.

It wasn’t a result of conscious decision, but as the light dimmed Sasuke found himself walking close enough to hear Naruto mutter under his breath. Once or twice, Naruto thought he saw something, chased forward to get it and then let out bitter disappointment with so much frustration in the form of curses. If there was a way to soothe him, Sasuke couldn’t think of it.

He was too busy convincing himself that there was nothing behind him, anyway. It wasn’t exactly as intense as the feeling of being watched and followed from the previous evening, but his skin was prickling whenever a sound would break though the rumble of the river.

“Fuck.” Naruto finally said loudly, just as Sasuke was trying to blink gray spots out of his eyes, caused by effort to see what was on the other side of a fallen tree trunk. “I don’t see shit.”

He retrieved the flashlight Kakashi gave him and turned it on. It wasn’t night, not quite yet, so Sasuke considered telling him about the warning he’d got. But it was hardly of any use to walk around if they couldn’t see properly and also… with darkness getting thicker, fear was settling at the base of his spine.

Naruto’s flashlight, strong and bright, brought instant relief despite it being able to illuminate properly only a small portion of wet soil and vegetation around them.

Naruto didn’t question Sasuke’s decision not to follow his example, opting instead to stay close. It felt safer – a tiny little bit safer – though Sasuke wasn’t about to deny it to himself when his eye caught a movement on his left and his heart sped up under the surge of adrenalin that he would go back instantly to the inn or their car given half a chance.

The sky soon turned into an endless smudge of ink, except all the way on the horizon where occasionally lightning cut it downward in an ominous promise of a storm.

“How many hours?”

Startled, Sasuke looked at Naruto blankly, “What?”

“How many hours is that kid out here someplace? About twenty four, right? The sun was setting when she – when we pulled over from the road last night.”

“Yes, about twenty four hours. Why?”

Naruto shrugged his left shoulder and found a better angle for the beam of light to reach a dark spot behind a rock. “I don’t know.”

Like fuck he didn’t know. “You’re thinking how low our chances of finding anything are.”

“I was thinking that it wasn’t too late. Twenty four hours isn’t that long.”

“It is for a baby. It could have fallen in the water and drowned – that is, if you can buy that it reached as far as the river.”

Naruto straightened in the middle of the sentence like Sasuke had physically pulled him back from checking a shallow alcove in the muddy bank nearly bare weeping willow. He turned, eyes wide and shocked.

“What the hell? Sasuke, you can’t just say that!”

“It’s true.”

“You can’t say it.” Naruto insisted, franticly waving his hand. “You can’t – you are going to make me think it and then…”

“Good.”

“…I’ll get afraid and sloppy – it’s not good!”

“If you’re going to yell at me like that, is there a way you’d tell me what I can do to make you head back?”

Naruto opened his mouth incredulously. “Well, now that I know you’ve been just waiting for it...”

“Excellent,” Sasuke cut in. Despite the dire circumstances, biting wind and Naruto seething, it was hard not to roll his eyes. It takes a little more that a certain tone of voice to pull off sarcasm. “As I went through the trouble of asking. “

“I’m not going back now!”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Maybe there wasn’t a baby in that car at all!”

“There was – stuff, baby stuff everywhere…”

“And even if there was, it shouldn’t have been possible for it to get out of the car! It shouldn’t have been able to crawl out of our reach in such short time! And its dead mother certainly shouldn’t have been able to get up on the road and jump in front of our car!”

“Don’t you see? That’s just it! If she,” Naruto stopped suddenly and inhaled sharply. His eyes fluttered closed for a moment. He stepped closer to finish, voice softer and eyes pleading, “If she, you know, bothered to stay behind and ask me – ask us to help her baby, then it should be possible. We should have had a chance. We should still have it. She was dead and she…”

Sasuke felt his anger draining. He gritted his teeth, trying to hold on to it forcefully. It shouldn’t be so easy for Naruto to talk him into to doing ridiculous things, to even convince him that they weren’t crazy at all. There was sense in his words Sasuke knew from previous experience will turn out faulty and stupid after he agreed and Naruto stopped looking at him like that.

He squeezed his fists, struggling. His palms were cut in places. His fingers were bruised. It was painful to keep them like that.

It cleared his head.

“You gave her enough. She should have helped more.”

“You think this is enough?” That was a sneer on Naruto’s face, ugly in the odd angle under which the flashlight was illuminating it. His eyes were just huge shadows. “It would take months of wandering about these woods for it to come anywhere near to compete…”

“And here I am, being eternally grateful you pulled me forcefully though all phases of clinical depression with suicidal tendencies by trying to return the favor! Where is your dead woman? Shouldn’t she be holding your hand when you’re trying to save her child?”

“I don’t even want you here! You should be someplace safe!”

