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The Annex Nine

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"They looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate.” William Golding, Lord of the Flies.

 

They called it the Annex.

 

an·nex (noun) a building joined to or associated with a main building, providing additional space or accommodations.

 

There were nine elementary schools in the district that funneled into three middle schools. To allow the kids to have an easier transition into high school the district created the Annex. It housed all the ninth graders. A school dedicated to ninth graders, the Annex, before they transitioned into high school, the main building.

Uchiha Sasuke was the son of the district court judge, Uchiha Fugaku, mother, Uchiha Mikoto, a politician running for re-election. The Uchiha’s were old money. They were blue blood money. They were founding fathers money. Sell your organs on the black market money. Stop at nothing to get what they want money. Send your family into witness protection money. Kill you and make it look like suicide money.

That bred overindulged children with behavioral problems who suffered from narcissism, grandiosity, and egocentrism. Nobody was more affected than Sasuke. He walked down the school hallway with his hands in his pockets. There was a hierarchy of students within the Annex and sitting at the top was Sasuke. He reached the top through fear, intimidation, extortion, and admiration. At least that was what he thought. At least that was how it was before things changed.

“Yo.” Sasuke greeted Suigetsu once he reached his locker. Sasuke began to untuck his white-button up shirt and loosened his tie. He ran a hand through his slicked back hair causing his gelled hair to fall out of place and into his face. His appearance was his mother's doing. “Where’s Jugo?”

“Out sick. You’re on time for once. What gives?”

“My mother decided to bring me to school so she could campaign to the administration.” It was re-election year. Although Mikoto had high approval ratings there was also fear that the new upcomers would usurp her position.

“Awh. So you had no choice.”

“She bitched and moaned the entire car ride. She gave me a headache.”

Sasuke made no moves to open his locker. Instead he leaned up against it and folded his arms. He watched the other students opening their lockers, collect their books, and head to homeroom. He yawned. There was a hum of chatter all around. He was beginning to lose interest when he saw a plump boy waddling down the hallway. He was all alone. Perfect. A cruel smile spread his lips. It was the look of a predator, and suddenly he didn't feel bored anymore.

It was Choji.

The boy who had to get his school uniform specially ordered to fit his lumpy, cellulitis, revolting body. It sickened Sasuke. Made him nauseous. Choji stopped dead in his tracks when he spotted Sasuke. His face drained of all color and his eyes bulged. His breath hitched in his throat, and the hairs stood on the back of his neck. He immediately spun on his heels and began moving away in the opposite direction.

Sasuke wouldn’t let him escape. It was spontaneous. He shoved Choji from behind. He forced his whole weight into the boy, and pushed him forward. It was enough of a shock and impact that Choji tripped over his feet and fell forward. He held out his hands as he collided with the floor in an ‘oof’. He tried to scramble up, but was in panic mode. He became clumsy as if he had forgotten how to move his limbs. It caused his trousers and underwear to slide down and reveal his gluteus maximus.

“You know what I don’t understand, you fat fuck? You get your uniform specially made and yet it still can’t cover your body. Talk about pathetic.”

The students, the bystanders, looked on mortified. They froze unable to intervene and unable to look away. Suigetsu joined Sasuke at his side. The look on Suigetsu’s face was sociopathic. There was a darkness in his eyes, and shadows under his eyes. He kicked Choji in the ribs. Choji yelped. It excited him. There was pleasure deriving from the abuse. He didn’t hold back. He put weight into it. Choji was knocked down on all fours.

“You look like a pig. Why don’t you oink for us? Come on. Oink.” Suigetsu sneered as he kicked Choji again in the ribs. This time Choji curled up into the fetal position began whimpering. He covered his face and head protectively with his hands. “I said oink!” Suigetsu screamed and he went to kick Choji again when a blonde blur appeared.

It was Uzumaki Naruto. Go-fucking-figure.

Sasuke’s eyes widened at the sudden intrusion. Fuck. He should have known Naruto would appear. The only person who was able to subdue Sasuke was Naruto. There was something unwritten between them and whenever Naruto was around he became Sasuke’s kryptonite. Naruto shoved Suigetsu back and stood between him and Choji.

“Leave him alone!”

“Get the fuck outta here this doesn’t concern you!” Suigetsu yelled as he shoved Naruto back.

“Yes it does. Choji is my friend!”

“Shut the fuck up you orphan!” Suigetsu said as he grabbed Naruto by his sweater vest. In turn Naruto grabbed hold of Suigetsu’s wrists. Only instead of looking at Suigetsu Naruto gave Sasuke an accusatory glare. Sasuke stared back for a moment. Holding his gaze. He looked from Naruto to Choji before sliding his hands into his trouser pockets.

“Suigetsu. Enough. I got a headache. Let’s go.” Sasuke interrupted. Without another look he began walking away.

“You’re fucking dead you got that pig-boy?” Suigetsu spat down at Choji who was still curled up in the fetal position. He released Naruto’s sweater, and Naruto released his wrists. Suigetsu gave Naruto a threatening look and followed Sasuke.

“Are you okay, Choji?” Naruto asked as he kneeled down.

“N-naruto?” Choji asked as he uncovered his face. There were tears streaming down. Choji looked fearfully around and when he didn’t see Suigetsu or Sasuke he accepted Naruto’s hand. He was assisted to his feet.

“Want me to walk you to the nurse?” Naruto asked as he released Choji’s hands. He saw that he was shaking. Choji nodded his head up and down.

“I’m going to tell the principal. This needs to end.” Naruto said as he and Choji walked towards the nurse’s office.

“NO!” Choji yelled and he violently shook his head. “It’s only going to get worse!”

“Nothing will change, Choji. They’re going to keep targeting you!”

It only caused Choji to wail. “You can’t! I don’t want that!”

“Okay-okay. I won’t. It’s okay, Choji. You’re alright.” Naruto soothed and he began rubbing Choji’s back. Naruto looked around the hallway and noticing something was off asked. “Where’s Shikamaru? You two normally walk together.”

“He’s out sick.”

Naruto thought back to Suigetsu’s threat to Choji. “I’ll walk you home after school.” Naruto continued to rub Choji’s back all the way to the nurse’s office, and sat with him as he laid down in one of the cots. Naruto straddled the chair and looked at Choji smiling.

“Have you been studying?” Naruto asked eagerly. “Are you ready for the competition?”

“I-I have.” Choji spoke softly. He was curled up on his side. The more he thought about it the more his face brightened up. “Shikamaru and I have been studying together after school.”

“I feel like we’re going to win! It’s seven days away! Final countdown!” Naruto exclaimed.

“April 2nd.” Choji affirmed and nodded his head. “Let’s win.”

“Yeah!”

*****

“Hey!”

A feminine voice exclaimed and a tray of food plopped down next to Naruto at the lunch table. Naruto looked to see Sakura, sporting a pixie cut, sliding into a seat beside him. Sakura who often experimented with hair dye settled on a pastel pink that made him think of the peonies back at the group home. He saw pictures of them from last year. They would bloom at the beginning of April and he was excited to witness it. He nodded his head in greeting.

“I heard what happened to Choji this morning.” Sakura spoke lowering her voice. She looked around the cafeteria with her bottle green eyes expecting to see Sasuke or Suigetsu jumping out to berate her. She saw neither and sighed in relief.

“Mhm. He won’t let me bring it to the attention of the principal.”

“Are you stupid?”

“Huh?”

“I bet the principal already knows. It’s Sasuke we’re talking about.”

“That shouldn’t mean he can do whatever he wants!”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Just because you have some weird voodoo spell over Sasuke that makes you untouchable, us common folk, are subjected to his tyranny.”

“He doesn’t scare me.”

“Nothing scares you.”

Naruto shrugged appearing indifferent. “Anyways. Have you been studying for the competition.”

“Cha! Ask me any biological question on cancer and I’ll answer it!”

“Good! I feel like we’re really going to win.”

Naruto continued eating his lunch. Sakura looked at Naruto’s fraying sweater vest, and his off-white shirt that had the cuff links missing. She saw a hole forming across his collarbone. Her eyes dropped to his worn out sneakers. She swallowed. Her stomach dropped.

“You know. I can buy you a new school uniform.”

Naruto stopped eating and turned to smile at Sakura. “I don’t care what I look like.” Naruto looked down at his clothes and shrugged. “It’s a requirement and it covers my body. It’s good as is.”

“No. I mean. For the Academic Decathlon.” Sakura corrected. She gave him a once over. “I should rephrase. I am going to buy you a new uniform. You can sell it, or return it, after the competition.”

“You don’t have to…”

“I know. I want to.”

Naruto’s face flushed with pink and he turned back to his lunch. He didn’t say anything else.

*****

“I want to confess my feelings.”

Sakura spoke while she changed into her gym uniform. Ino who was changing besides her stopped removing her shirt and stared abysmally back. Sakura caught sight of Ino and turned to her. She was offended. “What’s that look for?”

“Did you fall and break your head? Do you remember what Sasuke did to the last girl who confessed to him?”

Sakura thought about it for a moment and shook her head. “She wrote him a love letter. I’m going to do it verbally.”

“He read her letter to the entire lunchroom!”

Sakura stared back deadpan. “Like I said. I’m going to do it verbally.”

“Listen, you’re my best friend. But you’re not his type.”

“What?!”

Sakura looked down at her body, specifically, her chest. She hadn’t blossomed as much as she’d like. She was barely out of a training bra. She looked at her narrow hips and thin legs. She frowned and ran her hand through her short pixie cut. She looked at Ino’s developing body, her blossoming bosom that was already a solid B, and her widening hips. Sakura knew once Ino’s eczema cleared up she was going to be a natural beauty. If it ever cleared up.

“Don’t be offended. I’m not his type either.” Ino answered Sakura’s unasked question.

“Then who is his type?”

Ino shrugged and finished undressing before pulling on her gym uniform. Sakura sat defeated on the bench. She pulled her knees to her flat chest, and wrapped her arms around her skinny chicken legs. Ino looked down at Sakura and sighed.

“Why are you pouting?” Ino asked as she busted out the Eucerin lotion and began smearing it on the eczema on her arms, hands, legs, neck and cheeks. Her outbreaks were always worse in the winter and this year winter seemed to hold on longer not wanting to give way to spring.

“It’s not fair! Why can’t I be his type?”

Ino looked at Hinata who was behind them and jumped. She had just finished getting into her gym uniform. She was often so quiet she blended into the background. A wallflower. She appeared so quietly at times it was frightening.

“Have you been studying Hinata?” Ino asked acknowledging her presence. It caused Hinata's face to blush and she nodded her head up and down.

“Good. Me too. Naruto said he has a feeling we’re going to win.”

“N-naruto?!” Hinata squeaked and her face turned bright red. She suffered from extreme facial blushing. Idiopathic craniofacial erythema. Any intense feeling immediately caused her whole face to break out into red-red-red. Embarrassment. Stress. Anxiety. Love. Lust. She was read like an open book. She often remained quiet and kept to herself.

“Naruto is the kind of guy where if you confessed I bet he’d date you, Hinata.” Ino spoke as she began pulling her long hair back into a ponytail. Her statement caused Hinata’s face to burn a firetruck red. Sakura looked up. Ino continued to look Hinata up and down before focusing her attention on her bob.

“You need to grow your hair out Hinata that hairstyle isn’t flattering. It makes you look like a boy.”

“Stop teasing her, Ino!” Sakura snapped.

“I’m sorry Hinata. I’m just saying. Naruto’s a pretty popular guy. I’d want to look my best for the person I like. You better confess before someone else snatches him up.”

Hinata touched her hair and looked like she was about to faint.

*****

“Uzumaki is an eyesore. He’s been nothing but trouble since he’s moved here. I want nothing more than to wipe that smug smile off his face.”

Suigetsu commented viciously. He sat on the bleachers fuming. Sasuke, eyes closed, laid on the bleachers with his hands behind his head, and one leg propped up. He remained silent, and Suigetsu wasn’t even sure he was paying attention.

“Piece of shit orphan boy always butting his nose where it doesn’t belong.” Suigetsu muttered. He narrowed his eyes as he watched Naruto playing basketball with the rest of their classmates.

“And you! What’s your deal with always backing off whenever Uzumaki appears?” Suigetsu asked bringing his attention to Sasuke. “Does he have some blackmail against you or something?”

Sasuke opened his eyes and turned to glare at Suigetsu.

“You think some fucked up little orphan has dirt on me?” Sasuke snarled and he pushed himself up.

“Why else do you always run away with your tail between your legs?”

Sasuke turned his attention to Naruto watching as he scored a basket. He watched as Kiba high-fived him.

“I don’t like him. Actually I hate him. I’m just trying to figure out what would make him break.” Sasuke explained and he leaned back. As if on cue Naruto appeared at the bottom of the bleachers. He stared up at Sasuke and Suigetsu who stared down. Sasuke arched an eyebrow.

“Are you going to join us?” Naruto asked.

“Get the fuck outta here!” Suigetsu yelled.

Naruto ignored Suigetsu and kept his attention focused on Sasuke. “Playing basketball seems more fun than sulking on the bleachers. Doncha think, Sasuke?”

Sasuke smirked. He didn’t say anything. He held Naruto’s gaze for a moment before looking away. He hated talking to him. He stood up and walked down from the bleachers. Suigetsu’s eyes bulged at Sasuke’s actions. He watched as Sasuke slammed his shoulder into Naruto’s as he walked past him. Suigetsu held his breath. Sasuke didn’t walk on to the court. Instead he walked towards the boy’s locker room. Suigetsu exhaled and jumped down after him. He shoved Naruto back as he passed. It caused him to stumble but it wasn’t enough to knock him over. Naruto looked like he was going to go after them when Kiba grabbed him.

“You got a death wish or something?” Kiba asked. He still had a handful of Naruto’s shirt in his hand.

“He should participate in class. They both should. They’d probably have more fun.” Naruto commented.

“When are you going to learn that the Uchiha’s play by their own rules? Look I know you moved here the beginning of the school year but leave Sasuke alone.”

“I want everyone included.”

“Hello! Earth to Naruto please join us mortals back down here!” Kiba said and smacked Naruto lightly upside the head. Naruto rubbed his head and took one more look at Sasuke as he disappeared into the boy’s locker room before joining Kiba back out on the court.

*****

Naruto stood in front of his empty gym locker. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Where’s your stuff?” Kiba commented as he peeked over Naruto’s shoulder.

“Gone I suppose. Well, I guess I don’t need to change. I’ll see you in class.” Naruto spoke and left.

“Aren’t you going to shower?” Kiba called out.

“What’s the point of showering if I’m going to get back into the same dirty clothes?”

*****

Naruto entered the classroom and halted. There was a pile of cut fabric on his desk. His eyes moved from the pile of fabric to Sasuke and Suigetsu. They sat on top two desks, snickering. Any other sane student would have left the classroom. Only madmen entered a classroom alone with Sasuke and Suigetsu.

“I don’t have to look far for my uniform. That's good.” Naruto commented out loud. He walked towards his desk unperturbed. He picked up a few shreds of fabric. What was once his sweater he surmised. He felt the fabric with his fingers and exhaled. It didn't seem it but a lot of work went into destroying his uniform and Naruto was impressed.

“If you wanted my attention you could have just asked me.” Naruto spoke and looked up at Sasuke. “I would have given it to you. You didn’t have to do all this.” He held up what was left of his uniform. Everything happened in a flash.

Suigetsu jumped off the desk and swung an arm at Naruto’s face. Sasuke’s eyes widened. It was only a moment. But he saw Naruto smirking. The fist connected with Naruto’s mouth and he was knocked over. He crashed into his desk causing it to tip and fall over. His lip busted open. He could feel the blood trickling down his chin. He could feel the strips of fabric raining down all around him. Suigetsu bent over and grabbed Naruto’s shirt ready to punch him again when he was interrupted.

A voice of authority.

“What are you doing?” It wasn’t just anyone’s voice. It was Sarutobi Asuma. Their Social Studies teacher. Sasuke tensed up as he glared at Asuma. He was upset that they were interrupted. Asuma looked at Naruto, with his busted lip, on the floor up to Suigetsu, standing over him holding his shirt, to Sasuke sitting on top of a desk observing.

“Uzumaki. Follow me.”

Without hesitation. Suigetsu kicked Naruto in the ribs. It caused Naruto to wince in pain. They were both untouchable and Naruto shook his head. Sasuke looked down to see the smirk still on Naruto’s face. He glared at him as Naruto pushed himself into a standing position.

“What are you scheming?” Sasuke asked. He reached out and grabbed Naruto’s arm as he walked by. He didn’t like the way he smirked. It unnerved him. It was as if he was plotting something.

Naruto shrugged. “Nothing.” He pulled his arm from Sasuke’s grasp, moved past Suigetsu and Sasuke, and left with Asuma.

*****

Naruto sat in the uncomfortable wooden chair outside the principal’s office. He wondered if the chair was chosen specifically to make students waiting to see the principal as uncomfortable as possible to set the context. It was all psychological. The door to the principal’s office was cracked. The door didn't click into place, and he could hear the principal speaking with Kurenai Yuhi.

“It’s confirmed. There’s a mono outbreak at school. Nara Shikamaru and Aburame Shino are both confirmed for mono. I’m afraid they won’t be able to compete in the Academic Decathlon. They’re currently being quarantined.”

“Sir, the team needs nine kids to participate!”

“Then you better start looking for two more people for the team.”

“It was hard enough to get nine kids!”

“I have enough on my plate with budget proposals coming up.”

“Don’t you understand it’s going to be televised? It’ll be good publicity for the school!”

“Well, you better find two more kids.”

Kurenai left the principal’s office in a frenzy. Ms. Yuhi was a conventionally attractive woman who had been teaching at the Annex for the past two years. She was still new that she didn’t know all the written and unwritten rules. She had lush curly hair and startling blood red eyes. When Naruto commented on them she stated she wanted to strike fear in men’s hearts so she chose red contacts. Kurenai stopped only when she saw Naruto sitting there. She looked at his busted lip to his gym uniform. Naruto looked up innocently and flashed her a sheepish smile.

“Why are you here?”

“I was fighting.”

“With who?” Kurenai asked and she looked around the main office that was devoid of any other kid. Naruto gestured towards the principal’s office. Changing topics and hoping for the best.

“I overheard you talking to the principal. I think I have two kids who can replace Shikamaru and Shino.”

“Oh?”

“Wanna help me out here?” Naruto asked. Kurenai smirked. “Who sent you down here?”

“Mr. Sarutobi.”

Kurenai snorted and smiled knowingly. “Follow me.” Before the principal caught sight of Naruto he was already up and leaving the office with Kurenai.

*****

Uchiha Sasuke was saltwater.

He was erosive, callous, and unforgivable. With all of that he was still only fourteen years old, and he was no match for Kurenai Yuhi. She was too green, too fresh, too spring. She never experienced Itachi. He hadn’t broken her. She was new to the city and new to the Uchiha name. She sat uncomfortably in his mother’s two thousand dollar armchair. She looked out of place. Like a burlap bag among a Chanel fashion show. The whole room was decorated in Queen Elizabeth aesthetic, and she was a three legged stool. She had just finished explaining to Mikoto about the Academic Decathlon. Emphasizing it was going to be televised, and emphasizing it would be a good publicity stunt for voters to see how studious her child is. On national television. Just think of the voters. Sasuke didn’t want to admit it but she was good, very good. He wondered why she was a teacher in the Annex and not a politician in the senate.

“I’m not doing it!” Sasuke yelled when he saw the look his mother gave when she made up her mind. It was futile. His protests. He should have just kept quiet. He just wanted his opinion to be heard, or at least acknowledged.

“Shut up!” Mikoto barked. She lost her temper and when she caught Kurenai’s shocked expression. She softened. Like a snake in a wool sweater. “You will. It’ll be a great opportunity for both you and me.”

“When is it?” Mikoto asked.

“It begins April 2nd. We’ll leave April 1st.”

“Next Wednesday? During break? Okay. How much to cover his cost?” Mikoto asked as she grabbed her Prada purse reaching in for her Prada wallet. It was a gift from his father. An apology.

“Nothing. The school is covering the cost!”

“Perfect.”

*****

Naruto was putting his coat into his locker when he felt a blow to the side. He was shoved. He caught his balance and spun around to see Sasuke. He was furious and he shoved Naruto up against the locker. His spine connected with the combination lock of the locker next to his. He grabbed a fistful of Naruto’s shirt, ensuring he had a firm hold on him, and slammed his other arm up against his chest. Naruto wasn’t wearing the regulation uniform only a button up shirt that was too small and khaki pants that were too big held up by a belt.

“It was you wasn’t it?” Sasuke yelled.

Naruto seemed unperturbed. He stared at Sasuke.

“What about me?”

“You told Kurenai to sign me up for that stupid geek-a-clon bullshit!”

“You joined the Academic Decathlon?” Naruto asked with an impish smile. “That’s great!” Sasuke was right. It was Naruto. He slammed Naruto up against the locker again. Again his spine collided with the combination lock. He tried not to wince but it was hard when he felt the lock lodge itself between his vertebrae. Sasuke’s eyes went to the bruising around his mouth. He smirked. Suigetsu slugged him good yesterday.

“You’re a deadman!” Sasuke spat. He hated him. He wanted to punch him but he couldn’t bring himself too. He needed something else. Cheap tricks and physical abuse weren’t going to work on him. He needed something else, something deeper, something psychological.

“I can help you study. Wanna meet after school?” Naruto offered. It only angered Sasuke and he shoved Naruto away before storming off. Naruto chuckled as he watched Sasuke sulk away. To Naruto Sasuke was becoming softer, and he was speaking to him more. Even if he was angry or cruel when he spoke. Naruto felt a change.

*****

“Dude. The fuck!” Kiba spoke in disbelief.

It was during the break and they were bundled up in their coats convening in the courtyard. Kiba in a gray hooded parka covered in pins and patches. Sakura was in a startling red toggle duffle coat. Naruto was in an orange puffer jacket. The air was still bitter cold but there was spring in the air. They could all smell it. Among the wetness. A rebirth. It was refreshing.

“Why’d you go and get Sasuke and Suigetsu on the team?” Kiba continued.

“I think it was smart to have Sasuke on the team. He’s smart.” Sakura chirped. Kiba frowned at her. Upset that she wasn’t on his side. “What? He is!” Sakura exclaimed her face flushing.

“Suigetsu is a straight sociopath! How could you invite him knowing how he and Sasuke terrorize Choji?” Kiba defended.

“I think it’ll be good. There’s just miscommunication. I’m sure this will smooth things out and everyone will get along.”

“You need to kill it with the positive bullshit it’s nauseating.”

Naruto only chuckled. “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone got along?”