That much was true. Or Sasuke just felt drained for acknowledging the thing they never talked about.

“So should you.” He sighed. “You’ve done enough.”

It felt like it was going to stick. It looked like Naruto was letting go… But then he spun on his heel with a growl. The beam of light jumped erratically high above their heads, making Sasuke lose his balance and the sight of Naruto. In the next second, the beam calmed down some and he saw Naruto slipping down. He was just in time to hear the yelp Naruto let out up close and catch him around waist.

It was harder than he expected to hold Naruto up. Sasuke’s shoes were so muddy he was barely keeping his ankles straight to begin with and the sharp descent of the bank was wet and slimy. It wasn’t until he was low enough to sit down and balance himself on his ass that he managed to stop them both from falling right into the river.

Thank God Naruto had enough sense not to struggle.

“Uh.” Naruto said. “Uh. Gross. Cold.”

Sasuke nodded in empathy against his shoulder.

“Man. I think you saved my life.”

“Don’t be stupid. The water’s not deep enough.”

“An ankle at the very least,” Naruto offered. There was a smile in his voice.

Sasuke wished he could see it, but he kept his forehead against Naruto’s neck anyway. For the first time since last night, he was feeling halfway safe. It was slightly intoxicating.

After a second of enjoying the sensation, he said, “You’re sitting on mine.”

“What?”

Sasuke moved his leg a bit, so Naruto would feel it under him. “You are sitting on my ankle.”

“I should get off it, I guess,” Naruto acknowledged. Sasuke tightened his hands around him, but he didn’t try to move at all. “After all, you saved mine.”

The cold wetness reached his senses finally. It was very dark; the only thing Sasuke could see clearly was the line of Naruto’s jaw and the tip of his nose. Where his hand brushed Naruto’s thigh, his jeans were soaked.

“I think your lungs are in trouble, though.”

“Umm?” Naruto asked, sounding absent.

Sasuke pinched the wet material in his fingers. “You will end up with pneumonia if you don’t dry quickly.”

“Oh, that? Hehe. I thought you were groping me for the kicks.” He might have squeezed, or stiffened his back or something because Naruto reacted to the emotion that flared though him. He glanced quickly back at Sasuke. “Er. I’m…”

“Bad timing, that’s all.”

He waited, wondering if Naruto would get that as ‘bad timing’ for jokes like that, or ‘bad time to start something’. It didn’t feel like either breathed for a moment. He felt and heard Naruto swallow before finally answering, “Raincheck?”

Oh. “Yeah.”

It was barely more than a breath, but Naruto heard it, or felt it and turned to face him properly. There was a familiar smile there, one that told Sasuke that he had a real chance to drag Naruto out of the cursed place and someplace warm and safe. Maybe to bed.

But, again, it lasted only a second. Naruto’s eyes slipped off his face to focus on something behind.

“My God.”

He was already starting to get up when Sasuke managed to turn and look. Then he wished he didn’t look - that he’d hit Naruto over his head and dragged him back, that he had never agreed to rent the fucking car and go on this trip in the first place.

She was there. The woman that stopped them on the road. Her hair was motionless despite the raging wind and she didn’t look disturbed by a branch that was swinging just over her head. It was too far away to see on what her eyes were focusing exactly, but Sasuke could feel it. It was a gaze that crept under your skin, spiked your blood with fear until it flooded your heart like that, making it try to break out of your chest. Nothing else suggested that she was dead, not on that distance.

He barely had time to all take that in, when Naruto broke free from his arms. As soon as he moved, she turned and started… walking. Sliding in impossibly huge steps, like skating on ice. Fast, it was so fast it only took two steps before she was gone and Sasuke felt shaken to the bones, frozen.

Naruto, on the other hand, started running. Toward her.

Oh fucking hell. After her. He was running into his own death, the fucking moron.

Fear for Naruto did what fear for himself couldn’t. It broke Sasuke out of his daze. Blood reached his brain again. He took out his flashlight and ran after Naruto, into unknown blackness ahead.

It stretched, the running. Sasuke followed Naruto, fortunately bright enough with his hair and the cap and not too hard to see in darkness. Naruto was following her. She was fast. She was creepy and everything alive in Sasuke’s system was shouting on him to turn back, turn back instantly and run to the opposite direction. Grateful that adrenalin soaked in some of the terror, Sasuke kept running after Naruto, stumbling over things that were and weren’t there, out of breath.

The flashlight in his hands was making wild patterns on the wall of darkness and it wasn’t really helpful. He had neither the will nor the time to turn it off.

Finally, Naruto stopped. He didn’t slow down first, or it didn’t look like it. One moment he was running, the next he was standing still. He spared a short but intense glance over his shoulder for Sasuke before stepping forward carefully.

Sasuke, who managed to catch up but not to regain his breath, followed, finally making a good use of his flashlight.

They were at the source of the river. There was a pond under the thin stream of water coming out of a stone. After all the rain, it looked almost like a small lake. Sasuke turned beam of light, searching for the woman, hoping at the same time with all his might he wouldn’t find her.

Something screeched over their heads. From the tree across the pond, similar screech answered. On instinct and not because he wanted to see, Sasuke turned the light upwards, feeling Naruto creep closer.

It was hard to distinguish anything; the thick branches were black against dark sky. A movement caught Sasuke’s eye and he illuminated that part. It looked like a bird. It was a bird. It was positively huge for one… but it was a bird.

“The hell.” Naruto muttered. “And where is she, did you see her? I lost her.”

“I didn’t see her.” He was just catching occasional glimpses earlier. He didn’t care all that much about her, anyway. He was there because of Naruto.

But as long as he was out there…He started looking for her again, carefully settling the beam of light on one patch of darkness at a time.

Naruto noticed it first. “There, oh God, do you see it?”

Sasuke saw it, though Naruto didn’t wait for him to answer.

They actually did it. They found the baby. It was currently sitting on a branch, over the pond, about ten feet up. It was awake, looking around. It was a child of maybe a bit over a year. It shouldn’t have been possible for it to be up there, it shouldn’t have…

Naruto was walking directly through the pond, determined, but held back by the mighty friction of water anyway. Of course, Sasuke started to follow. Before he made more than two steps, there was that screeching again, high and sickly loud. A shadow – how could he feel it anyway, it was so dark? – flew over his head, lower and lower. It hit Naruto right in his back. It was forceful enough that under any other circumstances, it would have knocked him off his feet. Standing in deep water was the only thing that helped Naruto stay upright.

Sasuke was still pushing forward, terribly slow, when another shadow slipped off a nearby tree. He pointed his flashlight and tried to catch it in flight. It was also a bird - huge and black - like a raven, maybe. He couldn’t tell for sure, because he couldn’t quite catch the sight of bird’s head and beak.

The light scared it off, it seemed. It changed direction. But it just made a circle and then it was flying back. Sasuke wasn’t that far behind any longer, but Naruto started walking again, hips deep into the inky dark water.

“Keep the light on the kid!” He yelled.

Sasuke stopped. The water was reaching maybe to his knees. He wasn’t about to keep the light just on the kid, though – and it didn’t look at all like it was in trouble, despite the place it was sitting on. He pointed the beam on Naruto and a bit above him whenever there was a shadow.

It didn’t even take as much time as Naruto needed to get to the other side until those birds figured out that Sasuke was distracting them and changed tactics. The first one, just like it happened with Naruto, hit him from behind. Sasuke had about enough time to notice the irony of it, what with all the glancing behind in the last twenty-four hours, before he realized that he was on his knees and hands in water. The flashlight sunk under, turning off almost immediately.

The next screech, attached to a shadow, was close enough to make his ears hurt. He was so fucked…

“Sasuke!”

He looked up. Naruto was half way up the tree, but he stopped, looking like he was trying to decide if he should head back to help him.

“Get the baby!” Sasuke yelled back.

There was no need for that much yelling, he was thinking as he attempted to get up. They were not so far from each other, though Naruto’s walking though the pond felt like it lasted forever. Another bird hit him, so hard he was sure it broke his hip and he fell again to the side. He caught the sight of a movement on his right and held his arms up to cover his face. From that angle, he expected to finally feel those doubtlessly horrible beaks.

But it just hit him again. It was a hard hit in the chest. It left him breathless. He struggled to take in some air and hold himself over the surface. They would drown him in the end if he didn’t manage to get out of the water, he realized. While he was trying to back up toward the mud behind him, the fourth hit landed on his shoulder. It gave up and he fell from the sharp stab of pain, face down, right into the water.

Lungs working reflexively, Sasuke inhaled dirty water by accident. The coughing fit was terrible. It hurt like hell and in the middle of it another bird hit him on the head. His eyes were closed already, but even as edges of his consciousness blurred, he was still coughing violently.

He was going to die. Hopefully Naruto got the baby and would manage to escape with it. But Sasuke was about to die.

Just as soon as he thought that, a hand grabbed him and started dragging him up. Sasuke was still coughing. His lungs hurt.

“Sasuke,” Naruto said, sliding them down to the ground. His presence seemed to be keeping the bird at bay; nothing hit him for a blessedly long time. Maybe he had light. “Sasuke?”

“The baby?” He croaked.

“Here,” Naruto said. Something warm pressed against Sasuke’s forearm. “Can’t you hear it? It’s screaming my ears off.”