“I just heard. I think it’s great that Sasuke and Suigetsu have joined!” A high-pitched, energetic, voice filtered in. Lee appeared in the superhero’s pose donning an army jacket. Lee was a beanpole with very bushy eyebrows and a bowl haircut. The only one to rival Naruto’s positivity was Lee. When the two were together, it was hard to argue with them. Kiba rolled his eyes and Sakura nodded her head in agreement.

“Plus we’ll be hanging out with Sasuke!” Lee exclaimed excitedly and closed his hands into fists. It was no secret that Lee admired Sasuke. He tried to mimic Sasuke’s mannerism and it was laughable.

“I bet Sasuke is really soft and sweet under that cool exterior.” Sakura hypothesized.

“Yes!” Lee joined in. “The kind who would rescue a kitten and feed it behind the school.”

“And he names the kitten 'Mr. Mittens', and he grows so attached that he ends up adopting him!” Sakura spoke. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes dilated.

“Mr. Mittens misses his mother so Sasuke wears cat ears!” Lee spoke as he pantomimed cat ears on top of his head. Sakura squealed envisioning Sasuke in cat ears and jumped up and down.

“Guys! No. We’re against Sasuke.” Kiba tried to interrupt.

“I’m pro-Sasuke!” Sakura argued and Lee nodded his head. "Me too!"

Kiba shook his head in disbelief. He looked at Naruto who watched in delight. “If anything happens on this trip it’ll be your fault so prepare to take responsibility.”

“Aye-aye, Captain.” Naruto beamed.

“Oy! I just heard Sasuke and Suigetsu joined the team?” Ino’s voice rang out. They all turned to see Ino and Hinata walking up. Ino was in a retro puffer jacket and scarf, and Hinata in an ivory peacoat with fur lining the hood.

Kiba stared at Naruto’s smile and watched him silently. He turned to look at Sakura and Lee entering deep fantasy, and then back at Naruto. They weren’t always like this. This group wasn’t formed until Naruto moved here and brought everyone together. Before. There was a coldness. Like frostbite. Once Naruto entered the school everything began to thaw. He thought back to Sasuke. Kiba knew that Sasuke sensed something within Naruto, and he wondered if that was the reason he often avoided Naruto.

Kiba remembered when he first saw Naruto. It was the first day of school. He was a nobody, and worse a new kid. It was during lunch. Sasuke decided to read a love letter in front of the whole cafeteria. The girl who had written the note was crying. Naruto appeared and grabbed hold of Sasuke’s wrist. He stared into Sasuke’s eyes and began to lecture him. Naruto took the letter from Sasuke’s hand, and took hold of the girl’s hand, and pulled her from the cafeteria. Kiba sensed it then. The reign of Sasuke was being threatened, was being challenged by a new student.

*****

“Mom!” Sakura shouted from her bedroom. She was rummaging through her dresser and vanity table. “Mom!” Sakura shouted again this time more anxious. “Mom!”

“What?”

“Did you see Nana’s earrings anywhere? I can’t find them!”

“Did you check the bathroom medicine cabinet?”

Sakura perked up and raced to the bathroom. She threw open the medicine cabinet and inside found the earring case. Teardrop emeralds with a lever backdrop. She did a happy dance and set out to put them into her ears. She caught sight of herself in the reflection. She touched and examined her face for any pimples or blackheads that were budding. She didn’t find any. She breathed into her hand and smelled her own breath. It smelled fresh. She turned back to her reflection and smiled.

Ino was right. She recommended that because she had such a strong face and features she’d look better in a pixie cut. 'Manic pixie dream girl', Ino said.

“Oh these earrings, Sasuke?” Sakura spoke out loud and her fingers brushed to her ears. “You think they’re beautiful? Thank you.” She squealed and jumped up and down.

“What’s that? You want to sit next to me while we travel through the mountains? Okay. What? You want to hold hands?” Sakura fantasized. Her face flushed pink and she mocked modesty. “I think that will be alright.”

“Who are you talking to?” her mom appeared from behind her. Sakura caught her reflection in the mirror and her pink face turned red as blood rushed to her face.

“Nobody mom! Don’t just barge in!”

“It was open. Are you all packed?”

“Mhm!”

“What are you wearing? Nuh-uh. Go change you are not wearing that out of the house!” Her mother caught sight of her outfit. She was wearing a babydoll dress and thigh-high socks.

“Mom!”

“Go change or you’re not going!”

“All you want to do is ruin my life!” Sakura cried out as she stormed past her mother, and into her room, slamming the door behind her.

*****

Kiba had a tootsie-pop tucked in his cheek. He was sitting cross legged in his gamer chair. He was in the bottom ten in single-player mode. He was going for that victory royale. Going for that capital W. His mother popped his head in his bedroom.

“You’re going to be late. The van is going to leave without you.”

“Ah mom! You’re distracting me.”

He was taken out. He watched his character’s death on the screen and all his items fell over character's lifeless body. He sighed. He pulled the tootsie-pop from his mouth and glared at his mother.

“You killed me! Do you hear me woman? YOU KILLED ME!”

“Stop being so dramatic. Come on I warmed the car up.”

*****

Hinata was waiting patiently outside her home. She jumped when she saw her cousin, Neji, walking across the courtyard. They were within the walls of the Hyuga Clan compound. He was scowling at her. His eyes cold and lifeless. He looked around and found that they were alone.

“You’re such a fucking joke. I don’t know why you want to bring down the whole team. You’re pathetic, and you’re going to fail miserably.”

Hinata clasped her hands together and looked down. She didn’t say anything. She knew better than to talk back. It was safer to remain silent.

“It would be better if you never returned.” With those words Neji walked down the cobblestone path to his house. She swallowed the painful lump that had formed in the back of her throat. Her eyes glossed over in tears. She willed them not to fall. She wasn't going to be a hindrance to the team.

“Hinata-sama, are you ready to go?”

She looked up and saw her uncle getting out of the car. She wasn’t expecting to see her uncle. Her father said he was going to bring her. She looked around the courtyard. She didn’t see him anywhere.

“What’s wrong? You look like you’re about to cry.”

“Nothing.”

Hinata spoke. She grabbed her suitcase and walked towards the car. Her uncle gave up on giving Hinata excuses to why her father was never around. She didn’t know why she kept clinging to hope that he was going to show up. She knew why. This time her father had promised...he promised he'd see her off. Her chest hurt and another lump formed in the back of her throat only this time she couldn’t swallow it.

*****

Ino was sitting cross-legged on the floor. She had just finished applying the second coat of nail polish. She bought it because she loved the name. 'Teal the Cows Come Home'. OPI. She was blowing on her nails when she heard a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened to reveal her dad. He was dressed in his work uniform. He looked down at her as she continued blowing her nails.

“You almost ready?”

“Yeah. Just waiting for my nails to dry. Do you think if I used a hair dryer it’d dry faster?”

“Try it.” Her dad said with a shrug of his shoulder. Ino stood up and turned the light on in the adjoining bathroom. She took her hairdryer that was plugged in and turned it on low, and positioned it to cool. She held it up to her nails.

“Are you nervous?” Her dad asked.

“Nah. You know how good I am with numbers.” Ino spoke confidently. It caused her dad to laugh. She looked at her dad from the corner of her eye. Spotting the uniform. “Are you going back to work after you drop me off?”

“Yeah. I’m doing another double.”

“Mom gets mad at you because you spend more time at work than you do with her. Since I’ll be gone you guys should spend time together.”

“Are you giving me relationship advice?”

“I don’t want you guys to divorce. It’ll be too stressful. Well. I guess I could get two birthdays and two Christmas’.”

“Hey!”

“Now. Who would I want to live with?” Ino continued.

“Okay-okay! I’ll take her out on a romantic date!”

“Good! You better go all out. Flowers, candy, a diamond necklace.”

Her dad laughed again. It was a genuine laugh. It softened the stress lines on his face and he looked younger. She preferred her dad laughing which was why she teased him so much just so she could see him laughing. It relieved her.

“What about you. Any guy you like? I need time to prepare if my teenage daughter is going to date.”

Ino’s eyes flickered to the side when he said ‘any guy’. She rolled her eyes. “Dad!”

“Alright-alright. Let me know when you’re ready!”

*****

“I don’t want to go.” Choji confessed. He sat at the kitchen table and held the corded phone to his ear. He was anxiously eating a bag of potato chips. He was stress eating the whole morning dreading the clock as time passed. The closer he got to departure the more his anxiety and fear welled up. The phone cord was stretched and twirled around itself. He was speaking to Shikamaru. He wanted him to say it was okay if he stayed home instead he was convincing him to go.

“You can’t let your efforts go to waste. Plus you need to make up for me not being there. You’re an important piece.”

Choji didn’t answer. He bit his lower lip. Silence settled over them like dead air. Choji wasn't even eating anymore. He stared off into space.

“Naruto won’t let anything happen to you.” Shikamaru continued breaking the silence. Trying to reassure him.

“Naruto was the one to invite them!” Choji spoke angrily.

“I’m sure he had his reasons. He’s a good guy. I trust him.”

“He’s okay...but he isn’t you.”

“I’m sorry Choji. I didn’t want to get mono.”

“I wished I got mono instead.”

“No you don’t! It’s awful. I’m using all my strength just to talk to you.”

“What if they hurt me?”

“Naruto won’t let that happen. I’ll be tuning in to watch you. Make me proud okay?”

“Okay.”

“Call me when you get to the hotel.”

“Okay. Bye, Shikamaru.”

“Bye.”

*****

“Lee! Please turn the music down!”

Lee was in his bedroom. He was wearing a long-haired blonde wig. It was tangled and reached his chest. He was shirtless and in his boxers. They were white with red hearts all over. They were his lucky boxers. He was playing Guitar Hero and singing to Europe’s 'The Final Countdown'. He was belching the lyrics out with gusto. He tapped into his inner 80’s hair band vocalist. He was getting pumped. It was his faborite hype song. The song he listened to before going to school, before taking a test, and it would be the song he listened to before he asked Sakura out.

“Lee!”

He thought about it, and he decided to confess his feelings after the competition. He had believed Naruto’s words when he said they’d win. After they received their award he was going to confess. He felt his blood pumping through his veins. He felt energized. He felt alive. He felt confident.

“Lee! Please! The neighbors are complaining!”

*****

“You better not embarrass me.” Mikoto said as Sasuke reached the foyer. His mother was dressed in a navy blue skirt with a matching dress jacket. Her hair was fastened up in a bun and she had a flag pin on the collar of her jacket.

“Do you understand me? You embarrass me and I will ship you off to military camp. It’s election year. Any scandal no matter how small could be the end for me.”

“Did you tell father that? He’s still fucking the maid.” Sasuke spoke venomously. Mikoto slapped him across the face. Sasuke’s eyes watered up from the impact. He felt his cheek stinging and he could feel the outlining of her hand print welting up.

“I was going to drop you off but with that attitude. I’ll call you a taxi.”

Mikoto walked away, and all Sasuke heard was the click-clicking of her heels against tile growing quieter and quieter until he couldn't hear her anymore.

*****

“I’m going to be late.”

Suigetsu spoke from the door frame. There was a hitch in his voice. He witnessed his father on top of a nameless whore. Both were coked out of their minds. His eyes shifted to the table. There were packets of white powder, razors, mirrors, and stacks of money on the table. Benjamins. Grants. Jacksons. All on the ivory table.

“Then you better shut up and let me finish. You’re lucky I even agreed to send you. Now get your ass out of here or I’ll whip you!”

Suigetsu rolled his eyes and went outside to wait.

*****

“Naruto you’re late! I was just about to call your house!” Kurenai scolded as she saw Naruto running up.

“Sorry…It was chaotic this morning. I’m here.” Naruto spoke breathlessly. He looked around and smiled. He followed Kurenai to the back of the ten passenger van. She opened up the trunk for him to store his backpack. As soon as she opened it a shovel fell out. He bent over and picked it up.

“What’s this for?”

“The ground's keeper left it. I should have half a mind to just leave it behind. But I don’t want them to take the cost of a stupid shovel out of my paycheck.” Kurenai complained. She watched as Naruto put the shovel back in the van along with his backpack. She looked back at the kids.

Everybody was in the middle of an argument on seating arrangements that they hadn't recognized Naruto's arrival.

“Hurry up and decide we’re already behind! It’s a four hour drive through the mountain pass! And another two until we reach our destination.” Kurenai yelled at them.

“Where do I sit?” Naruto asked and all eyes turned to him, and balked, before resuming their argument. He had missed the last twenty minutes of everyone arguing. He looked around. Well not everyone was involved in the argument. Hinata and Choji were on the sidelines observing. Neither cared where they sat. He joined Choji and Hinata.

“Naruto do something!” Kurenai chastised. They apparently weren’t paying any attention to her.

“How can I help?”

*****

Everybody begrudgingly settled on a seating arrangement.

There were two rows of three seats and in the back of the van there was a row of two seats. In the first row sat Kiba, Hinata, and Choji. The middle Lee, Sakura, and Ino. The last row sat Sasuke and Suigetsu. Naruto was sitting in the passenger seat. The co-pilot. He was holding Kurenai’s GPS that was on and was assisting in helping her navigate. She couldn't get the GPS to stay on the window or the dashboard so she forced Naruto to hold on to it. They were snacking and drinking and talking, and forty minutes into into their drive there came a protest from the back.

“I’M GOING TO PUKE! PULL OVER!” It was Suigetsu’s voice. Kurenai pulled over and everyone filed out. Suigetsu bent over and sure enough he emptied his stomach onto the pavement. Suigetsu’s face was a greenish-yellowish.

“Why didn’t you tell me you got carsick?” Kurenai asked Suigetsu.

“I didn’t know! Your driving is what is making me sick.” Suigetsu accused.

“Take some dramamine and move to the passenger seat. Naruto switch places with Suigetsu. Let’s hurry. It looks like it’s going to rain.”

Everyone looked up at the darkening sky. It was menacing looking. It resembled the sky from the movies right before a natural disaster. Everybody filed back into the van. The only difference was Suigetsu was in the passenger seat and Naruto was in the back sitting next to Sasuke. The journey continued. Raindrops fell as they pulled back onto the winding road through the mountain.

Naruto pulled out flashcards and held them up to Sasuke. He was smiling and Sasuke looked at the flashcards to Naruto’s smile.

“Wanna look at these?” Naruto asked.

“No. Don’t talk to me.”

“Isn’t this what you wanted?”

“What?!”

“Me sitting next to you?”

“Shut up! No it isn’t!”

Naruto shrugged and tapped Lee on the back. “Lee let’s quiz each other with these flashcards. The first one to answer twenty correctly wins.”

“Alright!”

*****

The novelty of an adventure wore off. The rain came down harder. It sounded like bullets against the roof of the van. Naruto felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep. He could sleep through anything. It was a running joke at the group home. He was caught somewhere in the middle of consciousness and unconsciousness. Suspended. Maybe he had drifted off into sleep. When everything changed. First the van served violently to the left. Then came a scream. His eyes opened abruptly. He didn’t know who the first to scream was. He thought it sounded like Kurenai. The van had careened off the road and plummeted through the air. What came next was indescribable. It felt like a nightmare. It was the sound of blood curdling screaming. It was the sound of metal crunching and twisting. It was the sound of glass shattering. It was the sound of the van rolling over, hitting trees, and falling deeper off the side of the mountain.

Naruto felt his head slamming against something and then all that greeted him was darkness.

Chapter Text

“The thing is - fear can't hurt you any more than a dream.” William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Naruto was seated on stage behind a table with their school’s banner hanging across the front.

The burgundy curtains were drawn back, and he could see the lights set up at the edge of the stage shining back at him. It caused the audience to be shrouded in darkness. He wasn’t able to see them. What he was able to see were the line of cameras placed at the base of the stage. The news logos were smeared on both sides and all cameras were propped up on tripods and focused. Pointed at the contestants on stage. All three teams were present and ready. He felt a whirling sensation in his stomach. He felt the excitement. They were finally here.

He looked to his left and saw Sakura. She was wearing a golden shirt with it’s collar popping out of her emerald sweater. She flashed him a toothy smile and wrinkled her nose at him. His eyes moved to the teardrop emerald earrings. The light caught them and reflected off causing it to sparkle. Sitting on the other side of Sakura was Choji. He wore a white button up shirt and starch pressed collar with the school’s insignia across his breast pocket. Black suspenders and an emerald and gold striped tie. He looked like a deer in headlights. His pupils were pinpricks and Naruto could see beads of sweat forming on his temple. Choji stared out, unblinking, into the audience. He looked down and saw Choji’s hands were trembling.

“Choji.” Naruto whispered and it caused him to turn and look at him. “You’re going to do fine. You’ve got this!”

Choji nodded his head. Sakura also turned to Choji and agreed. “You’ve studied so hard Choji now’s the time to show the world what you’re made of!”

“Plus Mrs. Yuhi said after the competition she’s taking us out for Korean BBQ!”

Naruto saw stars in Choji’s eyes and his face brightened. He smiled, licked his lips, and nodded his head up and down.

“See.” Sakura spoke and she lightly pushed her shoulder up against Naruto’s. He looked at her and caught her eyes staring at his uniform. “I told you it’d look good on you, especially since we’re going to be on TV!”

Naruto felt his face flush and he looked down at his uniform. It was brand new, not secondhand and donated by a previous student like his other uniforms. He wore an emerald and gold V-neck jersey sweater that fit him perfectly with the school’s insignia across his right breastbone.

“I’m returning it once we get back.” Naruto confessed. He didn’t want to admit, he liked it, and thought it looked good on him, but it was something he could never accept. He knew the prices of a new school uniform and they often entered the three digits. Plus tax. It was the most expensive thing he had ever worn and he wanted nothing more than to take his clothes off.

“Isn’t anyone going to acknowledge me or am I just chopped liver?” Kiba interrupted.

He was sitting on Naruto’s right. Dressed in a short-sleeved golden shirt underneath an emerald sweater vest. Naruto looked up at Kiba’s face and gasped. He shoved himself backwards and knocked into Sakura, practically sitting in her lap, as he tried to move away. The left side of Kiba’s face was peeled off as if he was partially scalped. Layers of yellow fat oozed against exposed ligaments and bone. Shards of glass were sticking out of his face. He could see the muscles attached to his jaw and parts of his molars peeking through the chunks of flesh that was scraped off and missing.

“Naruto! Get off me!” Sakura cried out as Naruto stared mortified at Kiba. He turned to look at Sakura. There was a large gash on her head and fresh blood poured down her face, neck, and stained her shirt. His eyes craned to the side to see Choji was falling backwards in his chair. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he began convulsing upon hitting the stage floor. White foam filled his mouth and rolled down the sides of his face.

“What’s the matter?” Sakura asked. He stood up and stumbled back. “Naruto?”

“NARUTO! WAKE UP!”

He opened his eyes. His vision was blurry and the back of his skull was pulsating. He saw bubbles of black and gray across his vision. At first it sounded like he was underwater. Everything was muffled and distorted. Someone was calling his name. Naruto...yes that was him. He was straining to understand who was calling his name until he felt hands on his face.

“NARUTO!”

He blinked again and everything shifted back into focus. He saw Sasuke’s face inches from him. That’s when his ears unplugged and everything came crashing down and he was struck with a cacophony of sound. He heard the screaming and crying. It was a mixture of voices he recognized and didn’t. It sounded animalistic. Wounded. The next thing he noticed was that he was hanging upside down. He could feel the blood rush to his face and pooling at the top of his skull.

He felt dizzy and nauseous.

Sasuke was right side up. He had unbuckled and was crouching on the roof of the van staring at him.

“Are you awake?” Sasuke asked. All Naruto could do was nod his head. Like an invalid. His brain felt scrambled. Felt full. It felt like something was missing. Pieces were missing. Parts of his memory gone. “Unbuckle and help me! We need to get out of here!” Sasuke was giving him instructions, but Naruto wasn’t able to comprehend. He stared blankly back. Sasuke rolled his eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. “Get it together!” He felt someone’s hand reach for his buckle and pressed the button. He heard the clicking sound. It immediately unhooked the buckle and the seatbelt pulled back causing him to fall down. Sasuke caught him before his head slammed against the roof of the van.

“I need you right now Naruto! Get it together!” It was Sasuke’s voice again. It was like he was calming the rush of panic in his voice.

“What...happened?” Naruto asked. He was able to form sentences. He was able to communicate.

“We were in a car accident.”

That was...impossible. They were on their way to the competition. This was just a nightmare, and he was going to wake up. It was nothing but a stress dream. He had fallen asleep in the van and it was nothing more.

Naruto looked around the interior of the van and things weren’t right. Everything was wrong. It looked like an accordian. Scrunched up. Upside down. Metal twisted and contorted. Pieces and parts of the van were missing. The doors were open and people were missing. Even if he wanted to he couldn’t move to the front of the van. He was cut off. The roof had caved in like someone hammered the roof until it was dented, and metal prevented him from leaving the backseat. He heard someone screaming for help from the front of the van, but he couldn’t see who it was.

“I need you to help me open the door!” Sasuke demanded and he grabbed Naruto’s arm and squeezed him to get his attention.

He turned to see Sasuke’s other hand resting on the door handle of the trunk. A safety lock built to be able to open up from the inside. In case of an accident. A child accidentally locking themselves inside. Naruto turned around and when Sasuke pulled the handle he jammed his shoulder up against the door. He did it again, and when Sasuke jammed his shoulder up against the door at the same time the door gave way and opened up. Releasing them out into the world. Freeing them. Sasuke was the first to crawl out. It took Naruto a second but he breathed in the cool wet air that wafted in from the outside, and slowly crawled out.

He stood up and his knees felt weak and his legs felt wobbly like a newborn fawn. What he saw outside the van wasn’t any better than what he saw inside the van.

It was utter chaos.

He felt someone running into his arms and he felt a warm body enclose around him in a hug. It took a moment to recognize it was Sakura. She was sobbing uncontrollably. He looked around. Taking in the details beginning with looking up. It was still raining, but there was a canopy of thick trees, branches, and leaves above them that took the bulk of the damage from the storm, and the rain only trickled down on them. He felt the raindrops hitting his face. It was still icy cold. The trees were so thick he couldn’t see how far up they had fallen. It was as if they were swallowed up and the branches and leaves moved back to its rightful place hiding them from view.

Sakura wouldn’t let go of him. He saw Lee doubled over on all fours. He had cuts all over his face. He saw part of Lee’s left arm jacket was ripped, shredded, and smeared in blood. On the ground beside him was a shard of glass half covered in blood. He probably pulled it from his arm.

Ino was sitting down. Her legs drawn up and both hands covered her ears. She was violently shaking her head, rocking back and forth, and repeating. “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.” A broken record. Naruto saw half her nose was swollen and blood dripped down covering her mouth and chin.

He saw Choji on his back. He was convulsing. His limbs moved in all directions as if someone stepped on him and neurons were firing off indiscriminately. It looked sickening like a dying tarantula. His mouth filled up with white foam and he could hear choking noises coming from the back of his throat. Naruto could see his face had taken on a bluish tint. Something clicked. The wires connected and suddenly Naruto was aware. He pulled back from Sakura.