Sasuke managed to rub some water out of his eyes and look. The baby was really Naruto’s arms. The crying reached his brain finally – the screaming was loud, broken and pained, like it should have been when it was up in the tree, not now when it was safe.

“Turn it off.” He demanded. His head was hurting. He felt sick.

“I wish I knew how.” Naruto said helplessly. “Come on, stand up. We have to go. They – these things don’t seem to want to harm the baby, so they are not really attacking now – but we’d better hurry anyway.”

Naruto, with baby firmly clenched in his left arm, hauled him to his feet.

Sasuke attempted to walk steadily, but he was slow and clumsy. His head was spinning. Naruto had to keep clutching Sasuke’s wet jacket sleeve, just in case he lost his balance.

The birds kept flying in circles over their heads. They only tried to attack once or twice more, but it didn’t do any damage. They obviously lost their drive now that the baby was with Naruto.

Sasuke threw the theories that started forming out of his head, deciding that there would be a better moment to ponder over what exactly happened. One thing was becoming clear – whatever it was that happened to the baby, it wasn’t hurt. Nothing was trying to hurt it.

Once they were back on the part of the river that was familiar, Sasuke started relaxing. Was that pond really where the river was starting? It looked that way. But it could have been a different, smaller river. Or this one had a huge curve ahead, before turning back toward that place.

Not that it mattered.

“Hello! Anybody there?” A voice called.

Naruto answered. Out there, from the direction the voices called, two flashlights flickered in darkness. Naruto yelled that they had the kid, and people hurried toward them. With the light so close, the screeching over their heads was starting to fade. Sasuke looked up, leaning heavily on Naruto.

They were leaving, turning one by one, back and disappearing between brunches. As a beam of light caught one bird in midflight, Sasuke’s knees gave in and he only stayed up because Naruto seemed to have been expecting it and caught him.

But surely not? Ghosts were one thing… Huge birds with human faces were just… impossible. The sort of thing that made a disturbing dream into nightmare. He had a concussion. It wasn’t real.

He had heard of something like it, once. Someplace. Mythology is some distant region? If a child died too young, before it was baptized, it would be buried on unholy ground. Such children were doomed to wander the Earth, often taking a shape of birds and striving to make their flock larger…

“What?” Naruto asked quietly, because the other rescuers had practically reached them.

Sasuke shook his head, regretted it instantly and let the darkness close in on him finally.



He wasn’t unconscious for long. Sasuke was vaguely thinking that maybe he should be embarrassed for fainting, but he couldn’t at the moment. Not when Naruto was making his ridiculous dance of trying to grin in relief and show his worry at the same time. Sasuke didn’t care, anyway – as long as Naruto kept guiding him down the riverbank, even if he didn’t actually need it.

One by one, people were joining their little group. It felt safer by the second. The way seemed much, much shorter now when they weren’t looking under every rock, even if the pain that was cursing though every possible part of his body was making it uncomfortable.

At one point, the locals turned them off the route toward a dirt path where a car was waiting. The rest of the night was gray mist and laughter in the background.

The doctor that was called to see him was nice, but not very competent in Sasuke’s opinion. He insisted that Sasuke should rest for a couple of days… And that was just ridiculous. He was not staying in that town, not a minute longer than absolutely necessary.

Despite their worry, Naruto and Sakura quite agreed with him. They were packing and loading the rented car before it properly dawned.

Sasuke let the two of them finish preparations and make final inquiries with Kakashi about what would now happen to the baby as he got into the backseat. He kept feeling sleepy and sick, but he heard as Kakashi assured them that everything will be fine and wished them a pleasant remainder of their journey.

Sakura got into the driver seat. After a second, the other door opened and Naruto got into the backseat next to Sasuke.

“Here,” He said, folding up his jacket. “You can rest your head here.”

‘Here’ was his lap. Sasuke hesitated just a moment before taking him on it. The backseat didn’t have a headrest. The offer was gold.

He rearranged himself slowly to lie down, facing the front seat. Naruto moved his hair out of his face and then kept going though the strands, carefully avoiding to go anywhere near the nasty bump at the back of his head. Maybe Sasuke wasn’t feeling quite himself yet, but it felt nice. Really nice.

When they were passing the sign that they were leaving town, which Sakura read aloud, Naruto’s hand stilled.

Sasuke asked glancing upward as far as he dared, “What?”

“Oh. I forgot to ask,” Naruto smiled sheepishly down at him, “if it was a boy or a girl.”

The hardest thing in the world, being in love with a martyr. Jesus.

“Sakura,” Sasuke called. His voice was weaker then he wished, mostly because he was quite comfortable and sleepy but he knew she was listening. “If any people covered in blood try to stop you, run them over.”

Naruto protested, but Sakura snorted and accelerated.

end


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