“I need to help Choji!” Naruto said sternly at Sakura’s crying face.

She let go of him and he rushed to Choji. He was having an epiletic seizure and choking on his own tongue. He grabbed one of Choji’s arms and pushed it across his chest, before rolling him onto his side. He was heavy, and it was difficult but he did it. Immediately the foam and saliva rolled out of his mouth and onto the group. He heard a rushing noise and the choking noises stopped. He heard the screaming coming from the van. There was recognition. It was Kiba. He saw Hinata on all fours with one hand moving through a hole inside the van.

“Sakura! I need you to watch Choji!” Naruto commanded. He focused his attention on her. She was standing a few feet away sobbing, and watching him. Once she heard Naruto’s voice, saw his eyes, she nodded her head. She rushed to sit in the same position Naruto had taken and Naruto was standing up. “Make sure he stays on his side!” Naruto continued, and Sakura nodded her head again. She was still sobbing but had the wherewithal to follow instructions.

“What’s going on?” Naruto asked as he slid alongside Hinata. “Are you okay?”

She looked relatively okay. Her hair was wild as if she went through a wind tunnel and she had superficial bumps and cuts on her face and neck. Naruto saw the outline of a bruise forming on her neck where the seatbelt once was. There was fear and shock in her eyes but she didn’t appear to have any overt, life threatening, wounds. He watched as her face turned a deep crimson and she pulled her hand back from inside the van. She looked down and so didn’t Naruto. Her hand was covered in blood, but it wasn’t hers. Naruto’s eyes widened. He heard the screaming of agonizing pain coming through the hole.

“PLEASE GET ME OUTTA HERE!”

“Kiba!” Naruto called and he peered through the crushed hole that was once a window. He saw Kiba. He was sitting behind the driver’s seat. There was a collision and whatever happened caused the driver’s side to implode on itself and everything pushed back. The van was warped around Kiba’s body. Cementing him in. He wasn’t able to move. Kiba remained suspended upside down. His legs stuck beneath the driver’s seat that had rammed up against his knees and legs. Naruto’s eyes lowered to see the source of Kiba’s bleeding. There was a piece of metal jutting into Kiba’s side.

“Naruto...help me!” Kiba called out when he caught sight of Naruto. “Get me outta here!”

“I’m here. I’m going to help you! Hold on!”

“Naruto please hurry!”

Naruto pushed himself up. He wasn’t able to get to Kiba from this angle. He thought back to the back of the van. It was impossible to reach the middle part of the van from that way either. He ran to the front of the van. It was teetering on its roof. The driver’s side was completely obliterated. His eyes moved to the windshield. He saw the two airbags had deployed. His eyes moved to the passenger side. Suigetsu was missing. His heart plummeted. He had a sickening image of Suigetsu’s body being pulled from the van as it careened down. Naruto looked around and sighed in relief. Miraculously Suigetsu was standing besides Sasuke.

“NARUTO?” Kiba called out.

“I’m here!” Naruto answered.

His knees felt weak. He didn’t see Kurenai. He didn’t hear her. Instead of going through the windshield he noticed the passenger door was open. Naruto brushed the shattered glass away the best he could before crawling through the passenger door. He stopped. That’s when he noticed. Kurenai’s body was contorted. Her skull was bashed in and her fractured neck bone was ripping through the skin. Her head lulled. She was nearly decapitated. The neck snapped in two. Blood dripped down and pooled on the roof.The front of the van had crushed her. Naruto could see the brain matter oozing through her hair and cracked skull. She was already dead. Her eyes were half-open and he could see the whites of her corneas.

“Naruto?” Kiba called out.

“I’m coming!”

Naruto pushed past Kurenai and moved to the first row of seats. He reached out and he felt Kiba’s hand enclosing around his when he stood up on his knees. Kiba remained upside. One hand was pressing up against the roof and the other held onto Naruto’s hand.

“Naruto!”

“I’m here. I’m here.” He reassured and positioned his body so he could better see.

“Okay...let’s see…” Naruto spoke out loud. He looked to see that the driver’s seat had jammed back onto both of Kiba’s legs preventing him from leaving. He needed to move the seat if he wanted to free Kiba. He looked to the metal that had dislodged from the window and entered Kiba’s body. He wanted to lift his coat and shirt up to assess the damage but he didn’t want to put more stress and fear on him.

“I think I know what needs to happen. We have to move the seat up to get you out.”

“Okay!”

“I’m going to need help. I’ll be right back.”

“No! Don’t leave me!” Kiba cried out refusing to let go of Naruto’s hand.

“Hinata?” Naruto called out and her head popped through the small hole. He was relieved. She was still there. “See Kiba? Hinata’s here. You’re not alone. I need to get help so we can get you out of here.”

“O...okay.” Kiba’s voice was hesitant but he let go of Naruto’s hand.

Naruto rushed up to Sasuke and Suigetsu stating breathlessly. “I need your help!”

It was the first time he saw Sasuke clearly. It was dark in the back of the van. Like Hinata he didn’t appear to have any overt wounds. A few scratches here and there but nothing serious. Nothing life threatening. Naruto was beginning to see a pattern. Those sitting alongside the driver’s side were the most impacted. Kiba, Lee...and Naruto. They had lined up one by one along the driver’s side.

The only outlier was...Suigetsu.

Suigetsu had larger scrapes. He had gashes alongside his face, shoulder, and arm that looked to be caused by the shattering of glass from both the windshield and passenger window. He was bleeding. The cuts were deep and he was trying to stop the bleeding. He was ignoring Naruto.

“With what?” Sasuke asked.

“I need you to help me get Kiba out of the van.”

“NO! I’m not going back in there!” Sasuke yelled and he backed away from Naruto.

“Sasuke please!” Naruto begged.

“NO!”

“You needed me back in the van and now I need you!”

“I needed you to help me get out of the van. I don’t need you anymore! I’m not going back in there!”

Naruto was moving closer to Sasuke when he stopped. His words stung. He looked into Sasuke’s eyes. There was fear swirling around. He was in shock. He was running on pure adrenaline. And Naruto knew no amount of coaxing and convincing was going to reach Sasuke and convince him to help. Naruto didn’t say anything else. He turned back around. He needed help. He needed someone to help him.

Choji had regained consciousness. He stopped convulsing and was now laying on his back his head was resting in Sakura’s lap. Naruto only witnessed one other seizure Choji experienced and he was out of commission for a while when he came to. Sakura needed to continue to look after Choji.

Ino was still rocking back and forth. Only this time she had wrapped her arms around her legs and buried her face into her knees.

“Lee!” Naruto cried out as he reached Lee. He was balancing on all fours and panting.

“How are you?” Naruto asked as he rested a hand on his shoulder. His eyes looking at the cut that had sliced through the fabric of his jacket, shirt, and flesh. Lee nodded his head. Although his left arm was soaked in blood he pushed himself back into a sitting position so he could better see Naruto.

“I’m okay…” Lee answered. Naruto nodded his head gratefully.

“I need your help, Lee. I need help getting Kiba out of the van.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Lee stood up and followed Naruto back to the van. Hinata remained diligently on her knees. Her arm was back through the hole. She was holding Kiba’s hand and talking to him. Naruto looked back at Lee looking him over again. He appeared to be conscious and aware.

“What happened?” Lee asked. Naruto didn’t know how to answer. He didn’t want to explain that they were in a car accident. Instead he shifted the conversation to focus on Kiba.

“Kiba’s trapped upside down. The driver’s seat is pushed up against his legs preventing him from leaving. We need to move the seat.” Naruto explained as he lead Lee to the passenger side door. He crouched low and paused. His heart thumped inside his chest. When he remembered. He turned to Lee who mirrored his position. Naruto held either side of Lee’s head with his hands.

“I need to tell you something before we go inside.”

Lee’s eyes widened but he didn’t pull away. He remained still. His eyes locked with Naruto’s. Blood was smeared across Lee’s cheek. It wasn’t from a cut. It was transfer blood from his arm. Naruto’s thumb rubbed the blood off.

“Mrs. Yuhi is dead.”

Naruto watched as Lee’s pupils shrank to pinpricks. His bottom lip trembled and water glossed over his eyes. Naruto held on to Lee’s face. He was gentle. His voice was soft. Lee was still present. He hadn’t run away screaming.

“Lee. I need you right now. What you’re going to see is shocking. But just keep looking at me. I’m going to have you go in first. Don’t look at the driver’s seat. Keep your eyes on the ground and move back to where Kiba is. Okay?”

Lee nodded his head up and down. His bottom lip still quivering. He was still in it with Naruto.

“Eyes down, got it?” Naruto repeated and he released his hold on Lee. After Lee crawled in Naruto re-entered the van.

“Finally! Hurry up and get me down!” Kiba cried out ecstatically upon seeing Lee and Naruto.

“Hold on. I need to reach the lever.” Naruto called back.

He was unable to tear his eyes away from Mrs. Yuhi. Her mouth was agape. He pushed back the airbag and his eyes looked up again. The engine was practically in her lap.The whole front of the van rammed itself up against her. Her knees were shattered. They had to be. Naruto moved his hand up and through her legs. He could feel his hand up against her leg. He moved around until he found the lever underneath the driver’s seat. The angle was awkward. He wasn’t going to be able to move it with one hand. He moved his other hand down the same path until both hands were secured around the lever.

“Lee! When I say go I’m going to need you to push the seat up with all your strength!” Naruto commanded. He knew the seat wouldn’t budge by much. It had nowhere to go. He could see that. But he hoped it was enough to have Kiba slip through. He had to try! Naruto wrapped his fingers around the lever and pulled.

“GO!”

Naruto pulled on the lever with all his strength. He jerked his body into it and grunted. It barely budged.

“Lee?” Naruto called back.

“I’m pushing!” Lee called back. Naruto released his hands. Maybe they should both push from the back?

“I’m coming back.” Naruto called out and he crawled back. The other two seats were unaffected and were in moderately good condition. It was only Kiba’s side. He put his hand on the back of the bucket seat.

“PUSH!”

Naruto and Lee both pushed with both hands, with all their strength, with everything they had. They didn’t give up. They kept grunting, and pushing. Kiba even pressed his hands up against the seat and pushed. Naruto already knew. There was nowhere for the seat to go. Blocking it was the front of the van. Naruto knew it. He felt tears forming in his eyes. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want Kiba and Lee to see him crying. He didn’t want them to give up.

“Do you want me to help?” Hinata asked. Her voice carried through the hole. It was small but it was calm.

“Yeah...hold on let me come out.”

The second time. Lee and Hinata were next to Kiba, and Naruto was in the front with his hands on the lever. Three hands pushed from the back and Naruto pulled from the front. It was futile. It was impossible. They weren’t strong enough to push back the crushed metal. They needed the jaws of life. Not three kids barely out of their preteens. Neither gave up, nobody wanted to be the first to stop. They kept at it for close to thirty minutes before Kiba exhaled.

“Stop...It’s useless...It isn’t budging. I’ll just wait for help.”

A silence settled upon them. It was the first time they thought about help coming, and a sense of relief flooded over them. Of course! Help was on its way. They were going to be rescued. That feeling filled Naruto and he nodded his head. His voice lightened. A smiled formed and he poked his head in the back. He looked from Lee, to Hinata, to Kiba. He held his smile.

“Yes! Help is on it’s way. They’ll be here any minute and we’ll get you out! And I’ll be here the whole time, Kiba. I won’t leave you. I promise.”

*****

Outside the van Sakura remained still. Choji’s head continued to rest in her lap. Her hand touched Choji’s face. He appeared to be in a daze. His eyes were open but they appeared to look through her. They focused on nothing.

“Are you okay?”

Choji didn’t speak. He kept staring up. The rain continued to fall. Droplets hitting them and soaking them gradually over time. The rain was the last thing on their minds. She couldn’t sit still anymore. She removed herself from underneath Choji and she stood up. Choji remained in a stupor. He didn’t even notice her leaving. He was still. He was breathing and his eyes were open. He would be fine. She walked over to Ino and kneeled down. Her hand reached out and she touched her shoulder.

“Ino…” Sakura spoke softly. “It’s me.”

Ino lifted her head up and looked up at Sakura. Her eyes were wild and frenzied. Upon seeing Sakura she burst into tears and wrapped her arms around Sakura.

“You’re okay, we’re okay...we’re going to be okay.” Sakura soothed as she wrapped her arms around Ino. Although she was speaking to Ino she was trying to calm herself down. Her chest and stomach hurt. Every breath caused her ribs to scream out in pain. She didn’t realize how sore and bruised she was until she was sitting down and the adrenaline was wearing off. She was left to feel the damage her body had endured. Everything hurt and she wanted to cry but she couldn’t. She wrapped her arms around Ino and held her.

*****

“You’re bleeding all over.” Sasuke commented as he looked at Suigetsu.

“No shit. Isn’t there a first aid kit or something?”

“Probably...in the van.”

Sasuke refused to look at the van. He turned completely around so that it wasn’t even in his peripheral vision. He still sensed it. Looming behind him. The metal beast. He could still hear the sound of metal bending and breaking. The sound of glass shattering. The sound of Kurenai screaming. She kept screaming. “Oh God No!” Then she stopped screaming altogether. Sasuke thought it was because she was drowned out by everyone else. The reality was settling in. Either she was trapped in the van like Kiba...or she was dead. Sasuke refused to go to the van to assess for himself.

“I’m going to search for the first aid kit.” Suigetsu commented and left.

*****

“Just think when we get back we’re all going to laugh about it.” Naruto exclaimed. He tried to be upbeat and cheerful. He tried not to think of Mrs. Yuhi hanging upside down in the front seat. Her snapped neck and busted in skull. The bones sticking out of the flesh of her neck. Blood pooling.

“I guess the competition is off the table.” Kiba commented.

Naruto looked at him. He didn’t look good. The skin of his face was beat red, pallid, and sweaty. Hinata reached over and touched Naruto’s hand. He looked down. She didn’t get his attention to hold his hand instead she showed him the blood on her hand. It was Kiba’s blood. Shiny and fresh and foreboding.

“Kiba, you’re bleeding. How are you feeling?”

“Like there’s a big piece of metal skewering me!” Kiba laughed weakly.

“Let me have a look.” Naruto crawled over and pulled his coat and shirt down to reveal what was going on. A large piece of metal had embedded itself in Kiba’s body just below his rib cage on his left side. He didn’t know how long the scrap of metal was nor how deep it entered Kiba.

“Got any ibuprofen?” Kiba asked and again laughed weakly.

“A first aid kit!” Naruto exclaimed.

“I brought some ibuprofen!” Hinata said at the exact same time. “I’ll go search for it!” She continued and within seconds she had disappeared.

“I can stay here while you go search.” Lee offered referring to the first aid kit. Naruto looked up at Kiba who nodded his head in confirmation. “Go. As long as I’m not alone.”

Naruto crawled out of the van and moved to the back. Suigetsu was already there. He was throwing out bags and suitcases. He looked up at Naruto and Hinata.

“What? I’m looking for the first aid kit.”

Hinata spotted her suitcase, rushed for it, opened it up and began searching for the ibuprofen. Naruto remained with Suigetsu and continued to pull their luggage out.

“Why is there a shovel?” Suigetsu asked as he picked up the shovel and threw it behind him.

“The ground’s keeper forgot to take it out of the van.” Naruto answered automatically. He paused realizing it was Mrs. Yuhi who answered him when he asked. It was painful so he tried not to think about it. Suigetsu snorted in response.

“How are you?” Naruto asked taking his attention to Suigetsu.

“How does it look like you retard? I was in a goddamn accident! I wasn’t even supposed to be here!”

Naruto swallowed and brought his eyes back to the van. He spotted it. It was a red zip-up bag with the words First Aid Kit embroidered across the front. He reached for one of the cloth handles and pulled it out. He opened it up and both he and Suigetsu leaned over.

“Help is on its way.” Naruto spoke as he and Suigetsu rummaged through the bag.

“I know dipshit. Stop talking to me.”

Suigetsu began to grab the gauze and bandages. Naruto reached for something called ‘trauma pad’.

“I need that!” Suigetsu said and he reached over to grab it. Naruto pulled back scowling.

“You have enough. Kiba needs this!” Naruto spoke clearly. His voice determined and steady. He held the trauma pad protectively. He wasn’t going to give it to him. Suigetsu rolled his eyes and left. Naruto turned back to the first aid kit. He saw antiseptic cleansing wipes and took one. Hinata returned with a bottle of pills and a water bottle.

*****

Suigetsu looked over his shoulder as Naruto returned to the front of the van and disappeared back inside. He dropped the supplies on the ground and sat next to Sasuke.

“How long until help comes?” Suigetsu asked. Sasuke continued staring forward. He didn’t answer at first. His breathing came out raspy. “What did you bump your head or something?” Suigetsu asked.

“No!” Sasuke snapped. Raindrops continued to fall on them. They hit his jacket and rolled off. He lifted his hood and covered his hair. It was cold outside. It was April but it was still cold. There was still frost and snow in the mountain. The cold air was trapped beneath the branches and was contained. He was shivering. He stuffed his bare hands in his pockets.

“I don’t think they were able to get him out.” Suigetsu continued as he started to bandage himself up. He looked over his shoulder again for confirmation. Kiba had yet to exit the van. Sasuke wanted to turn around but he didn’t. He didn’t feel guilty anymore. If Naruto couldn’t get Kiba out than it would have been pointless for Sasuke to try and help.

Walking up to them were Sakura and Ino. They sat down on the other side of Sasuke.

“Where are they?” Sakura asked.

“Help?” Suigetsu answered.

“Yeah. Why aren’t they here yet?”

“Does anyone have a cellphone?” Sasuke asked.

“I do!” Sakura exclaimed. It was a birthday gift she got for turning fifteen. March 28. This past Saturday. Sakura stood up and left. She remembered putting it in her purse. She ran to the side of the van where she climbed out from the sliding door.

“Naruto?” Sakura called into the van. She was hesitant to re-enter the van. Fear wrapped its fingers around her and she began to back up slowly. Her mind remembered being thrown around and screaming.

“Sakura?”

“Can you see my purse anywhere? It’s pink.”

“I see it ...I have it! Coming out.”

Naruto handed her the purse and she immediately opened it and grabbed her phone. It was a flip phone. A pink Razor.

“What are you doing?” Naruto asked.

“I’m going to call for help!”

Oh. There was a sinking feeling. How was help going to come if nobody knew they needed help? He looked back up. There was no indication they had fallen down from this angle. Naruto watched Sakura eagerly. She looked at her cellphone and cried out in frustration.

“What?” Naruto asked and looked at the screen trying to see what she saw. The only thing he saw was the time. It was 2:27PM. They were supposed to reach the hotel in thirty-three minutes. Check in was 3:00PM. Mrs. Yuhi wanted to check in at exactly 3:00PM because she didn’t want to waste any money.

“It says no service!”

“That’s okay...try moving to another place?” Naruto offered reassuringly. He didn’t know anything about cell phones. All he knew was that they were new, expensive, and something he would probably never own.

Sakura looked like she wanted to argue. To say it was pointless. To make the connection that they were in some cavern, or gorge on the mountain and that the trees and rocks made it impossible for there to be a signal. She said none of it and started moving around the ground. It gave her something to do to keep her mind off the pain. She had a job to do. She needed to find service and call for help.

Before Naruto went back into the van his eyes caught sight of Choji. He was stoic, unmoving, laying prostate. Staring up at the trees. Naruto kneeled on his knees and looked at Choji. He leaned over and looked down at his face. He waved his hand in front of his face and there was no recognition. Naruto touched Choji’s cheek. The warmth of his hand seemed to awaken Choji because he turned his head to stare at him.

“N-naruto?” Choji whispered. The darkness that settled around him began to break and rescind. The fog cleared and his mind began to focus. It felt like he was putting on a pair of glasses and able to see each other again for the first time.

“Mhm. I’m here, Choji.” Naruto spoke as he began to gently rub his cheek and moved his hand and rubbed his head. Moving wet strands of hair from his face. He pulled his hand away. “You had a seizure. Did you take your medicine today?”

“I...did. I think…” Choji confessed. He couldn’t remember. He remembered talking to Shikamaru on the phone and eating, but he couldn’t remember if he took his medication. He saw his mother putting the prescription bottle into his backpack chastising him because he was going to forget it as he left the house.

“I didn’t.”

“Is it in your bag?” Naruto asked and he turned to see the pile of luggage.

“Mhm.” Choji said and he began to push himself up.

“Let’s go get it.” Naruto offered and helped Choji to his feet. He felt eyes on him and he looked up to see Sasuke was staring at him. When he was noticed Sasuke immediately looked away.

Naruto walked alongside Choji his eyes didn’t leave him and his hand hovered around him. He was afraid he was going to fall at any moment. But even with knobby knees and a shivering body Choji moved fine on his feet. He reached his backpack and unzipped it. He grabbed the water bottle that was fastened securely to the side and took his medication.

He heard Sakura scream.

“THERE’S NO SERVICE ANYWHERE!” Her voice echoed and was immediately swallowed by the branches and leaves. “NOBODY KNOWS WE’RE HERE IF I DON’T CALL!”

She was panicking. She was screaming. Her hands held onto the cell phone and she continued to walk around her eyes glued to the screen.

“HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET OUT?”

Naruto appeared in front of her and he rested his hands on her shoulders. There was something detached in her eyes. They were frenzied and psychosis threatened to consume her sanity. She was teetering and Naruto wouldn’t let her fall over. He held firmly onto her shoulders and pulled her back to sanity.

“It’s going to be okay. They’re expecting us at the hotel. We just need to wait a little while before they notice we’re not there. I’m sure Mrs. Yuhi was supposed to phone somebody at the school to let them know we made it safely. When that doesn’t happen and our arrival at the hotel didn’t happen...they’re going to put two and two together, and they’re going to find us.”

Sakura kept her composure as Naruto spoke in his soft voice. It was his reassuring voice that felt like honey to the ears. It swept over her and she nodded her head. It made sense. What he said made sense. Nobody got lost in today’s time. Not with satellites and cameras and infrared heat detection. They’d be found in no time...it just took...some time before help came.

Naruto felt eyes on him and he looked around. Sasuke, Suigetsu and Ino were staring at him on one side. Choji was staring at him, and standing next to the van was Lee. Naruto dropped his hands from Sakura’s shoulder and turned around. He raised his voice. He was calm about it and explained the best he could.

“Listen! Help is going to be here soon. They’re going to notice we’re not at the hotel. They’re going to notice when they don’t receive a phone call. They’re going to find out something happened in the mountains, and they’re going to find us! We just need to sit tight until help comes!”

Naruto turned back to Sakura. “Why don’t you go join Ino. I have to get back to Kiba.” She nodded her head. She closed her phone and stumbled back to Ino. Naruto looked at the small group that had formed around Sasuke. Suigetsu, Sakura, and Ino. He caught sight of Sasuke staring at him before he turned around to see Choji sitting by himself at the end of the van. He walked over to him.

“Why don’t you come with me.” Naruto spoke to Choji and he nodded. Choji sat half in the van and half out of the passenger side. Naruto rejoined Lee and Hinata next to Kiba.

“It’ll probably be a couple of hours. No later than 7:00PM.” Naruto assured.

“Easy for you to say…” Kiba exhaled. “You’re not the one hanging upside down.”

“Yeah...you’re going to get through this, and it’ll be an epic story when you do.”

*****

It started getting darker at 6:30PM, and there was no sign of help. It was getting harder and harder to see. The sun was setting but the trees made it dark quicker. Inside the van it was almost impossible to see. They had been taking turns trying to push Kiba so that he was horizontal, so he wasn’t hanging upside down the whole time, so he wasn’t in constant discomfort and pain. Kiba was complaining of being dizzy, of having a headache and general malaise. It washed over him quickly.

“I don’t...feel so good…” Kiba breathed.

His voice was more distant even though he was so close. Kiba was still holding onto Naruto’s hand. It was Lee’s turn to try and push Kiba so that he was horizontal for a little while. He accidentally pushed to hard and an agonizing scream escaped Kiba and pierced their ears. It felt like some touched an exposed nerve and Naruto shuddered. Lee immediately let go and another scream ricocheted inside the van. Kiba was crying.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” Naruto asked as he began to examine Kiba.

“My...side…” Kiba sobbed.

They had removed Kiba’s jacket a while ago after Kiba started complaining about being too hot. He was now in a long sleeved shirt. The material was thin, but he said he felt better. Hinata lifted Kiba’s shirt. It was hard to see but he could still make out a dark stain bleeding through the trauma pad they had put on him. The metal cut through him and made the wound bigger, wider.

“He needs more bandages. We have to stop the bleeding.” Naruto said. “I’ll be right back.”

*****

Naruto re-emerged from the van and ran to the back where he had left the first aid kit only when he got there it wasn’t in the same spot. It was dark outside but enough light to see the outline of things. He saw a light from the corner of his eye. He looked and saw the outline of the group with someone holding the flashlight. He rushed over.

“I need that flashlight! I need to look for the first aid kit!” Naruto stated. He was out of breath.

Suigetsu was holding the flashlight and he looked up at Naruto.

“The first aid kit is here take it and leave.” Suigetsu said and Naruto immediately lunged for the bag and grabbed it.

“I need the flashlight! Kiba is hurt and I need to bandage him!”

“We need the flashlight out here! It’s dark and soon we won’t be able to see at all!”

“Move closer to the van!”

Suigetsu stood up and faced Naruto. Before he could say anything Naruto had reached out and grabbed hold of the flashlight.

“Let me have it, please!” Naruto begged as Suigetsu grabbed it with both hands and tried to wretch it from Naruto’s hand.

“What’s wrong with Kiba?” Sakura asked. Naruto could barely make her out.

“He’s bleeding...really bad and it needs to be stopped!” A small cry escaped both Ino’s and Sakura’s mouths.

“Suigetsu give him the flashlight.” Sasuke said interrupting them.

“We can’t be out here in the dark!” Suigetsu shrilled hysterically. He still wasn’t giving up the flashlight and Naruto wrapped his other hand around it.

“I’ll give it right back! I just need to bandage Kiba up!” Naruto yelled back.

“Please just give him the flashlight!” Sakura yelled.

“Do it!” Ino said her voice weaker.

“Suigetsu!” Sasuke yelled.

“FINE!”

He released his hold on the flashlight, and without another word Naruto had dashed away.

“What time is it?” Ino asked. Sakura flipped checked her phone. “7:30PM”

“Where are they? What if they can’t see us because it’s dark?”

“They’ll find us.”

“How much longer do we have to stay out here?!”

“Let’s pretend...we’re uh...camping.” Sakura said.

She still carried Naruto’s words and she wore them like a protective barrier. She and Ino were sitting side by side with their arms over each other to keep themselves warm. The rain continued. It wasn’t pouring, but it was trickling, enough that they were all wet and uncomfortable. A fine mist that came down. The air grew colder, and if they could see, every time they talked their breath came out billowing white.

“I hate camping.” Sasuke spoke bitterly. Sakura wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke or not but she laughed anyways.

“Remember Ino? When we’d go camping back in girl scouts? It’s like that.”

“We stayed in warm log cabins!”

“Pretend we’re in a log cabin.”

“I’m too cold to play pretend!”

“When we get the flashlight back...let’s go through our bags and put more clothes on before we freeze to death.” Sasuke suggested.

“How long do you think we’ll be out here for?” Suigetsu asked.

“Probably until the morning...if we’re being realistic. Unless they already began the search party.”

“They have dogs and lights...maybe they’ll find us during the night!” Sakura offered.

“Hopefully.” Ino murmured.

*****

“How bad is it?” Kiba asked.

Lee held the flashlight, and Hinata pulled his shirt down. Naruto was applying another antiseptic wipe to the outer wound. The flesh around the metal had torn. It made the wound bigger, wider, and blood was trickling out the side. By the looks of it the metal went deeper inside Kiba. He put a patch bandage over, and wrapped it in gauze. The bleeding seemed to stop momentarily.

“I stopped the bleeding.” Naruto said. Hinata and Lee both nodded. “I think you’re going to live.”

“Thanks, Doc. How much do I owe you?”

“Well, it’s going to cost an arm and a leg…” Naruto began and laughed. “Maybe two arms since your legs seem to be useless right about now.”

Kiba started laughing before breaking off into pain and sputtering. “Ow, ow, ow! Don’t make me laugh!”

Hinata giggled and Lee looked relieved.

“Here.” Naruto said as he opened up a packet of chewable aspirin. “These are chewable. It should help with some of the pain.” Naruto popped the two tablets in Kiba’s mouth and he began chewing. It dissolved almost instantly in his mouth.

“I have to give the flashlight back…” Naruto spoke. He looked to Hinata and Lee. “I’ll stay here with Kiba. Why don’t you two take it back, and maybe you guys should go put on extra clothes. It’s getting colder. Maybe bring back some clothes for Kiba.”

“I’m not cold.” Kiba said, and it was exactly the reason why Naruto was so worried.

“You may not feel cold, but your body is definitely cold! It’s going to get dark in here...and you probably won’t be able to see anything. But I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Okay...I’m not afraid of the dark...just don’t leave me.”

*****

“Is Naruto still inside?” Sakura asked. “With Kiba?”

They had all gathered at the back of the van. Lee and Hinata nodded their heads and Lee handed the flashlight over to Suigetsu. They had agreed to go through their bags together so they could collectively share the flashlight. One by one they peeled their jackets off and began to layer up on clothes. They were only going to be gone for three days and they all brought their school uniforms. There wasn’t much, but the added layers helped.

“My...bag is missing.” Suigetsu spoke as he looked around. He brought the flashlight to the back of the van. It was empty. Then sweeped the flashlight over the ground. “It’s gone!”

“Maybe...it fell out.” Sakura suggested.

“For fuckssake!” Suigetsu yelled.

“It’s fine...wear some of my clothes.” Sasuke said and handed Suigetsu some clothes. An uncomfortable silence settled, and everyone avoided each other’s eyes, as they moved slowly through their bags.

Sakura’s stomach growled and she covered herself with her hands. Everyone looked at her.

“I’m a little hungry…sorry.”

“Didn’t we bring snacks?” Ino asked as she looked around. The realization of hunger and thirst settled on all of them. They began to notice their own parched mouths and empty stomachs.

They didn’t bring much. They rummaged through their bags and found a few things. Chips, twizzlers, and a couple of slim jims. The rest, they surmised, was somewhere inside the van. They didn’t have a lot of snacks. They weren’t going to be in the car for long. It was only a four hour car ride through the mountains. They were supposed to be eating dinner in the hotel right about now. Something warm and filling. Carbs and butter. They were supposed to be dressed warmly inside a dry restaurant. Flooded with light and a roaring fire to set the ambiance.

Instead they all sat on the hard ground in a circle, damp, hungry, and shivering.

“I’m never going on another school trip!” Ino exclaimed. Her mood improved. She had some food and water in her belly. The added extra layers made her warmer. The rain finally stopped and fog covered the ground. Everybody murmured in agreement.

“When we get back, I'm going to take the longest hot shower! I won’t get out until the hot water runs out!” Sakura spoke as she munched on a twizzler. She ate slowly. She wanted to savor every last bite.

“I’m going to sue!” Suigetsu snapped. He was still in a foul mood.

“Sue who? Mother Nature?” Ino hollered back.

“No. The school!”

“It was Kurenai’s fault!”

“How?”

“She was driving like a maniac and the deer jumped into the road. We should have just hit the deer! You’re never supposed to swerve! It’s safer to just hit the deer. If we did we would still be up there!” Suigetsu used the flashlight and pointed up towards the side of the mountain, before bringing the flashlight and his hands down to gesture at the ground. “Instead of down here!”

There was another uncomfortable silence. Only this time. It remained for a while. One by one something clicked inside their heads. Kurenai. Mrs. Yuhi. Was dead. One by one they looked to Lee and Hinata for confirmation. The only ones who went inside the van. The only ones who’d know the truth. Both had solemn expressions. The kind of expression you’d have when greeting people at a wake. Preparing them before they sat the open casket. Trying to remain strong but any moment the last fiber was going to snap and they were going to end up uncontrollably sobbing. They nodded their heads up and down. Their eyes moved away as the darkness of the night creeped into their hearts.

*****

“Do you think we would have won?” Kiba asked. He still held onto Naruto’s hand.

“We would have brought the trophy and prize money home for sure.”

“It was really fun preparing...for...it.”

“Mhm. Being with everyone is really fun.”

“I never got to tell you…”

“Tell me what?”

“Thank you...for bringing us all together.”

“What do you mean?”

“I ‘unno. I’m just really glad you moved here.”

“Me too.”

Although there were no windows left because the van was twisted and gnarled in on itself it wasn’t as cold as Naruto expected. Even though Kiba said he wasn’t cold Naruto insisted that he put his jacket back on. It was pitch dark inside. Everybody convened at the back of the van for every now and then the flash light would catch the inside of the van and light everything up. Naruto didn’t know what time it was. But it was nighttime and it wasn’t letting up anytime soon. He kept wishing for it to be morning but time moved at a snail’s pace.

“Have you...seen...Spider-Man?” Kiba asked.

“No.”

“Well...there’s...this scene where...Spider-Man is hanging upside down and Mary Jane kisses...him.”

Naruto paused before saying. “Do you want me to kiss you?”

“No, dude!” Kiba said hastily before Naruto got the wrong idea. “No...I was thinking about Hinata.”

“Oh...oh! Do you want me to get her?”

“No-no-no!” Kiba sputtered. He gripped Naruto’s hands letting him know if he wanted to leave it was going to be when Kiba was good and dead. Naruto returned the gesture and squeezed him back. Letting him know he wasn’t going anywhere. Naruto smiled.

“When we get rescued you should tell her how you feel.”

“You think?”

“Heck yes.”

“What about you? Do you like anyone?”

“No.”

“Have you ever liked anyone?”

“No...I guess I never stayed in one place long enough to find out.”

“How many schools have you been to?”

“13...maybe 14. I lost count. This has been the longest I’ve stayed in one place. It’s kind of exciting. I want to finish the school year here.”

“Do you think you’re going to move again?”

“I...don’t know. I hope not. I really do like the group home, and the school, and you guys.”

“I don’t want you to move.”

“Mhm.”

Before Kiba could say anything else he started coughing, and soon he was in a coughing fit. Naruto felt around the darkness until his fingers felt the smooth cool plastic of the water bottle. It was the kind where all you had to do was suck water through the straw. When there was a break in Kiba’s coughing fit Naruto brought the water bottle to his face.

“Dude. That’s my nose!”

“Sorry...is this your mouth.”

“No...just let me hold it!”

Kiba took the water bottle from him and took a sip. Naruto chuckled.

“I would say I feel pain...but all I feel is woozy. I think all the blood to my head is making me woozy.”

“Help will be here soon.”

*****

“Sasuke...are you awake?” Sakura asked. She checked her phone. It was 2:30AM.

“Mhm.” Sasuke murmured. He was laying on his side.

“Do you think we’ll be rescued in the morning?” Sakura asked.

He didn’t answer right away. His eyes were still closed. He was exhausted but he couldn’t sleep. Every noise amplified and he became paranoid that something was lurking in the dark. Some predator that was going to pounce and devour them. A mountain lion, a coyote, a snake, a poisonous spider. A metal monster. He hated the outdoors. He hated nature. He would cry when his mother made him go outside and play. He’d curl his body up against the screen door and wail until she relented and let him back inside. Laying on rocks and dirt caused his skin to crawl. He couldn’t sleep. Even if he wanted too. Sleeping in these conditions was impossible.

“Sasuke?”

“Mhm?”

“Do you think we’ll be rescued in the morning?”

Sasuke was straining his ears for the sounds of heavy boots, dogs barking, or a search party calling out their names. He’d seen movies, he watched the news, and the documentaries. They began the search parties immediately. Especially if it was a van full of kids...kids always made the news. He’d make the news. He could see his school picture right now on every news channel. He was the son of a circuit court judge and a politician running for reelection. There would be dogs, helicopters, volunteers. If not tomorrow morning tomorrow afternoon...they’d be found. Somebody would notice the tire tracks careening off the side of the mountain and they would know where to look. All they had to do was to start at the beginning of the road that went through the mountain pass and drive along until they see the tire tracks. It was around two hours...it wouldn’t be long. They’d be found all of them.

“Sasuke?” Sakura’s voice filtered through the air. He opened his eyes. The flashlight was still on. They propped it in the middle like a pretend fireplace and they were all lying in a circle around it. Paying homage to Apollo. The light offered no heat and they all shivered in their layers and coats.

“What?!” He spat but stopped when he saw that Sakura was close, so close he could feel her breath on his face.

“I’m cold.”

“By tomorrow afternoon.”

“What?”

“We should be rescued by tomorrow afternoon.”

*****

The envelope fell out when he opened up his locker. He saw a heart shaped sticker sealing it closed. He rolled his eyes. It wasn’t the first time he received a love letter, and it wouldn’t be his last. He didn’t expect one to appear in his locker when the school year had just begun. He rolled his eyes and picked it up. He didn’t want girls to confess so boldly to him. He walked up to the trash can fully intending on dropping it in the trash and washing his hands from it when he was overcome with an idea.

He wanted to set an example. So in the middle of the cafeteria, he stood on a chair, cleared his throat and made an announcement. He was going to be doing a dramatic reading of a love letter he had received. He opened it and tossed the envelope to the floor. He unfolded the stationary paper decorated with cartoonish flowers and petals. The letter smelled of perfume. He couldn’t put a name on it but it smelled cheap. He couldn’t be with a girl who wore cheap perfume.

The girl appeared, ran up to him begging him not to continue. Sasuke refused to acknowledge her as he continued reading and berating her letter. Pointing out her grammatical and spelling errors. The students around were laughing and snickering and acted like it was live theater. Maybe all of this was planned. They enjoyed the entertainment. There was something sinister in the air.

Sasuke was feeling pretty damn good until something changed, until a blonde haired blue eyed boy appeared in front of him. He never seen this boy before. The blonde grabbed hold of his wrist. The hand was hot on his flesh and he was jerked towards him. He stumbled off the chair and came face to face with him. They appeared to be the same height and equal built except the blonde was thinner.

“What is wrong with you? Who do you think you are acting so cruelly? I hope you never fall in love with someone only for them to publicially and hurtfully reject you! I hope you never have to feel that pain!”

The letter was grabbed from his hand and soon the blonde haired boy was gone. He grabbed hold of the crying girl and lead her out of the cafeteria. He didn’t even look back as he disappeared through the double doors.

It wasn’t long before he found out his name, where he came from, and where he lived. He was Uzumaki Naruto and he lived in the group home. He was a ward of the state, an orphan, with dead parents. He was worthless. Poor. Undeserving. A leech siphoning off resources from everyone else. Eating up tax payers money. Who did he think he was? He should know his place and Sasuke wanted to put him in his place. He needed to know there was a hierarchy in the Annex.

Sasuke cornered him when he was leaving. He caught him when he exited the building. He grabbed hold of him and slammed him against the school building.

“I know all about you.” Sasuke hissed. He tightened his grip on his arm and slammed his wrist up against the brick wall nails sinking into his flesh. “Nothing but a shitty orphan who nobody cares if you’re alive or dead.”

He smiled. His face broke out into a smile, and Sasuke was taken back.

“Why are you smiling?” Sasuke demanded.

He shrugged and stared back. He seemed unaffected by Sasuke and his actions. Those blue eyes never left him. They looked at him, really looked at him, and the more he looked the deeper he felt those eyes traveling.

“You took the time to get information about me and I wonder if you want to be friends.”

“W-what?”

“There’s a sadness in your eyes. I see a lot of pain. If you want to be friends, I bet I could make you smile...make you happy.”

“No! You’re fucking creepy! Who’d want to be your friend?” Sasuke stuttered and before he knew it he had let go of him and was storming away. He felt his cheeks burning and all he wanted to do was break his fucking nose. Only he didn’t want to look at him anymore. He didn’t want those blue eyes staring at him. He didn’t want those blue eyes searching deeper. They frightened him. They made his stomach upset and he felt sick.

He never should have moved here and all Sasuke wanted to do was get him suspended.

*****

Sasuke was startled awake from an ear shattering, piercing scream, that went through his spine and jolted him from his dream and back into the shit-tastic nightmare. He opened his eyes and pushed himself up. He didn’t recognize the screaming. He didn’t know who was making that wretched noise. When he stumbled up he found the source.

It was Hinata. He barely heard her speak. He never imagined such a scream could escape her. She had stumbled back and fell over. Her eyes were terrorized and she was looking at the van. She had rolled over to all fours and began vomiting. Watery bile spilled against the hard, frozen, ground.

The next to stumble out of the van in a similar manner was Lee. He began dry heaving. He clutched his stomach and began coughing, his back arched, and heaving but nothing came up.

“What’s going on?” Sakura asked running towards them. Everybody had scrambled to their feet.

“Lee?!” Ino demanded. Her eyes looked shakily to the van.

“He’s dead…” Lee yelled. “Kiba is dead!”

Chapter Text

“The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.”― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

It was a cruel mocking laughter. It rippled through the back of the classroom. Loud enough for Hinata to hear, but by the time it reached the front of the room it was drowned out by the murmuring of the other students. Even if it reached the teacher’s ears it would have made no difference. It was a sound that could only be heard by kids from kids. Next came the harsh whispering and the realization that everything was directed towards her. She needed confirmation. She turned and looked over her shoulder and spotted the source of the laughter. Catching the eyes of one of the girls.

“Can you stop looking at us. You’re making us uncomfortable.”

Hinata could feel heat rushing to her face. Her entire face bloomed the color of madder lake. Her heartbeat quickened and anxiety welled up in her chest. In fight or flight response she froze. Insecurities wrapped around her like locks and chains. It bounded her and she wasn’t able to move. She felt a cry forming in the back of her throat.

“Oh my god. Why is she still staring at us?”

“Is she retarded?”

“I guess that’s what happens when you fuck your cousin.”

“Inbred.”

She turned back around and looked at her assignment. Her vision blurred and the letters looked like a foreign language. She held her pencil but that was all she could do. She could still hear the mocking laughter, the harsh whispering, and snickering coming from behind. The students around her warped into elongated, naked, humanoids that danced around and laughed shrilly. She looked up and saw one creature standing before her.

It was back.

The hunchback humanoid had a broken jaw that hung on it’s hinges. It’s nose were two jagged slits cut in the middle of it’s bulging face. Breathing raspy through its mouth. Blood and saliva dripped down on her desk. She could hear the drip-drip-dripping. She couldn’t tear her eyes off it. The humanoid began peeling back it’s own skin starting from the top of the head. The sickening sound of flesh being pulled apart sent nauseating chills up and down her spine. The humanoid peeled the flesh off its face, down its neck, and to it’s breasts as if doing a strip tease. The large areolas were dark and menacing and oozed a greenish pus. The flesh began to darken and blacken with infection. The humanoid continued peeling back it’s flesh like a snake shedding it’s skin, only underneath was raw, festering, fungus.

“Hinata!”

She looked up. The faceless teacher was calling her name.

“Hinata. It’s your turn. Go to the board and complete the next problem.”

The teacher didn’t see the humanoid that was standing in front of her desk, or if she did she didn’t care. She stood up and it felt like her knees were going to give way and she was going to fall. She moved past the humanoid, but she heard it. She heard the long toenails scraping against the floor as it began to follow her. She heard the raspy breathing. The gurgling noise coming from its throat. There was a chortle of laughter and gasps. The mocking laughter echoed and grew bolder. Only this time nobody attempted to stifle the laughter and cries. She reached the chalkboard, picked up the piece of white chalk, and stopped. The entire class was laughing hysterically, laughing themselves into madness. She could feel the humanoid creature right behind her, and could feel the breath on the back of her neck that caused her hair to stand on end and goosebumps to form, could see its shadow on the chalkboard swallowing her up. She felt herself shrinking until she was so small she could slip through the eye of a needle.

“Hinata.” The teacher said and touched her shoulder. She turned and looked up at the faceless teacher. “Hinata, why don’t you go to the nurse’s office?” She blinked, confused. Why?

“She’s getting blood everywhere! We’re all going to get AIDs!” A girl screamed from the back of the room. Hinata turned around and saw the malicious faces of her classmates contorting themselves to look at her only to howl maniacally when they did. She didn’t understand.

“HINATA STARTED HER PERIOD! EW!”

“Well at least we know she’s a girl!”

“A butch girl!”

“Oh my god I’m going to vomit!”

She felt the teacher’s hands on her shoulder and she was leading her towards the door. She opened the door and pushed her out repeating. “Hinata, please just go to the nurse’s office.” The door slammed shut behind her. She turned around and saw the humanoid creature on the other side of the door. It began to smile. The corners of its mouth lifted higher, and higher, until it touched its ears. The face was split in two as it cackled. It held it’s bulging, distended stomach and hollered up at the ceiling it’s busted jaw shaking back and forth on stretched tendons.

Hinata turned back around and made her way slowly to the nurse’s office feeling blood roll down the inside of her thighs.

*****

Her world was monochrome and painted in shades of white, grey, and black. She didn’t understand why there was a divide between her and her classmates. If felt like there was a scarlet letter on her chest branding her with the letter L. L for loser. L for leper. L for leech. Something she couldn’t see but the other’s could, and it was the reason she was avoided. She never did anything to hurt anyone, and didn’t understand why...why her? She didn’t do anything! Every time she opened her mouth to talk she was ridiculed. So she stopped trying and the divide between her and them widened. She didn’t know what was worse. The mocking laughter and snide remarks or being completely ignored altogether and made to feel like she didn’t even exist.

They were all on cleaning duty that afternoon, but it was only Hinata who was cleaning. She was washing the chalkboard as the rest of the group sat around on the desks watching her. It was after school and the teacher had left. She wanted to hurry up so she could leave.

“She doesn’t talk. She’s creepy. No wonder nobody likes her.”

“Is that even a girl? It looks like a boy.”

“You’re right Hinata is a hermaphrodite!”

“A freak!”

“A Hyuga. They’re all inbreds who marry their own cousins!”

“Incest, ew! That’s disgusting! I bet she has a tail!”

“I heard she was born with a tail and they had to cut it off!”

“I bet they kept it and it’s pickled in a jar at her house.”

“No! She probably still has a tail!”

“Wanna see for ourselves?”

She was grabbed before she could run away. They jumped her. Her hands were pulled back, and someone held her around the waist. She tried to fight them but she was too weak and her energy levels plummeted. The blood drained from her face. Her eyes pinpricks. She froze. Everything happened in the blink of an eye, and it felt like she was pulled outside her body looking down at a scene she was not apart of. Merely an audience member. It wasn’t happening to her. It was happening to someone else.

They went for her pants, and as soon as they unbuttoned them and began pulling her pants down she started crying. They were rough and cackled viciously as they pulled the pants down her thighs. The tears spilled from her eyes and she began wailing. The sadness and fear and anger and agony she had felt came out. She lost the ability to keep herself upright and she flopped over her knees bent and her arms lifeless. But she was still being propped up. They still held onto her and maneuvered her as if she was nothing but a puppet on a string. Even though she was crying they didn’t stop and reached for her underwear ready to rip them off to see if she had a tail or not. Fingers wrapped around her cotton panties.

“What are you doing?” A voice called out from the doorway. “Stop it! Get away from her!”

She was let go and she collapsed to the floor in a heap. She couldn’t stop crying and she curled up into the fetal position. She heard their footsteps running out of the classroom the hooting and hollering echoing down the hallway. The door slamming shut behind them. She couldn’t bring herself to get up. Thinking maybe she’d stay like this forever until she melted into the floor and became part of the building. She continued to cry and rock on the floor until she was drained and exhausted.

Noticing she was exposed, and her pants were bunched around her ankles she pulled her pants up stopping when she felt eyes on her. She looked over her shoulder and saw a boy with wild brunette hair. She felt her face turning even madder and embarrassment and shame washed over her.

“I wasn’t staring! I just didn’t want to leave you alone in case they come back.” The boy’s face was red and flustered. Hinata stood up and buttoned her pants. She didn’t say anything.

“Next year will be better.” The boy continued speaking. He was trying to reassure her but she knew it wouldn’t be different. The last three years of middle school were excruciating. Hinata gathered up her school books into her backpack. She glanced at him but didn’t say anything even though she didn’t believe him, he kept talking.

“We’ll be in the Annex. They’ll be two other middle school students entering the Annex. They’ll be other kids who don’t know you. It’ll be better. There will be more students. A fresh start to be who you want to be.”

More? There was going to be more monsters in human flesh? That frightened her. Hinata put her backpack on and began walking towards the door. Her shoulders hunched over. Her head down. Her bluish-white eyes staring at the tiled floor beneath her feet.

“My name is Kiba. If they give you anymore problems come and tell me.”

She looked back at the boy who called himself, Kiba. She stared at him for a moment and without saying anything, she left school, and she didn’t return for the rest of the academic year. She became desperate. She needed to find a reason not to return to school so she went in search of Wonderland. She found the white rabbit and chased a bottle of pills down with a fifth of vodka and when she woke up, she came face to face with the Red Queen who screamed.

“OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”

*****

“Hi. My name is Naruto...I’m new.”

Hinata turned to see a vibrant boy sliding into the empty stool next to her at one of the lab stations in science class. She jumped unconsciously. She noticed his uniform was worn and faded. His smile was carefree and contagious. The whole morning it felt like she was walking on pins and needles. Petrified she was going to run into one of her old tormentors. She couldn’t eat and she felt nauseous. They forced her to go back to school. It wasn’t becoming of a Hyuga to be so weak-minded and weak-willed. She had to be strong. She had to become a leader.

The boy interrupted her thoughts. His hair was the color of sunshine and his eyes the color of the blue lagoon. He began pulling a spiral notebook and pen from his backpack and wrote today’s date on the first page. She peaked down at it. His handwriting was messy no better than a Kindergartner's. She found herself smiling inside.

“Mind if we’re partners?” Naruto continued as if just realizing he hadn’t asked if he could join her. His face twisted up into worry as if he had done something wrong. Hinata shook her head no, and again his face broke out into a smile that pushed his eyes closed. She didn’t mind. She felt at ease with him, and she replayed what Kiba said to her last year, that this year was going to be different, and this year she could be someone better...an improved version of herself, a better version of herself.

“I have a secret. I’m kinda really bad at science. One time I accidentally burned my eyebrows off! I looked ridiculous and decided to use my foster sister’s makeup and tried to draw my eyebrows back...it had just completely backfired. Not only did I look ridiculous, but I got my foster sister angry because I used an expensive pencil, broke it, so I had to pay her back, and then I couldn’t scrub it off so for the next few days I had these god-awful drawn on eyebrows. It was horrible. So yeah, I’m really awful at science, but I’ll try my best!”

Hinata found herself smiling. The air around him was soothing. She covered her mouth with her hand and looked away. She felt her face erupting into red from her affliction. The more she became consciously aware the redder her face became.

“I didn’t catch your name.”

“Hinata.”

“Hinata that’s a beautiful name...okay, Hinata. Here’s to my redemption year of science.” Naruto beamed and he wrote in his notebook: Science Partner Hinata, before flashing her the peace sign. She felt her stomach flipping and flopping. She turned away thinking that he was cute when he smiled.

“Redemption year?” Hinata asked.

“Yes! The year I’m going to do things right!”

 

*****

There was an unknown noise coming from the treetops and she opened her bloodshot eyes. It was a hooting, hollering, shrill noise that echoed and right when she thought it was going to stop it started back up again. A monkey? A bird? A bear? A chill went down her spine. Awareness settled in like misery making it’s home inside her rib cage. They were still in the mountains and they still weren’t found. She felt her heart quicken and she felt like crying. She could feel the cry in the back of her throat and her eyes watered. She wanted to cry since the car accident yesterday but she stopped herself. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. She wasn’t going to cry. She was going to remain strong. She kept playing Naruto’s words on repeat and it began to calm her down.

There was light. Everything was gray and the fog that formed last night remained and continued to blanket the grass-less forest floor. She was laying on her side and pushed herself up. She noticed how sore she was and her eyes watered when she moved. She felt a throbbing pain throughout her limbs and when she moved a muscle it sent sharp pain throughout her body. She exhaled. She had felt fine yesterday but now she could barely move. She felt like an elderly woman trying to get out of a recliner.

Everybody was still laying down. She looked around. They had all formed a circle around the flashlight. Everybody except Naruto and Kiba. She leaned over and turned the flashlight off. They no longer needed the light. Morning had come. They survived the night. She turned back to the van. It was twisted and contorted. It no longer resembled a van but a devolved scrap of metal. Naruto and Kiba were still inside. She felt her stomach churning. Regardless of what pain she felt she knew what Kiba felt was a million times worse.

She stood up stopping when she saw Lee had arisen. He looked like death rising from his coffin. Face pale. Eyes bloodshot. Dark circles under his sunken eyes. Dried saliva on the corner of his mouth. His hair which was usually straw straight and in a perfect bowl cut was now in complete disarray and heading in every direction. The dry blood on his coat sleeve stained brown. She could see the bandage through the spliced fabric. It looked as if someone put him in the dryer and put it to tumble dry.

Lee gestured towards the van and Hinata nodded both agreeing to go and check on Naruto and Kiba.

Hinata was the first to go. She crawled through the passenger side door, stopping when she noticed Mrs. Yuhi. Blood continued to pool beneath her hanging body. Droplets rolled down her face from her cracked skull and landed in a puddle. She became disassociated. It wasn’t believable. It didn’t feel real. It looked like a mirage. A trick of light and water. Mrs. Yuhi was...other. She wasn’t...apart. She tore her eyes from Mrs. Yuhi and made her way to where Kiba and Naruto were. Exactly where she left them. She positioned her body so that she was right next to Naruto and she knew something was wrong. The feeling overwhelmed her and she didn’t understand where it was coming from and why it became so debilitating. Why it became difficult to breathe. The air grew thinner and she was overcome with fear and trepidation.

She could smell it. It was the smell of decay. It was the smell of rust and steel. It was the smell of sepsis. The smell of death.

“Naruto?” She called out her voice quivering. She reached out and touched his shoulder.

“Mhm?” Naruto answered.

Her eyes began to water and she covered her hands with her mouth. Naruto was still holding Kiba’s hand, but Kiba wasn’t moving. He was still hanging upside down. His bulging eyes were open and there was a glassy gray film covering them. He was staring forward but he wasn’t seeing. Frozen on his swollen face was a terrorized expression. Caught somewhere between a painful scream and a cry. It was painful and sodden with such deep agro it took the breath from Hinata, and pulled her thread of sanity away to the afterlife with him. His other hand hung limply. Kiba wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t alive. He was no longer part of this world.

Kiba wasn’t other...he was apart...he was one of them, and he was gone. And it could...and would happen to them one by one. She saw it. The premonition of an ominous future.

“Naruto...Kiba’s…” Hinata spoke. She reached over and touched Kiba’s cheek. He was cold to the touch. His body swayed with her touch but he did not move. He did not blink. He did not change that frightening expression that etched it’s imprint on Hinata’s heart and soul. She stared into his open eyes and she saw absolutely nothing at all. Just the carcass of a boy they once called Kiba.

“No he isn’t.” Naruto spoke. She looked confusedly at Naruto. Her eyebrows furrowing. Tears streaming down her cheeks. He had to be kidding.

“Naruto...come out with me.” Hinata asked and she grabbed Naruto’s hand and pulled him.

“I’m not leaving Kiba.” Naruto spoke and wretched his hand from Hinata’s.

“Naruto...please come out with me. I can’t…” Hinata’s voice was shaky and she could feel it her sanity slipping through her fingers. She was unraveling. She couldn’t do it anymore. It was all becoming too much. None of this was supposed to happen. She stared back at Naruto who refused to budge, and refused to look, or acknowledge her. He wasn’t rooted in the present he was rooted in yesterday.

“You said help was coming and they’re not...nobody is coming for us, Naruto!” Hinata screamed at him. He said help was going to arrive. He said they were all going to be okay.

“What’s going on?” Lee asked and he appeared, paralyzed. The same overwhelming feeling that took Hinata over was now infecting Lee with the same infection. It was obvious to anyone that Kiba had passed away over the night. It was too late. Help didn’t come in time.

“Kiba isn’t dead!” Naruto spoke deadpan. She didn’t know who he was answering as neither spoke the words out loud. Lee touched Hinata’s shoulder. She could feel Lee’s hand shaking against her as he held her for stability.

“This can’t be happening…” Hinata choked. “Naruto please! Come out with me!”

“I’m not leaving Kiba!”

“Kiba is dead!”

She said it and the illusion of safety and security shattered. She was disillusioned. None of them were supposed to die. They were all invincible. Help was supposed to come yesterday. There was supposed to be helicopters, bloodhounds, search and rescue, EMT’s, volunteers, and they were supposed to be found. They were supposed to all go to the hospital, treated, and released. Kiba would have been admitted, would have undergone surgery, and survived. He would be moved to the recovery floor and they would have visited him with get well teddy bears, flowers, and balloon arrangements.

But help didn’t come and that future popped like a soap bubble leaving the grimy world darker and colder in its wake.

There was nobody. They were alone. They were all alone and Kiba was dead. She screamed. Her vision became blurry. Her head pounded. She felt the tears and snot falling down her face. She couldn’t bear it anymore and she left. She wanted to run away. She wanted to warn everyone that death was coming for them all. She wanted to deliver the news.

To become the harbinger, but the words didn’t form. Instead she was the conduit and the screams from hell escaped her mouth. Demons came out and she fell over vomiting. Lee had appeared and made the truth a reality announcing that Kiba was dead. She looked up and saw it...the humanoid had appeared. Naked and cackling. It’s distended stomach, it’s peeled nipples, and festering boils. The skin peeled back to the breast bone. White maggots formed in pockets and ate away the right eyeball. The detached jaw that revealed it’s long tongue and busted teeth.

It was her all along she had been staring at herself, a rotting corpse.

“WE’RE ALL ALONE NOBODY IS COMING! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” Lee screamed.

The two that had ventured inside the van had succumbed into madness. Sakura watched the scene unravel. Heard the words that Lee screamed out. Hinata sounded like a wounded animal waiting to be put out of its misery, and Sakura wanted her to stop, wanted to put her out of her misery. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. How was help supposed to find them if they didn’t know where they were? She wasn’t able to place the call to 911 so they didn’t know where to look. There was four hours worth of road through the mountain and they weren’t going to be found. It was impossible.

“HELP!” Sakura screamed. “WE’RE HERE! WE’RE DOWN HERE! HELP!” She started screaming. It was the loudest she had ever been. Desperate and beyond scared. Never in her life had she screamed like this before. She wanted to be heard...to be found.

“What...are we supposed to do…?” Ino said. She had turned pale. She felt the blood drain from her face and extremities and pooled to her chest. She had broken out and eczema formed on her cheeks. A bumpy, reddened, rash that she began to itch violently. The cold had chapped her face and dried her lips. She itched so much she cut her skin with her nails and she began bleeding.

“I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” Ino screamed. Looking crazily as Sakura continued to scream for help.

“Where’s Naruto?” Choji asked Lee and he turned around with a wild look in his eyes. Sakura continued to scream for help in the background. Lee looked towards the van. Naruto had yet to emerge. Choji moved back towards the van and in search of Naruto.

“This isn’t fucking happening…” Suigetsu yelled. Sasuke looked at him and saw he was visibly shaking. “We can’t fucking stay here! We need to go to a place where we can be seen! They can’t fucking find us if they can’t see us!” Suigetsu was shouting and speaking with his hands.

Kiba was dead. He was pinned in the van and couldn’t get out. He was trapped, and now he was dead. Mrs. Yuhi was dead. Suigetsu was right. If they couldn’t be seen how could they be found? There was nothing but thick treetops above them he couldn’t even see the sky let alone a helicopter. Let alone hear a helicopter. The mountains were huge. It would be impossible to find them if the search and rescue didn’t have a starting point. They were going to die if they didn’t do something. If they stayed here they were going to die. It was a fact.

“Should we leave?” Sasuke asked Suigetsu.

“Move to a place where we can be seen? I don’t want to stay here with rotting corpses! We have to leave, Sasuke!

“Look! We can’t stay here!” Sasuke shouted, and he couldn’t think clearly. His voice didn’t seem to reach Sakura who was still screaming for help. He grabbed her arm and forced her to look at him. “STOP!”

“We’re not going to die!” Sasuke continued. “We need to leave. We need to move somewhere where we can be seen by helicopters! Nobody will find us if we stay here!”

“Leave?” Sakura said. “And go where?”

“Where there’s a clearing...someplace we can be seen!”

“Where? Do you have a map? Do you want us to just walk blindly through the mountains?!”

Sakura was hysterical. She was screaming. Sasuke slapped her across the face. She cried out and covered her cheek with her hands. She stopped screaming and stopped asking questions he didn’t know the answers to. His eyes widened. He hadn’t meant to slap her he just wanted her to calm down. To shut up so he could think. He didn’t have the gentleness that Naruto had possessed. He looked around. Naruto still hadn’t emerged from the van. He wondered what Naruto would do...what he would say. The longer Naruto didn’t emerge from the van the angrier Sasuke became.

“Sasuke!” Ino screamed. She had witnessed Sasuke slapping Sakura and leapt to Sakura’s side.

“We can’t stay here!” Sasuke repeated looking directly at Ino. He let go of Sakura.

“Don’t they tell you to stay in one place if you’re lost?” Ino asked and wrapped an arm around Sakura’s shoulder.

“We’re in the mountains! We need to move to where they can see us! They have helicopters and heat seeking machines, but if we’re covered by these trees there’s no way they can find us! Don’t you understand?”

“We’re all going to leave?” Ino asked looking around. Hinata was still sobbing against the ground curled over on her stomach and knees. Lee had his legs drawn up and buried his head in his knees. Naruto hadn’t emerged from the van, still, and now Choji was gone. They were in no state to leave. Not now.

“We’ll split up!” Suigetsu suggested. “We can’t bring everyone with us!”

Sasuke hadn’t thought about if they should all go together or separate.

“Split up?” Sakura cried out. Neither idea sounded pleasing to her. “We shouldn’t split up!”

“You don’t want to go and you don’t want us to split up...what do you want?” Suigetsu barked at Sakura.

“Where’s Naruto?” Sakura asked looking around. She wanted to know Naruto’s opinion.

“Naruto? Naruto isn’t in charge!”

“And you are?”

“Someone has to be if we’re going to get through this alive! We barely have any food and water left! If we don’t do something now we’re all going to die here!”

*****

Choji tried to crawl through the passenger side door but he couldn’t fit. He didn't remember how he escaped yesterday. He remember being filled with panic and he barreled out. Now staring back at the passenger door he didn't think he was in the right mind to re-enter the same way he escaped. He stuck his head in and looked towards the back. From his position he couldn’t see Naruto or Kiba. They were just out of sight.

“Naruto?” Choji called out. There was no response. “NARUTO!” Again no response. Choji moved to the middle part of the van. To the open door where Lee, Sakura, and Ino escaped from. He pushed his body through the middle. His hands hit something crinkly and he looked down. He found the additional snacks they had spoken about last night. Chips, candy, trail mix, and a package of flavored sunflower seeds. He put the snacks into a plastic bag. His stomach growling and mouth salivating.

He moved to the space between the front and middle section of the van. He saw Naruto through a hole. He appeared to be in a daze. He was holding Kiba’s hand.

“Naruto!” Choji repeated. Naruto looked up.

“Mhm?”

“You need to come out. We need you.”

“I can’t leave Kiba.”

“Naruto! We need you.”

“I’m not leaving Kiba.”

“I need you...Naruto.”

Naruto didn’t respond and became closed off. He buried his face in his knees and ignored Choji. Nothing Choji said would rouse another answer out of him, and he left disheartened.

Choji sat outside the van, hidden from view, and began eating the snacks. Beginning with the potato chips. His mind was blank. There wasn’t a thought. He was running on autopilot and checked out. He stared at the side of the mountain that led to the road. It was impossible to climb. He looked at the broken branches and tire tracks and everything vanished into pine tree tops. His senses dulled one by one, and soon all he could hear was the beating of his own heart, and the whooshing sound of blood between his ears. Then he heard absolutely nothing at all...until someone’s screaming voice snapped him out of his stupor.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Suigetsu screamed. Choji looked up. “YOU’RE EATING ALL OUR FOOD YOU FAT FUCK! YOU FUCKING PIG-BOY!” Suigetsu reached over and grabbed the bag of food from Choji’s hands.

“It’s mine!” Choji lied and he refused to hand the bag over. He was starving.

Suigetsu repeatedly punched Choji in the face repeating that he was nothing but a fat pig who needed to be gutted. Choji could feel the cartilage in his nose snapping and blood vessels bursting. He was blinded in pain. He let go of the bag and covered his face protectively. The pain was unbearable and he began to cry out tears rolling down and mixed with the blood that had burst from his nose. When he inhaled he could feel globs of blood sliding down his throat and he started to cough. Suigetsu kicked Choji in the rib cage. Three times before he was interrupted.

“TAKE THAT YOU FUCKING PIG! I’LL FUCKING GUT YOU!”

“Suigetsu!” Sakura cried out as she appeared behind Suigetsu.

“He’s eating all the food! This is all we have left!” Suigetsu explained holding up what was left of the bag.

“CHOJI!” Sakura cried out accusatory and rushed to the bag. Her eyes looking from Choji to the nearly empty bag.

“We can’t bring Choji! The fat pig will only slow us down!” Suigetsu said and stormed away leaving Choji to care for his busted nose.

*****

“Are we really splitting up?” Sakura asked and looked to Sasuke for confirmation. “Sasuke?”

Sasuke hadn’t confirmed one way or another. The last decision was to remove all the food from the van and to gather up all the water bottles to assess their supplies. He looked at the bag Suigetsu supplied. Choji had eaten through half of their food leaving only a bag of trail mix and sunflower seeds. It wasn’t enough for the nine of them...eight of them. He looked at Suigetsu whose face was twisted up into a permanent scowl to Sakura who looked mortified. He didn’t know the answer. He didn’t know what to pick. He felt scared.

“If we split up who's going and who’s staying?” Sasuke asked still hesitant on making a decision until he knew all the details.

“Choji, Hinata, Lee, and Naruto are staying. You, me, Sakura and Ino are going.” Suigetsu answered before Sakura could open her mouth to answer. She closed her mouth and looked around taking his words into consideration. The only name she struggled with was Naruto’s.

“Okay.” Sasuke answered nodding his head. It was the best option for survival. Half stay, and half leave. May the better half reach search and rescue and warn them about the other group. Sasuke hoped their group would be more successful.

“O-okay.” Sakura agreed nodding her head. She wanted Naruto included but she looked at the van and he had yet to emerge. She glomped on to whoever was more confident and strong and Naruto was nowhere in sight. She wanted to live. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go home.

“I’m not going!” Ino shrilled when they told her the plan. She looked mortified at Sakura, disgusted, she would agree to such a thing. “Either we all go or I’m staying!” Ino was applying generous amounts of lotion on her raw cheeks.

“Do you want to die? If you stay here you’re going to die!” Suigetsu said and grabbed her wrist stopping her from applying the lotion when she turned away. Ino’s eyes widened and her bottom lip quivered. She stared into his dark eyes seeing her frightened expression reflected back in his pupils. She didn’t want anyone to die...especially herself. She wanted to go home. She wanted to see her dad again.

“Then we should all go!” Ino said after a while. Her voice was distant and filled with fear. She wanted to be diplomatic like her father but she lacked the confidence he had.

“Ino!” Sakura pleaded.

“We need to stay together! Where’s Naruto?” Ino asked and looked around for the blonde hoping he’d appear.

“Stop saying his name! He’s the reason why I’m here!” Suigetsu yelled. Ino and Sakura grew quiet and stared at him. He turned to look at Sasuke including him on this revelation. Sasuke was still angry with Naruto for holding himself up in the van, and refusing to join them. He was angry with Naruto for forcing him to make these difficult decisions by himself. Naruto who often played the voice of reason was nowhere and it left everyone desperate and it only drove Sasuke crazy and if he saw him he’d probably punch him in the face.

“Admit it, Sasuke! He’s the reason you and me are here! We were never supposed to be on this bullshit trip! He’s killed us! If we stay here we are going to die and Naruto would have killed us!”

“He’s right.” Sasuke admitted. His mouth and words faster than his mind could process. He needed someone to blame. Suigetsu was right. It was Naruto’s fault. Without him whispering into Mrs. Yuhi’s ear he and Suigetsu wouldn’t have come. She would have duped two others into the trip. Their fate would have been here if it wasn’t for him, and Suigetsu and Sasuke would have been back in Konoha playing video games. Bad luck ate away at him like maggots and roaches. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for Naruto and the more he thought about it the angrier he’d become.

“It’s Naruto’s fault.” Sasuke continued bitterly. He rolled his hands into fists. He hated his fucking guts.

There was a long pause. Sakura knew it was Naruto who had spoken to Mrs. Yuhi about Sasuke and Suigetsu as substitutes for Shikamaru and Shino. She looked at Ino, but she refused to look at her. Naruto’s logic being if they had all spent time together it would clear away the bad blood. They would be forced to work as a team, and would find commonality and eventually become friends.

Sakura also knew the accident wasn’t Naruto’s fault. He was in the backseat sleeping. She remembered glancing back and saw Naruto sleeping his head falling over on Sasuke’s shoulder. At first Sasuke didn’t do anything. He stared down at the blonde. There was a strange look Sasuke gave Naruto and she couldn’t explain it. Sasuke looked up and saw Sakura staring at him. He rolled his eyes and shoved Naruto’s face away turning his body so that he was staring out the window.

It wasn’t Naruto’s fault. She didn’t say any of this. It was futile. They had already made up their minds. She bit her lip and kept quiet. The truth was...she wanted to live and she didn’t care how she did it as long as she was found, and found alive.

*****

“We’re splitting up!” Suigetsu spoke. Hinata and Lee hadn’t left their positions. They both turned to stare at him. They were kept in the dark about the plan and nobody asked their opinions, because nobody cared. It was already decided all that was left was to explain what was going to happen.

“Me, Sasuke, Sakura, and Ino are leaving to go find help. The rest of you will stay here incase help arrives!”

“Splitting up?” Lee asked.

“Yes, and we’re taking the water and the rest of the snacks.” Suigetsu continued. Sakura winced. She didn’t know why he said that if he didn’t they could have just left. She swallowed painfully and looked back at Lee.

“What?!” Lee balked standing up. “What about us?”

“We need it! We’re going to be traveling and will use up more energy.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Yes it is!”

“I want to come too!” Lee said.

“No! You’re staying here!”

“Why?”

Sakura and Ino exchanged looks. They didn’t understand why Lee couldn’t come. Both were becoming uncomfortable. Thinking maybe they should have just left without exchanging words.

“Leave us some water and food!” Lee demanded.

“I would but the fat fuck already ate your half!” Suigetsu pointed to Choji who was going through the first aid kit.

“Naruto!” Lee shouted looking at the van. “Are you listening?!” Sakura looked at the van. Naruto hadn’t come out and she knew he wasn’t going to come out.

“STOP SAYING HIS NAME!”

“Leave us a water bottle!”

“NO!”

Lee lunged at Suigetsu. He wrapped his arms around his waist and tackled him. He was wiry and nimble. He didn’t want to be left stranded without food and water, especially when they still had some left. He didn’t want to die. They could only last days without water. In seconds the two ended up in a scuffle. Fists were thrown, feet were kicked, hair pulled, and skin scratched.

“Why are we separating?” Hinata asked desperately. She had scrambled to her feet. Her face was smeared in clear snot and tears. Her eyes bloodshot and swollen from crying.

“It’s better this way. We’ll cover more ground if we travel light.” Sasuke answered coming to Suigetsu’s defense.

“You’re leaving now?” Hinata asked.

Suigetsu sucker punched Lee and it was enough for him to drop. Suigetsu picked himself up. He was breathing through his mouth and there was a wild expression in his eyes. There was no humanity in those eyes. Blood dripped from an open wound on his lip and he licked it. He was bandaged up from the night before and his bandages were soiled in blood and dirt. His cuts were deeper and more severe than the rest of them but he didn’t appear to slow him down.

“We’re leaving now!” Suigetsu said as he picked up his backpack.

“What about Kiba?” Hinata asked. Her voice was desperate and she jumped in front of them.

“What about him?” Suigetsu asked. “He’s dead!”

“But if you don’t leave us water we’re going to die!” Hinata wailed. Holding out her arms. She didn’t know what she was going to do or how she was going to stop him.

“I DON’T CARE! YOU CAN ALL DIE FOR ALL I CARE!”

Everything happened so fast it wasn’t processed by the naked eye. There was a whirl of movement and color and sound. There was a disgusting thunking sound. The sound of bone against steel. Hinata’s eyes widened. Suigetsu was hit upside the head with the shovel wielded by Choji. He swung like Babe Ruth stepping up to bat at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Choji hit it out of the park and ran around the bases to the sound of applause. Suigetsu’s body hit the ground and he didn’t move. He didn’t get back up. Blood erupted from his head and soaked his fine whitish-blonde hair and he was knocked out cold.

Sakura had screamed and both Ino and her jumped back fearful of what was happening.

“CHOJI!” Hinata screamed. Choji wasn’t done. He raised the shovel again and brought the metal end back down on Suigetsu’s head. There was a sickening noise that made her nauseous. She looked fearfully up at Choji. He raised his arms again ready to hit Suigetsu again.

“CHOJI STOP YOU’RE GOING TO KILL HIM!” Sakura screamed and she held her hand out.

Choji stopped and turned around and stared at Sasuke. “You’re not leaving with the food and water. Give it to me.”

Sasuke was frozen. He watched the deranged actions of Choji in a mixture of fear, shock, and admiration.

“Give it to me!” Choji screamed and pointed the shovel at him.

Sasuke jumped and slipped the backpack off and tossed it to him. His eyes looked at the tip of the shovel where he saw Suigetsu’s blood smeared against the steel. Sasuke looked up further and saw Choji’s face. His nose was crooked and dried blood smeared across his mouth and chin. He was smiling. Choji’s lips spread and revealed bloodied teeth. He looked pleased with himself.

“TAKE THAT LITTLE PIGGY!” Choji erupted into cold, mocking, laughter.

Choji looked down at Suigetsu’s lifeless body and kicked him in his rib cage and erupted into more laughter. It echoed. He chortled and kicked him again, before taking the backpack, and leaving to the back of the van. Sasuke collapsed to his knees and gasped as he fell onto his hands. He was panting. Sweat formed on his temples and rolled down. He was so scared he was shaking. He looked at Suigetsu’s lifeless body but he couldn’t bring himself to move.

Hinata stood quietly, feeling small and insignificant, as she watched Choji walking away. Then looked to Sakura and Ino. They mirrored each other. Both wearing mortified expressions. She looked down at Lee’s unconscious body to Suigetsu’s.

Hinata was the first to move. She had to stop the bleeding. She walked to the first aid kit and Choji stopped her. He brought the shovel out and blocked it from her reach.

“Choji...I need it.”

“No. Don’t touch it. He doesn’t deserve it.”

“Suigetsu?”

“Yes.”

“Please...let...me…”

Choji raised the shovel threateningly and screamed. “I SAID NO! LET HIM DIE!”

“Please!” Hinata begged and Choji took the shovel and swung at Hinata. It caught her in the shoulder and her body jerked to the side. She cried out as she fell to the ground. She covered her head with her hands protectively, and stopped moving.

“NOBODY TOUCH HIM!” Choji screamed. “IF HE DOESN’T CARE IF WE LIVE OR DIE. LET HIM DIE!”

“Choji please stop you’re scaring us!” Sakura cried out.

“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” Choji screamed. He held the shovel threateningly. He pointed it at Sakura. “You were going to leave with them! You were going to let them leave us with no water or food! You were going to let us die!”

“I…”

“IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE! LEAVE!” Choji continued. He looked from Sakura, to Ino, to Sasuke. “Ain’t no one stopping you now!” Choji gestured towards the forest. “LEAVE. You were going to leave before!”

But they didn’t leave.

They had taken a vow of silence, leaving only the noises of the forest. Hours had passed and neither spoke. Lee had awoken and joined Hinata. He ignored Sasuke, Ino, and Sakura. There was a divide forming. Lee and Hinata who were going to be left behind and left for dead, and Sasuke, Ino, and Sakura who were going to leave with the supplies. Suigetsu remained facedown on the ground bleeding out from the side of his skull. Fear gripped all of them. Choji remained at the back of the van, shovel in hand, and sitting down watching everyone, ensuring none helped Suigetsu. In that moment Choji appeared bigger and stronger than all of them combined. Although he was fat there was muscle under that fat, he was bigger, and taller and since he wielded the shovel like a weapon he looked menacing.

Not only did he hit Suigetsu but he had hit Hinata. A line was crossed and they all looked at Choji distrustingly.

Hinata stood up and Choji barked. “Where are you going?!” He too scrambled up and held onto the shovel as if it were a sword. He wasn’t afraid to hit her again.

“To...the bathroom! I have to pee!” Hinata’s face erupted into a bloodshot red.

“F-fine.”

*****

Hinata walked into the forest. Instead of going to the bathroom she circled around and exited the forest and came to the front of the van. She crawled on her hands and knees and entered the van from the passenger side. Avoiding Mrs. Yuhi. She found Naruto in the same position. He was holding Kiba’s hand. His knees drawn up to his chest. Eyes staring blankly in front of him. He didn’t even notice when Hinata crawled up besides him.

“Naruto…” Hinata whispered.

“Mhm?” Naruto answered. It felt like a pre-recorded response. Naruto was gone and left a tape recorder in his place.

“We need you...Choji’s gone crazy…he bashed Suigetsu’s head in with a shovel and he won’t let us help him. If we don’t do anything Suiegtsu is going to die!” Her voice was hoarse and full of panic.

“I can’t leave Kiba. I promised I would stay with him.”

“Naruto...please!” Hinata cried out and she wrapped her arms around him. She refused to let go. She felt her heart thumping madly as she felt Naruto’s body against hers. She felt her face flush, and felt the heat rise to her cheeks and neck.

“They were going to leave without us. Sasuke, Suigetsu, Ino, Sakura. They were going to leave and they were going to take the water and food. They weren’t going to leave us anything...they were going to leave us to die.”

Hinata was sobbing again as she explained what was going on outside. She buried her head in the crook of Naruto’s neck. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Kiba. She didn’t know what frightened her more. Inside, or outside of the van. But being next to Naruto and she felt less afraid, even if Naruto was a million years in the past, the fact that her arms were around him was enough.

“I can’t go back out there.” Hinata murmured. “Naruto...I...I love you!”

The phrase seemed to pull Naruto back into the present. He blinked and turned to see her. Looking at her as if he was surprised she was even there. She had wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face into the crook of his neck. He could feel her breath on his flesh. Her shoulders were moving up and down and the tears felt hot against his exposed skin as she continued sobbing.

“Wh..at?” Naruto asked bewildered. The conversation he shared with Kiba last night came flooding back.

“I love you. I liked you for a long time! Since the first day of science class when you asked to be my partner!” Hinata didn’t know why she was confessing. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Her brain's way of protecting her. To keep her mind and brain off the fact that Kiba was dead, Mrs. Yuhi was dead, and soon Suigetsu was going to die if they didn’t help him. To change the topic. It wasn’t logical. It was maddening. She didn't know why she was confessing it was the worst possible scenary to confess and yet here she was. She was stark raving mad.

“I…” Naruto continued but the words trailed off. He didn't like Hinata. Not like that. He looked back at Kiba. “Kiba likes you. He’s going to confess to you when we’re rescued.”

“What did you say?” Hinata asked and she pushed herself up and stared into Naruto’s face. She couldn’t see the blueness of his eyes inside the van. There was little light inside and therefore she couldn’t see the blueness of his eyes, and that’s all she wanted to see. That special color blue. Right now they looked dark and somber, and she hated it, and wanted to pull him outside just so she could look at his eyes.

“It’s Kiba that likes you. Not me!”

“Naruto. Kiba...isn’t alive. Please let go of his hand!”

“I’m not holding his hand. He’s holding my hand...he isn’t dead.”

Hinata turned and looked down at Naruto and Kiba’s hands. She reached out and grabbed Kiba’s lifeless arm. His hand was frozen around Naruto’s. Rigamortis had began to settle in. He was becoming stationary and cementing into place. She held Kiba’s wrist and pulled his hand from Naruto’s.

“What are you doing?” Naruto yelled as he realized what Hinata had done. He tried to grab Kiba’s hand but Hinata reached out and held onto his hand.

“Kiba isn’t alive...Naruto...help didn’t get here in time! He’s dead!” Hinata repeated her previous statement to him.

“It...didn’t?”

“No!”

Naruto’s eyes watered. “I still don’t want to leave him!”

“Naruto...we need to figure out what we’re going to do or we’re all going to die!”

He broke. Naruto wrapped his arms around Hinata and began to cry. Hinata held him protectively and she too shed tears mourning the loss of Kiba and tears that she had finally broke Naruto from his state of psychosis and denial. She had successfully taken him from the past and put him back in the present.

*****

Naruto emerged from the van and Hinata refused to let go of his hand. She pulled him out and helped him stand up on shaky legs. His eyes shut as they adjusted to the light and he opened them up slowly to see Hinata's face inches from him staring at him with her pale bluish-white eyes. He blinked, looked away, and pulled back self-conscious that she was so close. The air was cold and sliced through him. He found himself shivering. Hinata turned away and blushed again. Hinata lead him to the back of the van where Choji sat. Choji had Sasuke’s backpack on and held the shovel with one hand. Naruto saw the dried blood on the shovel blade and wooden handle.

“Choji…” Naruto called out and it caused Choji to spin around and stare up at Naruto. There was a wildness in his eyes. They didn’t seem to recognize him. Not at first. It took a moment.

“Choji what’s going on?” Naruto asked and his eyes looked around until they settled on Suigetsu laying face down and lifeless.

“N-naruto?!” Choji called out and he stumbled into a standing position. He looked frightened and ashamed. He looked from Hinata to Naruto and down to their hands locked together. He glared at Hinata as the reason why Naruto emerged and tightened his hold on the shovel’s handle.

“They were going to leave without us! They were going to take the food and water and leave us with nothing!”

“What happened to your face?” Naruto asked turning his attention back to Choji. His nose was crooked and swollen and caused both eyes to swell. Naruto could see the skin around his eyes turning a reddish-blue. By tomorrow he’d have two matching black eyes.

“Suigetsu hit me!” Choji accused.

“Let me help you Choji.” Naruto said. He let go of Hinata’s hand and walked towards the first aid kit that was by Choji’s feet. “Let me clean you up.”

“YOU’RE LYING!” Choji yelled and he held the shovel with both hands and stood up ready to swing.

“What are you talking about? Let me help you.” Naruto said. He didn’t stop. Choji swung the shovel around ready to hit Naruto. He brought his blue eyes to the blade of the shovel. It reflected the pine tree tops from above.

“You said you would protect me and you lied!” Choji screamed and he swung the shovel at Naruto. It struck Naruto in the shoulder but he braced himself, his body jerked with the impact, but he didn’t fall over. He held his ground and gasped. Pain flooded his arm and shoulder. He could feel the side of the shovel connecting with the bone of his shoulder and his eyes watered up.

“Choji! I’m sorry I wasn’t here...” Naruto gasped and held out his hand. “Please give me the shovel and let's figure out what we’re going to do. You want to get home right? To see your family, and Shikamaru?”

“Shikamaru?” Choji choked out. Tears filled his eyes and he nodded his head up and down. He wanted to see Shikamaru more than he wanted to see his family. He looked at Naruto and heard Shikamaru’s words telling Choji that he trusted Naruto. He swallowed. He slowly brought his hand down and held the shovel out to Naruto. He wanted to trust Naruto, because Shikamaru trusted him.

Naruto took the shovel and threw it out of reach, it clattered forgotten against the ground, and he picked up the first aid kit. He unzipped it and took out a cleansing pad before zipping it back up. He turned around and tossed the kit to Hinata.

“Take care of Suigetsu.” Naruto spoke. Hinata clumsily caught the first aid kit and ran back to where Suigetsu lay.

“Naruto...he hurt me...he hurt us!” Choji choked as he watched Hinata kneeling down. His face turning red with anger his blood boiling as he remembered Suigetsu striking him behind the van. Sakura and Ino joined Hinata and they rifled through the first aid kit. Naruto unwrapped the cleansing pad and began to clean the blood and dirt from Choji’s face.

“He doesn’t deserve to die...not here and not like this.” Naruto murmured. “None of us do. We have to work together if we’re going to get out of this alive.”

“B-b-but...they were going to leave us. If I didn’t stop them they were going to leave. I don’t trust them. Sasuke...Ino...Sakura...and Suigetsu. They’re traitors! They were going to leave us to die!”

“We’re not going to die.”

“THAT’S WHAT YOU SAY BUT KIBA IS ALREADY DEAD!”

Naruto retracted his hand and stared at Choji. His breath caught in the back of his throat. He was right. Naruto looked away and down at the ground. He didn’t know what to say. He felt himself shrink. Felt fear coming from the shadows to choke him.

“SASUKE! NO!” It was Sakura’s voice giving a warning.

Naruto stood up and spun around seeing Sasuke. He was running towards them and swinging the shovel behind his shoulder. There was something deranged in his eyes. They narrowed into slits of dark space. His face twisted up into unimaginable horror. Naruto held his hands out and cried placing himself in front of Sasuke as Choji dropped to his knees and began to cower.

“STOP!”

“HE TRIED TO KILL SUIGETSU!” Sasuke screamed. “MOVE OUT OF THE WAY, NARUTO!”

“SASUKE! STOP! THIS ISN’T GOING TO SOLVE ANYTHING!”

“MOVE!”

“NO!”

“STOP PROTECTING HIM! HE’S A MURDERER!” Sasuke screamed and went to swing the shovel, but Naruto grabbed onto the handle and pushed him back. He caught sight of Sasuke’s eyes. Sasuke let out a frustrated cry as he tried to wretch the shovel from Naruto’s hands. He jerked Naruto’s body wanting nothing more than to knock him on his feet. Naruto didn’t let go and only tightened his grasp around the handle. His goal wasn’t to take the shovel from Sasuke but to just stop him.

“I’ll take responsibility for him! Just leave him alone!” Naruto pleaded. He didn’t want anymore violence.

Sasuke glared back at him. It was the first time he was actually looking at Naruto and not through him at Choji. Instead of seeing him as an obstacle Sasuke saw him as an enemy. A coward who hid in the van and refused to come out. If he had come out, things might have gone differently. They wouldn’t have split up. Naruto would have talked some sense into them. Instead he wasn’t here, wasn’t there, and now Suigetsu laid dying and he was here protecting Choji the murderer.

“Suigetsu’s blood is on your hands, Naruto! You killed him! We were never supposed to be on this trip! This is your fault! So why don’t you go hide back in the van you fucking coward!” Naruto’s eyes widened and his grip loosened on the handle.

“Suigetsu is waking up!” Hinata called out. It caused Sasuke to turn around to see for himself Suigetsu raising up with Sakura’s help. There were white bandages wrapped tightly around his head with gauze and ointment.

Naruto released his hold on the wooden handle and his hands dropped lifelessly to his side. He felt weak as if someone was siphoning the energy and will out of him. His breathing was irregular and his vision was blurry.

“Where is he? I’m going to gut that fucking pig!” Suigetsu screamed out and he stumbled to his feet. He looked like a monster. Something inhumane. His hair was matted and bloodied. Blood stained the side of his face, his neck, and coat. His ear was cut in the middle sliced from the side of the shovel. Sakura held onto him and refused to let go as he tried to fight her off. He kept his sight on Choji who continued to cower on the ground and then took those wild eyes to Naruto who wasn’t even looking at him.

“Naruto won’t get out of the fucking way!” Sasuke screamed to Suigetsu.

The truth was Sasuke didn’t want Naruto to move. He wanted him in the middle. On some level he needed Naruto, because without him Suigetsu and him might really turn into monsters.

“We have to work together.” Naruto said less confidently. It was something he wanted to believe but the hope was already deteriorating. He wasn’t strong enough to believe that anymore. He had doubts. He looked around. He wanted everyone to live. He wanted all of them to be saved. He felt his heart thumping painfully in his chest. Doubt seeped through and he was filled with wicked thoughts...that not all of them were going to survive. The poison began to slowly infect him over time.

“Are you fucking retarded? Look where we are! We’re in the middle of the fucking woods! Help isn’t coming and you expect us to work with a fucking fat pig who tried to kill me?” Suigetsu screamed. He took his rage out on Naruto.

“Naruto is right!” Ino interrupted and joined Naruto’s side. The diplomat. “We can’t split up!”

“He’s right.” Lee continued. He gave Ino a distrustful look believing her to be manipulative but nonetheless joined Naruto. “We need all of us...all of us need to work together.”

“He’s been gone the whole day and now that he’s back ya’ll just going to follow him?” Suigetsu screamed. He glared bitterly at Naruto.

“Leave Choji to me! He’s my responsibility.” Naruto continued.

“Blood will be on your hands if anything happens to us!” Sasuke hissed and shoved Naruto back before walking away and joining Suigetsu. Naruto collapsed and crouched on his feet. No longer having the strength to keep himself standing. His hands pressed against the ground for balance. He was shaking.

“We can’t stay here!” Sasuke raised his voice. He continued to hold the shovel and rested it against his shoulder blade. He turned around and looked at all of them. “If we stay here we’re going to die. We need to leave. We need to move to a place where we can be found! I haven’t heard a helicopter! If they’re searching for us they’re not looking in the right spot!”

Suigetsu nodded his head. Sakura looked conflicted she still helped Suigetsu to remain balanced and he placed more weight on Sakura than he would like to admit. He felt weak and knew his strength was obsolete. He didn’t want to show any weakness. Didn’t want to admit his vision was blurry and he felt off balance even when he was standing still. The world tilted around him. He was hesitant on hiking through the woods but knew they couldn’t stay here. He didn’t know what time it was but it felt like afternoon. They were wasting time. His head throbbed and everytime he blinked he felt a pressure behind both eyes causing him to feel like both eyes were going to pop at any minute. He could feel bile pumping into his stomach and acid burning his esophagus. His tongue was dry and his stomach growled.

“We all leave together. Pack up everything and let’s go!” Sasuke commanded to everyone. He glared over his shoulder and looked down at Naruto who crouched on the ground still in front of Choji. Naruto didn’t look up. His eyes were still focused on the ground. He snorted and ignored him, and walked up to Suigetsu and Sakura, specifically Sakura.

“Is your cell phone still off?”

“Mhm.”

“Good. We need to save the battery. We’ll check it when we’re in a better position.”

“I don’t want that fat fuck with us.” Suigetsu murmured. His voice low. He didn’t want to be overheard. “The first chance I get I’m dropping both him and Naruto.”

“We’ll keep them at the back. Don’t waste energy on them.” Sasuke answered.

Hinata carried the first aid kit and walked up to Naruto. Her eyes darted fearfully towards Choji afraid he was going to pop up and hit her. Hinata crouched down and looked up at Naruto. His eyes were caste down and he was trembling. She looked him over and glanced up at Lee and Ino.

“Naruto?” Hinata asked reaching out and wrapping her hand around his. Naruto looked up.

“I...don’t know about this. I think we should stay here. I don’t want to go.” Naruto confessed. His eyes moved back and forth as he thought about the pros and cons of staying or leaving.

“Naruto please! We have to stay together!”

“I’m scared!” Naruto confessed and he couldn’t stop himself from trembling. Adrenaline rushed through his veins but he was paraliyzed. He couldn’t move. A hard pit was forming in his stomach. He was losing control. Things were going wrong in the worst possible way and he was frightened. He felt if they left he was going to have even less control.

“We’re going to get through this!” Lee spoke and then he chuckled softly. “Once again you’re Sasuke’s kryptonite.” Lee glanced over his shoulder and watched as Suigetsu, Sasuke, and Sakura huddled together in quiet conversation.

“No. This is different. We aren’t in school...we’re out in the wild. I don’t think I could stop him again. I thought he was really going to hit me with the shovel to get to Choji, and I’m afraid that next time he will.”

Choji let out a loud whimper and he pushed himself up to reveal he had been silently crying the entire time. Naruto looked at him and his face softened and his stomach dropped realizing he was speaking out loud. Lee was knocked out and hadn’t witnessed Choji’s rampage on Suigetsu and Hinata and he too looked sympathetically down at Choji.

“I won’t let that happen though! I told you Choji I’ll protect you.”

“Me too Choji!” Lee continued. He noticed Hinata and Ino kept quiet and both turned away.

Although Naruto said it he didn’t believe it one bit and it was the first time he found himself lying. He shook his head and tried to rid himself of those bad thoughts. He looked at Lee, to Hinata, to Ino, and finally to Choji.

“We need to be found. We need to let them know where Kiba and Mrs. Yuhi are...they can’t...they can’t stay out here. We need to bring them home.”

 

*****

“Is everyone ready?” Sasuke asked and he looked around. “Everyone move out!”

Suigetsu and Sakura took the lead. Sakura assisting Suigetsu. Followed by Ino. Hinata and Lee followed past Sasuke. He watched as they all left and then took his eyes to Naruto and Choji. He stopped them and looked specifically at Naruto.

“You better keep your mouth shut and stay in the back!”

He shoved Naruto and gave a disgusted look at Choji before spinning on his heels and jogging up to Suigetsu and Sakura. Choji continued to make whimpering noises. Naruto sighed. This was how it had to be. He glanced at Choji.

“It’s okay Choji. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. It’s fine us being in the back. We’ll just go at our own pace.”

“I’m scared, Naruto.”

“Me too, Choji...me too.”

Naruto took one more look back at the wreckage sight. The temporary graveyard. He looked at the van and he said a silent prayer to both Mrs. Yuhi and Kiba before turning and leaving with the rest of them venturing deeper into the unknown. He didn't feel good leaving. He felt anxious and worried. In moments they were all swallowed up by the wilderness and disappeared. They ceased being students, daughters, sons, friends and became survivors.

Chapter Text

“Which is better--to have laws and agree, or to hunt and kill?”― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

In aviation pilots often use waypoints when navigating. Mariners use the horizon. There was celestial navigation. There was the global positioning system. Orienteering. There were so many means of accurately ascertaining one's position and planning and following a route in the world, and yet, they had none of it at their disposal. They had absolutely nothing. They had no map, no compass, no bearings. Their horizon consisted of disorienting trees which looked the same in every direction, and what little of the sky they saw through the treetops was dark, cold, and gloomy.

They picked a direction and trekked it. Not knowing if they were going in a straight line, or walking around in circles, or moving backwards. They could have been walking upside down and they probably wouldn't have noticed. They moved blindly through the forest. Every direction Naruto looked was exactly the same. The same muted colors of moss green, deep umber, gainsboro, and white wash. There was a mistiness to the forest. It looked like the sky descended and they were walking amongst the clouds. It gave the world a dream-like appearance. He felt a false sense of the forest spinning, and when he looked to the treetops he found himself nauseous, woozy and faint.

He stumbled and grabbed hold of a tree for balance, breathing in through his nose and exhaling out through his mouth, as the feeling of nauseousness passed.

“Are you okay?” Lee asked looking over his shoulder. Naruto looked up at Lee’s chapped cheeks and the bruising around the cuts on his face. There was a new bruise forming on his cheekbone from where Suigetsu sucker punched him. He looked down to the cut fabric on his army jacket. The bandages that wrapped around his bicep were stained a rusty-brown. They would need to be changed.

“Yeah. How’s your arm?”

“Hurts...but what are you going to do with it out here?”

“Hinata has the first aid kit. We should look at it again when we stop.”

Lee shrugged, and Naruto pushed off from the tree and began walking. He decided to keep his eyes locked on the ground. To help stabilize and keep himself balanced. The ground was uneven. Gnarled roots poked out of the ground like long spindly fingers that grabbed at their feet. He watched Hinata trip twice, and on the third time she fell to the ground.

“Are you okay?” Naruto asked and both he and Lee ran to her side. Lee wrapped his left arm around her when he tried to pull her up he let out a cry of pain, and his face twisted into a grimace. He let go and stepped back grabbing at his bicep and shutting his eyes tight. Naruto looking concerned at Lee as he helped Hinata to her feet. Lee opened his eyes and held up his hand to Naruto.

“Thank...thank you.” Hinata exhaled she turned around and looked at Lee.

"I'm...alright." Lee answered.

Naruto looked at Hinata's blossoming face down to her shoes. She was the only one wearing flats, closed-toe ballet flats, fastened around her ankles. They started out as a soft powder pink and now were scuffed in browns and greens. She had very thin nude socks and nothing else to protect her feet from the rugged terrain of the unforgivable mountain.

“Did you bring any other shoes?” Naruto asked. She shook her head.

“No.”

“What about socks?”

“I brought stockings...”

“I have socks I can give you.”

Hinata was massaging her knee and smiled weakly. She bashed her knee on a sharpened rock. Hinata glanced at Choji before turning around and began walking again. She didn’t tell him how bad it hurt but afterwards Naruto noticed she was walking with a limp. There were rocks, overturned dirt, and fallen trees. The ground continued to be littered in traps. The ground went from flat to tilted. He didn’t know if they were going down or traveling up. The more he talked, the more energy was depleted. It was the same for everyone else, and soon they walked in silence.

*****

Naruto hadn’t left Choji’s side. He noticed they had fallen even further behind. Choji moved at a slower rate than all of them. He could see the backs of Hinata and Lee in front of him. Choji was breathing heavy alternating between breathing through his nose and mouth. Naruto could hear him wheezing. He turned and saw that sweat was pouring down. He could see the visible beads of sweat rolling down his face, stinging his eyes, and dripping off his jawbone. His face was blotchy in reds with circles of white from overexertion. The swelling in his face hadn’t gone down and only seemed to worsen throughout the day. The bridge of his nose was crooked and shifted all the way to the left. There were port wine stains darkening under both eyes as the day grew. With every step he took Choji’s face twisted up into pain and his eyes watered.

Naruto didn’t know how long they had been hiking for but they needed a break.

“We need a break!” Naruto called from the back of the caravan. They were too far back. Hinata and Lee stopped walking and turned around. “WE NEED A BREAK!” Naruto yelled again. Ino stopped walking and hollered to Sakura, Suigetsu and Sasuke to stop.

“NO! WE KEEP MOVING!” Sasuke yelled from the front. His voice echoed around the trees. He turned around and searched for Naruto. He saw him in the way back.

“FIVE MINUTES!” Naruto hollered back in compromise.

“WE KEEP MOVING!” Sasuke argued. He was furious that Naruto was the first to break the silence when he specifically told him to shut up. He didn't want to hear his voice. He didn’t want them to stop not until they reached a clearing.

Suigetsu who had been assisted by Sakura found himself sagging to the ground. His knees gave way and he fell back into a sitting position, knees pulled up, and hands stretched out behind him. He too was panting and covered in a coating of sweat. He felt grimy. He simultaneously felt both freezing and overheated. Every time he breathed his lungs felt inflamed. He felt as if he jumped from the hot tub into the hotel swimming pool. He raised a hand and offered his opinion.

“I hate to agree but...let’s take a break.”

Sasuke turned and looked down at Suigetsu frowning. Sakura leaned up against a tree and slid down. Her muscles were sore from helping Suigetsu, and she needed to catch her breath. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to center herself. She was thirsty, and hungry, and sore. Exhausted on every level. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. She needed a break.

“It’s getting darker. What are we going to do?” Ino commented as she sat up against the same tree Sakura claimed. “Are we staying here for the night?” She looked around the area. She immediately hated herself for saying such a thing. She didn’t want to stay here for the night. She wanted to be rescued. She wanted to go home.

The forest was darkening. The shadows of the trees grew longer and thicker. They spread out like a black widow's spider web. Entrapping them all. Sasuke looked around. The ground was tilted at an angle. There were jagged rocks and roots covering the ground. It wasn’t ideal. He didn’t want to make camp here. He wanted to keep going. He was sure if they had kept going the ground was going to even out and become smoother. He could feel it in his gut. If they kept going they were going to reach a clearing. He didn’t want to waste time. He didn’t want to stop. He felt anxious. He couldn’t stay still any longer. He felt jittery and uneasy.

“NO!” Sasuke yelled. “WE KEEP GOING! WE’RE ALMOST THERE!”

“Sasuke…” Sakura said as she opened her eyes and looked weakly up at him.

“Get up Sakura!” Sasuke ordered and he turned to Suigetsu. “Get up Suigetsu! We need to keep going! We’re not stopping here!”

Suigetsu looked at Sakura. He didn’t want to admit that he was exhausted. For the past twenty-minutes there was a debilitating and throbbing pain inside his skull. It felt as if a whole percussion ensemble was performing inside his skull and with every beat it struck a nerve. He wasn’t about to admit he felt like complete shit and would never admit he felt weak. He found himself gritting his teeth, and he stumbled back into a standing position.

“Are you serious?” Ino said her voice filling with attitude.

“GET UP NOW!” Sasuke screamed and he slammed the blade of the shovel against a stone. A chinking sound echoed. It pierced through their ears and sent shivers down their spines. The sound continued to echo and could be felt in both their teeth and stomachs.

Ino looked at a loss for words. Her jaw fell open. She turned to Sakura wanting her to agree with her, but Sakura was already standing up. Ino stood up and turned to look at Hinata and Lee. She wanted others to agree with her. Both were already standing up and trudging their way towards them, closing the large gap that had formed in their caravan. She was searching for Naruto and she found him. He was standing alongside Choji. Her eyebrows raised as she saw Naruto and Choji moving too. Even though it was Naruto who suggested they take a break he wasn’t arguing with Sasuke. She furrowed her eyebrows, bit her lip, and curled her fingers in on themselves until she felt her nails piercing the flesh of her palm. She held her tongue and began moving again.

Sasuke watched them carefully as they began moving forwards, and nodded his head as one by one they moved back into place. Just as he was going to turn and join them he heard his name from the rear.

“Sasuke.” It was Naruto. He turned and looked at him and unconsciously tightened his hold around the handle of the shovel. Sasuke watched as Choji waddled past him and Naruto stopped a few feet away. Naruto readjusted his backpack and held onto the straps to alleviate some of the pressure on his shoulders and upper back.

“What’s the plan...how much longer do you want us to keep walking?” Naruto asked.

“We’ll stop when we find a clearing!”

“It’s getting dark soon we need to make camp for the night.”

“I don’t want to spend another night out here!”

“Neither do I.”

“Then shut your mouth and keep moving.”

Sasuke turned around and proceeded to leave back to the front of the caravan.

“Wait!”

Naruto called out, and Sasuke didn’t know why, but he stopped, and turned back around. He watched as Naruto pulled his water bottle from the side pocket of his backpack and held it out to him. It was a 24oz Contigo. The color of Monaco’s waters. He looked at the clear water inside the plastic water bottle. He took notice of his sandpaper tongue, and arid dry throat. He tried to swallow but he couldn’t form enough saliva. He was thirsty.

“You look thirsty why don’t you drink some water. You didn’t bring a water bottle did you?”

He hadn’t. He didn’t even bring snacks. His mother didn’t say goodbye and the last words she spoke to him were ‘Your taxi is here’ and when he walked out the door she threatened ‘You better not embarrass me!’ He was disoriented when he left his house yesterday morning. The taxi driver went immediately to the school, and dropped him off. He could feel the pounding in his chest. His insides felt hollow. He was the Tin Man. He felt himself grow colder. The gesture Naruto offered didn’t fill him with happiness and gratitude instead he felt bitterness and hostility. Pride turned angels into devils. Sasuke reached out and smacked the water bottle out of Naruto’s hand and scowled at him acting as if Naruto insulted his entire family.

“Are you looking down on me?” Sasuke snapped. His face twisting up into abhorrence.

“What? No!” Naruto uttered in apprehension. He stared back at Sasuke wanting nothing more than to clear up the misunderstanding, but he didn’t get a chance.

“I don’t need anything from you! You got that? You got nothing I want!”

What started as an olive branch turned into a poisoned dagger. Sasuke pivoted and left. Naruto’s head felt dizzy from the exchange. He didn’t say anything else and caught up to Choji and Lee. Hinata was several feet ahead of them and kept her back turned. She didn't look back. She had refused to be near Choji and when he got close to her she quickened her pace. Naruto's eyes focused back on the ground.

“What was that about?” Lee asked curiously. He caught Sasuke’s flustered face as he stormed to the front and smiled. He wanted to know what happened.

“I guess you're right. I’m kryptonite even without intending to be.”

“What did you do?”

“I offered him my water bottle because he looked thirsty.”

Lee chuckled and moved both hands behind his head, and tilted his head back exhaling loudly. For a moment he found himself back in school and their emerald lockers appeared on both sides. He watched as Sasuke stormed away and Naruto remained standing in the hallway. No that wasn’t right. When he caught himself he stopped. He was caught up in the moment. The smile left his lips, and his arms dropped to his side. He felt his insides twisting and tightening. An unknown pressure pushed against his ribs and he could feel bone pressing against his lungs. The walls of the school deteriorated and revealed the darkening forest. They were no longer in school.

He remembered confronting Suigetsu and Sasuke. They wanted to leave without them. They wanted to leave with the supplies. They wanted to leave them for dead. To cut them off as if they were dead weight. The gravity of the situation pushed hard against his shoulders and back. This wasn’t schoolyard bullying. It was serious. The fear that Lee felt in that moment was back. The fear of being left behind. His life meant absolutely nothing to them. It made his movements stiffer and slower. And nobody was talking about it and it was brushed under the carpet.

He brought his eyes to look at Ino’s back. He watched her blonde ponytail bobbing back and forth as she walked. Like Lee she was in a hoodless coat. But that was the only similarity between them. There was a divide that had already existed, and today only emphasized it. He turned and looked at Sakura who was helping Suigetsu. How quick Sakura and Ino were to join Sasuke and Suigetsu agreeing to leave the rest of them behind.

There was an exotic beauty to Ino even with the eczema. Her skin was so soft and sensitive she’d probably feel the pea underneath the blankets and mattresses proving her royalty. And Sakura. She reminded him of a woodland nymph. Someone who would be seduced by Pan. In the social hierarchy both girls were near the top. Lee had liked Sakura ever since they were in elementary school. Unlike Ino who was more wild and unabashed Sakura was more deliberate and careful. He was going to confess to her after they won the competition. He didn't know what he was thinking. His heart felt empty.

He had been at the same school as all four of them since elementary school. Sasuke, Suigetsu, Ino, and Sakura. He was mostly ignored by all four of them. Even the bullying didn’t target him. He was largely invisible.

The only time Ino and Sakura knew his name was this year when Naruto brought them together. He remembered Ino introducing herself to Lee during their lunch hour. In that moment Lee had felt as small and insignificant as a crumb of bread. He wanted to tell her that he had known her since elementary school. Instead all he did was smile, laugh, and introduce himself. He never brought it up. How small he felt. How hurt and upset he was over the exchange. He bottled it up.

There was something otherworldly about Naruto. He seemed to fit perfectly in every social group in school. He matched up perfectly with Ino and Sakura, Shikamaru and Choji and even watching Naruto interact with Sasuke he noticed a complete change in Sasuke’s personality and demeanor. Whenever Naruto was around Sasuke appeared...softer. He had believed Naruto to be an alien who came to earth to study humans.

He glanced at Naruto as they continued trekking silently through the forest.

He remembered asking Naruto how he did it. How effortlessly he slid into place and formed his own niche in school. Created his own circle of friends plucked from every social group. He made friends easily, and not only that but whenever people were around Naruto...they felt good. Lee felt good. He wanted to engage Naruto into a serious conversation, but Naruto was lighthearted and played everything off as a joke. He wouldn’t let Naruto off the hook and pressed deeper.

Naruto finally admitted it was all he knew. He changed foster families and schools so much it was something he adapted to. He admitted that at times he felt like he was a chameleon and sometimes struggled with who he really was and where he belonged. Lee knew there was something else going on within Naruto. Lee just couldn’t figure it out. He had his own moral code that Lee couldn’t figure out. Even though Sasuke and Suigetsu terrorized their classmates, specifically Choji, Naruto didn’t treat them any different. Even when Naruto knew Sasuke planned on leaving them for dead he still offered him his water bottle. It was beginning to eat Lee up inside.

Lee had always thought himself to be positive, and who wanted to see the good in people, but there was a line, and once it was crossed could never be uncrossed. Lee wondered where the line was drawn for Naruto. Lee stalled them from leaving and Choji smashed Suigetsu over the head with a shovel and took back the supplies. If nothing happened. They would have left. They would have separated. Lee wondered what Naruto would say if that happened. What expression he'd make and then what decision he'd voice.

In an alignment chart Naruto would be true neutral, and Lee believed himself to be chaotic good. He thought back to playing dungeons and dragons with K i b a. Everything came to a grinding halt. There was deafening silence. Lee became very conscious. Images flashed in front of him as if a projector was playing.

Kiba was suspended upside down. Lifeless. Eyes opened, a bluish-grey film covered them, and staring straight at him. His face was frozen in the same expression he had right before he died. The photograph imprinted itself on the insides of Lee’s eyelids. Fear and torment as he experienced multi-organ failure without any pain relief. Kiba died in the middle of the night where the temperatures hovered above freezing inside the pitch-dark van. The flashlight was outside. The only person with him was Naruto. Everyone else ignored him. All Lee could see was the frightening, petrified expression that was forever frozen on Kiba's face. It haunted him.

Guilt washed over Lee. He should have been there sitting besides Naruto inside the van and keeping Kiba company. He was afraid. He didn’t want to hear Kiba’s whimpering and cries of pain knowing he wasn’t able to do anything for him. He couldn’t get him out of the van, couldn’t alleviate his pain, and couldn’t be there when he took his last breath. He was absolutely powerless. He wondered if Naruto had the flashlight if Kiba would be less afraid. He wouldn’t have to suffer in darkness. He could see what was around him or at least focus on Naruto’s reassuring face.

Lee glared at Suigetsu’s back. Instead Suigetsu demanded the flashlight back, and Naruto complied. Hinata and Lee emerged from the van with the flashlight and neither re-entered the van until the next morning. When it was too late. Lee clenched his jaw. He was upset with everything that had happened Naruto continued to treat them as if nothing had happened. He was upset and he wanted Naruto to stop and come to his senses that this wasn't alright and it wouldn't be alright.

*****

“Who has the flashlight?” Sasuke demanded storming to where Naruto and Choji sat. Limping behind him was Suigetsu. They had finally stopped not because they had reached a clearing, but because it was growing darker, and if they’d went any further they’d be walking blindly through the dangerous terrain. Naruto looked up at Sasuke who continued holding the shovel.

“Flashlight?” Naruto repeated. His eyes moved back and forth remembering the flashlight in the first aid kit. Naruto looked to Hinata who had unzipped the first aid kit and the flashlight was missing. “The last time I saw the flashlight was last night.”

“What about you?” Sasuke looked to Choji. Before Choji could answer Suigetsu reached down and grabbed the backpack that was around Choji’s back, and began wrestling with it to get it off his back. Choji who had been drained of all energy offered little fight. He grunted and glared up at Suigetsu.

“What are you doing? Stop it!” Naruto said raising to his feet. Suigetsu unzipped Choji’s backpack and tipped it upside down, shaking it so that everything inside dumped out and onto the ground. Naruto made moves to grab the backpack out of Suigetsu's hands, but Sasuke stopped him by placing the shovel in front of him. Choji didn’t have the flashlight. Suigetsu dropped the backpack at Choji’s feet.

“Give me your backpack!” Sasuke said angrily to Naruto.

“Nothing I have is what you want...isn’t that what you said?” Naruto answered and backed up. He held onto the straps of his backpack. Something flashed in Sasuke’s eyes. It was a frenzied look of desperation and disparage.

“It’s getting dark we need the flashlight!” Sasuke yelled losing patience. He gripped the handle of the shovel and turned his body so that it fully faced Naruto. Suigetsu appeared on Sasuke’s side.

“We can spend the night in the dark.” Lee answered venomously. Lee stood up and joined Naruto’s side. “Kiba did.”

“Give me your backpack!” Sasuke screamed ignoring Lee and his words.

Naruto’s heart skipped a beat. Remembering last night spent inside the van. He could still feel Kiba’s hand wrapped around his. Naruto looked down at his hand almost expecting to see Kiba’s. He didn’t. He could only feel it. Kiba’s hand was bigger, but softer. Naruto’s was rougher and calloused. He’d rather be in the van holding Kiba’s hand knowing that he was alive than here arguing with Sasuke on who had the flashlight, or where the flashlight was. He was beginning to feel...angry.

“Or what? You’re going to hit me with the shovel?” Naruto challenged staring back at Sasuke. He wondered if Sasuke really would hit him, and suddenly he didn't want to find out. “I don’t have the flashlight!”

“Did you check your bags?” Lee antagonized. “You were originally going to leave this morning. Wouldn’t one of you had packed it?”

“None of us have the flashlight!” Sasuke shouted back his face turned a pinkish-red. “Which only leaves you two!” Sasuke was glaring at both Naruto and Lee.

Suigetsu grabbed hold of Naruto and shoved him backwards. Naruto stumbled. The back of his shoes caught around a root and he found himself tumbling down with Suigetsu on top of him. Hinata screamed.

“Naruto just open up your backpack!” Sakura appeared and shouted down as Naruto struggled with Suigetsu.

“I DON’T HAVE THE FLASHLIGHT!” Naruto yelled and he felt Suigetsu’s fist smack against his mouth. He bit the side of his tongue and his eyes watered. He could feel blood and saliva filling his mouth.

“Let me see for myself then!” Suigetsu yelled and when he raised his arm to punch Naruto again Lee tackled him. He body slammed into Suigetsu’s side and took him down. It resulted in their second scuffle of the day.

“NARUTO!” Sakura screamed and Naruto pushed himself up. “Give me your bag!” She said and held her hand out. Naruto stared up at her in disbelief. He wasn't understanding what was happening.

“He says he doesn’t have the flashlight!” Hinata defended rushing to Naruto’s side. She wasn't afraid of Sakura.

Suigetsu being taller, wider, and stronger than Lee managed to flip Lee, switch positions, and steal his backpack. He stood up, unzipped it, and began to dump the contents of his bag on the ground. Clothes and toiletries hit the ground. The flashlight wasn’t there.

“Did we leave the flashlight behind?” Sakura asked frightfully as Suigetsu began moving the clothes around to make sure the flashlight really wasn’t among Lee’s belongings. It still wasn’t there and Suigetsu swore under his breath.

“No.” Sasuke said, turning his attention back to Naruto and Naruto felt his stomach plummeting. His heartbeat quickened. “Why don’t you want to hand your bag over, Naruto?” Sasuke sneered like a detective who finally figured out who the culprit was and began asking questions he already knew the answers to.

“Because you’re acting crazy! You can’t just keep doing whatever you want!” Naruto answered. He wiped his mouth and swallowed the blood and saliva. Every time he talked his tongue stung. He was beginning to feel doubt. He knew he didn’t have the flashlight, but now he was afraid that he did have the flashlight. Dread slowly began to fill him.

“Don’t you trust me?” Naruto asked staring up at Sasuke. He didn’t know why he even asked the question. He could tell just by looking at Sasuke that he didn’t believe him. Nobody wanted to spend time in the forest in the pitch black. Nobody wanted to experience what Naruto experienced last night. They didn't just want the flashlight they needed the flashlight and they weren't going to stop until they got it back.

“No. Give me your backpack!” Sasuke yelled.

Naruto’s eyes widened. He wasn’t able to protest any longer. He was caught off guard. Suigetsu appeared behind him and grabbed his backpack. He jerked and twisted Naruto’s body causing him to fall over. Naruto glared up at Suigetsu as he unzipped his backpack and dumped out the contents. Water bottle. Clothes. Toiletries. A pendant necklace. Hitting the ground was the flashlight. Naruto stopped breathing. His eyes locked to the flashlight that rolled to its side. He didn’t put the flashlight in his backpack. The last time he opened his backpack was when he was packing for the trip. It almost didn’t feel real. The last time he saw the flashlight was when he handed it over to Hinata to deliver it back to Suigetsu. The flashlight shouldn't be among his things.

“You piece of shit!” Suigetsu yelled as he bent over and grabbed the flashlight.

“I…” Naruto wanted to say he didn’t put the flashlight in his bag but the words didn’t form. His head began to ache.

“Naruto?!” Sakura exclaimed in disbelief. Naruto pushed himself into a sitting position. Hinata looked at Naruto her eyebrows furrowing together incredulity. She shook her head no. She didn’t believe it. She wouldn't.

Sasuke snorted. “You had the flashlight the whole time?”

“I didn’t put…” Naruto tried to form the words but was interrupted.

“Stop lying just because you were caught!” Suigetsu yelled. He turned the flashlight on and pointed it directly at Naruto’s eyes. He was blinded and covered his eyes with his hand dropping his gaze to stare at the ground.

“Are you mad at us because you didn’t have the flashlight last night?” Sakura asked. She needed an explanation. She didn’t understand why Naruto had the flashlight and why he lied about it.

“Kiba died last night!” Lee screamed. “He died in the dark! What right do you have to the flashlight?” Sakura turned and looked at Lee. Her bottom lip trembling. She didn’t want to remember.

“That has nothing to do with us!” Suigetsu yelled. He didn’t want to hear about Kiba anymore.

“If Naruto had the flashlight Kiba wouldn’t have been so afraid! It’s your fault Suigetsu!” Lee confronted Suigetsu.

“How was I supposed to know he was going to die!?”

“It should have been you! Not Kiba...you should have died you bastard!”

“Lee enough!” Naruto shouted. “We found the flashlight. Just drop it.”

“Are you kidding me Naruto? How stupid can you be?” Lee shouted spinning around to stare down at the blonde. Naruto didn’t look up. He kept staring at the ground. His blonde hair fell over his face and Lee couldn’t see what expression he was wearing.

“How can you be so complacent? They were going to leave this morning! Sasuke, Suigetsu, Sakura and Ino. They were going to take the food and the water and leave us with nothing! Don't you understand? They have no right to act this way! Now they’re framing you and you’re just taking it?”

“Framing?” Sakura asked. The thought hadn’t crossed her mind. Instinctively she looked at Suigetsu and butterflies of doubt and fear swarmed in her belly.

“Naruto was nowhere near the flashlight! He didn’t come out of the van until the very end! One of you is framing him!” Lee accused and pointed a finger at Suigetsu, Sakura, and Sasuke.

“Drop it!” Ino yelled appearing behind Naruto and Suigetsu. “It doesn’t matter. We found the flashlight...It’s dark, we’re hungry, and thirsty...let’s just rest. We’re wasting energy!”

*****

“Naruto…” Lee said as Suigetsu, Sakura, Ino, and Sasuke left. “Why are you acting this way?”

“What way?”

“Laying down and taking everything like a dog!”

“I...just don’t have the energy. What’s the point of accusing someone? What’s important is we stay alive long enough to be rescued.”

Naruto’s voice was soft and low. Barely above a whisper. He hadn’t moved from the spot on the ground. He looked up to see Choji was picking up his belongings and putting them back in his backpack. Choji’s face was still swollen and the coloring around his eyes were deepening. Choji looked in a daze. He had been unnaturally quiet and withdrawn for sometime. Choji’s nose was broken and he needed medical attention. He looked at Lee’s bandaged arm. He didn’t know the extent of the damage. He wasn’t able to help Hinata to her feet and he noticed his arm was limp at his side. Lee and Choji needed to go the hospital. They needed medical attention. Naruto looked down at his own belongings scattered across the ground. He stopped to stare at the new uniform Sakura had gotten him for the competition. It laid wrinkled on the forest ground. He leaned over and picked up a pair of clean socks and handed them to Hinata.

“Here. Put these on.” Naruto said, and Hinata took them with a small thank you. He took notice of the plummeting temperatures. There were fewer trees around and the air felt colder than it had last night. Taking notice of the temperatures Naruto found himself shivering. “It’s going to be colder tonight...we should stay close to one another for warmth.”

“You’re ridiculous!” Lee commented angrily before he went to pick up his scattered belongings. He was still fuming with the way Naruto handled things. How he avoided his questioning and changed topics. Naruto watched Lee but didn’t say anything else. He didn’t know what to say. He didn't know what Lee wanted from him. Naruto knew he didn’t take the flashlight, and if someone put the flashlight in his backpack to cause discord, the results were the same, and he stood by his previous statement.

They needed to stay alive long enough to get rescued and to do that they needed to work together.

*****

“I’m...so...cold…” Hinata chattered. All he could hear were the chattering of their teeth. She was next to Naruto on his right. Choji was on Naruto’s left. Lee was curled up on his side a few feet away from Naruto’s feet his back turned towards them. Lee ignored Naruto the majority of the night.

The sky was clear and cloudless. The waxing gibbous could be seen through the treetops. It offered enough light to see the outline of things. The flashlight was on but was in the center of where Sakura, Ino, Suigetsu, and Sasuke made camp. It offered little light. The shadows of the night seemed to swallow up the orange glow. Naruto was so cold he couldn’t feel his fingers or toes. The chill cut through his body and the more he shivered the more he wanted to close his eyes and sleep forever. He was so cold it felt as if ice was hardening in his veins

“I have...a sweater you can wear.” Naruto chattered and pushed himself up. He was using his backpack as a pillow and unzipped it. He didn’t want to touch the uniform Sakura purchased for him fully intending on returning it and giving her the money back. There were priorities. Being warm and not freezing to death was more important than a school uniform. He handed Hinata the emerald jersey sweater. She carefully unbuttoned her coat and donned the sweater before buttoning up her coat. She pulled her hood back over her head. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons as she fastened them. Her limbs stiff from the cold. Naruto wanted to help her but refrained.

“I can’t...feel my face…” Hinata whispered as she laid back down. She could feel clear snot rolling down her nose and she kept having to wipe it with the back of her hand.

“Come closer so we can share our body warmth.” Naruto suggested.

“Wh...at?” Hinata choked. She could feel her face blooming in reds and pinks. The blood rushing to her face seemed to warm her up for a brief moment. The more she thought about cuddling up next to Naruto the more her face pulsated and she thought she was going to faint.

“Ah...sorry...I just meant for us to stay warm nothing...else.” Naruto spoke hesitantly. He didn’t want her to get the wrong idea and he didn’t want to come off as a pervert.

The air nipped at the exposed flesh of his face. He had his hood up and was completely covered from the neck down but it didn’t help. The material of his clothes and coat were worn and thin. He was still shivering. His head was pounding from the cold. He could feel the hunger pains. He tried to remember what the last thing he ate was. He was running late yesterday morning. Ah he remembered. He had a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese. He finished it right before he was dropped off at the school. He could remember the taste of the cream cheese and when he closed his eyes he could remember it sliding down his throat and filling his belly. His stomach growled loudly.

“That’s okay.” Hinata whispered and moved her body so that she was inches from Naruto’s. So close she was nearly pressed up against him. She pressed her forehead against his and reached out and held his hands. Neither had gloves. He didn't protest. The warmth felt nice. Naruto was so very tired he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes again. The frigid temperatures of the mountains lulled him into a restless, delirious, sleep.

*****

“I feel so hot...Naruto.” Kiba panted. Naruto heard him wheezing, gasping for breath that came labored and panicked. “Please remove my coat! Please...I’m so hot and itchy.”

“You’re not hot...you’re just cold.” Naruto answered and tightened his hold on Kiba. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what to say.

“It’s...so dark where am I? What am I doing here?” Kiba asked. Naruto couldn’t see him. He could only hear him. Naruto reached out with his free hand and touched Kiba’s face.

“You’re right next to me.” Naruto answered and he brushed Kiba’s cheek. “I’m right here.”

“I’m scared. It hurts so much. It hurts so much please help. Please turn the lights on! I don’t like the dark! I want to see! Please! Please turn the lights on!”

“I-I-I can’t. It’s nighttime.”

“What’s going on? Where am I? What am I doing here?” Kiba spoke frantically, deliriously. “What’s going on? Why is it dark?”

Naruto could feel Kiba’s attempts at lifting his head up and struggling when he couldn’t sit upright. He let out a frustrated cry and began to thrash around. Naruto gritted his teeth. He moved his hand from Kiba’s face down his chest and to his side where he could feel a thick wetness soaking Kiba’s shirt. He could feel the warm liquid against his fingers. The bandages were soaked. Nothing was able to staunch the bleeding. Naruto felt his eyes watering and he stifled back his own cry of pure desperation and helplessness. He didn’t know how to help him. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to call out for help, to let the others know that something was terribly wrong with Kiba, but his voice was caught in his throat. He didn't want to alarm Kiba and make things worse.

“I don’t want to die. Please help me Naruto!”

“Help is almost here. I think I hear them!” Naruto answered. He tried to force his voice to sound relieved and hopeful and reassuring.

“You do?” Kiba asked hopefully.

“Yes! They’re almost here! Just hold on a little while longer! Don’t you see it? I see their flashlights! They’re coming!”

The sound that escaped Kiba’s throat caused Naruto’s blood to run cold. It was a choking wet gag, an agonizing cry, and a suffocated scream. Everything inside Kiba came rushing out all at once. Everything that made Kiba...Kiba left his body. Kiba’s body thrashed as if he was being electrocuted and he thrashed for a few moments. Kiba’s hold on Naruto’s hand tightened so fierce he thought his bones were going to break. He could hear Kiba exhaling and then he stopped moving. He had grown limp. His hold weakened and was going to slip out of Naruto’s hand. Naruto wouldn’t allow it and he held onto him tightly. He didn’t hear Kiba inhale. He didn’t hear Kiba exhale. Ever again.

“Kiba?” Naruto called out. He brought his bloodied hand back down to Kiba’s face. Until he felt his nose and opened mouth. He held it there for a while. He didn’t feel any breath against his flesh. “Kiba?” Naruto called out again, and began to shake him. “Kiba?” Naruto called out and he pressed his cheek against Kiba’s. He could feel cold tears streaming down his face. Kiba's skin felt as cold as death itself.

“Kiba...just hold on a little longer. Help is on the way. I hear them. I hear them. I swear I hear them!”

*****

Naruto opened his eyes. He saw Hinata’s sleeping form in front of him. Panic washed over him as if he plunged through the ice on a pond and became trapped underneath. He removed one of his hands from Hinata’s and held his fingers under her nose. He felt her warm breath against his. She was alive. It was early morning. He sighed in relief and watched his white breath billow out of his mouth. He pushed himself up and looked up. Sunlight lightened the sky. Half the sky had the moon, the inky blackness of deep space, and billions of suns billions of miles away. The horizon was painted in fiery oranges, yellows, and reds. The sky was hauntingly beautiful.

He felt pressure in his bladder. The urgency to urinate came into consciousness. He stumbled up and looked around. Everyone else was still asleep. He wanted to go behind some trees and relieve himself, and he didn’t want to be seen. His limbs were so cold and stiff he struggled and tripped. His face felt exposed and raw. Moving any muscles sent sharp pains through his body. He held onto a tree before walking deeper in. He picked a tree where his back was to the makeshift camp. He unzipped his pants. One hand held himself and the other helped steady himself against the tree. It was so cold it took awhile for him to urinate and when he did he sighed in relief.

When he was done he shook himself and he heard a twig snapping from behind. He was about to turn around when he felt a hand wrap around his mouth. He almost screamed when he heard a voice.

“Don’t move. Look.” It was Sasuke’s voice whispering in his ear.

Naruto looked up, past the tree he had marked, and found what Sasuke was referencing. A few feet away was a grey wolf. It had blended into its surroundings. It’s snout was sniffing the ground. Naruto inadvertently stepped back and he could feel Sasuke’s body against his. He quickly zipped his pants up, and pulled Sasuke’s hand from his face. He found himself holding his breath again. He could feel his heart in the back of his throat. The wolf was massive. His mind went blank on what they should do. They hadn’t been spotted and Naruto looked to Sasuke wanting to know what they should do.

AHHHHHHHH!” A scream sliced through the forest. It came from behind back at their campsite. Naruto’s eyes widened as the wolf turned its head in the direction of the scream and its yellow eyes focused on them. More screams erupted from the campsite and at this the wolf turned around and ran in the opposite direction.

Naruto spun around. He recognized the first person to scream. It was Lee. The other screams belonged to Choji, and Hinata. But Lee's carried over and it was a panic-inducing cry of help. Naruto pushed back Sasuke and ran back towards the campsite stopping at the edge when he saw a chaotic scene. Lee was screeching and writhing on the ground and on top of him a grey wolf. Lee’s arm was inside the wolf’s jowls and he heard the growling of the wolf and saw it's canines piercing Lee's arm.

Sasuke ran up and stopped alongside Naruto. His eyes widening as he processed the scene in front of him. Naruto noticed that Sasuke was still holding the shovel. He didn’t even know what he was doing. His body moved on its own. His brain went to a primal place all the way in the back of his brain. He ran on pure adrenaline. He grabbed the shovel from Sasuke’s hands and ran towards the wolf that was attacking Lee, screaming out a battle cry. He raised the shovel. He didn’t want anyone to die. He brought the blade of the shovel across the wolf’s skull wielding it like a spear. The blade bludgeoned the wolf’s eye, and it was enough for the wolf to release it’s hold on Lee. Naruto brought the shovel back down across the wolf’s skull. He heard a disgusting sound. The wolf was disoriented and backed up. Naruto didn’t stop. He saw blood matted in the fur around it’s jowls and all he saw was the color of blood.

Lee’s blood. Kiba's blood. Mrs. Yuhi's blood.

Naruto found himself detaching. He brought the blade of the shovel back down against the wolf’s skull, the wolf collapsed and Naruto pile-drived the pointed blade of the shovel down on the back of the wolf’s neck. He could feel it. The shovel ripping apart the flesh on the back, cutting into the nape of the neck, and striking bone. He wanted to decapitate the wolf’s head. It was easier than he thought. He saw blood gushing out of the wound he had inflicted. The wolf had stopped moving. He heard a whining noise escape its mouth and then nothing at all. He brought the shovel back down with every ounce of strength aided by the adrenaline rush. The shovel went deeper this time. He could feel the bones in its neck snapping as the blade moved through the cartilage and discs between the vertebrae of the spine. He severed the spinal cord from the brain rendering him paralyzed. He could feel it. The wolf was dead. It still wasn’t enough. He wanted him decapitated. He wanted to raise the severed head over his head and scream up to the Gods. He raised his arm again when he felt hands on the handle of the shovel. Naruto looked and saw Sasuke. He couldn’t read the expression he had. He stared into his black pupils. He saw a deranged psychopath reflected back in his eyes.

“Naruto, Stop! It’s already dead!” Sasuke said. He felt Sasuke’s voice pulling him back. Naruto’s eyes rolled down to the lifeless, partly decapitated, wolf. It hadn’t gotten back up. He heard Lee’s anguish cries from behind. Naruto let go of the shovel and rushed to his side. Lee was holding his arm that was cut up and bloodied. Tears streamed down his face. His voice so loud it could peel paint off the walls.

“Where’s the first aid kit?” Naruto screamed turning around. Hinata had the first aid kit and ran to Naruto’s side.

“What do we do?” Hinata asked. Her eyes were as wide as saucers.

“Lee we need to remove your coat!” Naruto spoke turning his attention to Lee. He turned and looked at Naruto comprehending. He nodded his head and allowed Naruto and Hinata to remove his coat. Lee’s entire right arm was covered in blood. They needed to stop it. Naruto hoped the wolf didn't sever an artery.

“Hinata get the shirt that’s in my backpack! We need to stop the bleeding!”

Hinata nodded her head and ran to his backpack. Naruto remained with Lee and looked down at him.

“It’s okay Lee. The wolf is gone. You’re going to be okay. Shh….it’s going to be okay. We’re going to patch you back up.”

Hinata returned with the white-button up shirt. Naruto took it and began to wrap it around Lee’s arm like a makeshift bandage. He wrapped the material around his arm tightly and securely and tied it off using the sleeves. He could see the white fabric dye instantly red. Naruto looked over Lee’s body. The wolf only managed to bite his forearm.

“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.” Suigetsu spoke like a broken record. He was pacing back and forth and running a hand through his hair. The strands of his hair were greasy with dried blood and dirt. There were dark bags under his eyes. The bandages that had wrapped around his face and head were a brownish-red and coming undone. Adrenaline pumped through his veins.

Ino had collapsed to her knees. Both hands wrapped around her mouth. Tears streaming down her face. Her face looked hideous. It was raw and the eczema marks on her cheeks that she scratched and itched open yesterday were scabbing over in yellows and browns. Parts of her face looked infected and were flaking off. The cold air didn’t help and it only made things worse. More were inflamed and it covered both her cheeks from her nose to her temples. Her eyes were bloodshot and her ears were a pulsating red. As if noticing she started scratching her face with her dirty fingernails.

Sakura remained for the most part unscathed. Her hair had a greasy shine to it and her skin was reddened and clammy from the cold. She was shivering but didn’t seem to notice. Her lips were tinted blue. She walked up to Sasuke who backed away from the wolf. She looked at the blood splattered against the shovel and handle, to the wolf carcass, then brought her eyes to Sasuke.

“How...can this be happening?” Sakura asked. Her pupils were small. Her breathing was rapid. She heard Lee’s screams in the background. She was a coward. She put her back to Lee, Naruto and Hinata. Her shoulders hunched over. She wanted to distance herself. She wanted to runaway. She wanted to breakdown and cry.

“Why isn’t help here? Why haven’t they found us?” Sakura continued. There was hysteria in her voice. “Let’s leave right now.” Sakura continued. She nodded her head. The idea sounded good...perfect even. Leave while everyone was distracted. Leave and never look back!

“What did you say?” Sasuke asked and looked at her. He wanted to believe he heard her wrong. They weren’t going to separate.

“Let’s leave. You me, Suigetsu...we’ll leave. We can’t stay here any longer. Help can’t see us if we’re here. Let’s just separate. Like we were going to do yesterday!”

“What about Ino?” Sasuke asked more so to humor her than anything else.

“Ino is a wishy-washy mess! She can stay here!”

“We...can’t…” Sasuke said. “...leave.”

“Where were you and Naruto?” Sakura asked her voice becoming more high-pitched and accusatory.

“What do you mean?”

“Both Naruto and you ran up together!”

“He left and I followed him. I thought he was being shady...but he just went to the bathroom.” Sasuke answered truthfully. He left out the part when just before he turned to return to the campsite was when he spotted the wolf mere feet from Naruto who was oblivious to everything around him. He didn’t know what possessed him but he walked up behind Naruto and grabbed him by the mouth. He wanted to warn him. He didn’t want what happened to Lee to happen to Naruto...he didn’t want it to happen to anyone.

“I can’t stand that screaming...I can’t stand it anymore! SHUT UP!” Sakura screamed. “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” She wanted Lee to shut up. She was frightened. She couldn’t handle it anymore. She was sleep deprived. It was driving her mad. She was hungry. Everything was driving her stark raving mad. She was thirsty. She covered her ears with her hands and screamed so loud she thought she tore her voice box.

Sasuke was going to slap Sakura and knock some sense into her but he was too late. Ino appeared in front of Sakura and slapped her across the face before grabbing her shoulders and shaking her.

“Ino is wishy-washy and a mess?” Ino screamed in Sakura’s face. “She can stay here? What is your problem? Lee was attacked by a wolf and you want to leave?” She shoved Sakura. She stumbled and fell backwards landing hard on her tailbone. “You shut up, Sakura! YOU shut up!” It didn’t shock Sakura to her senses. Instead she started wailing. She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face into her arms and sobbed. Ino left and Sasuke turned away.

“What’s the plan Sasuke?” Suigetsu asked looking down at the wolf carcass.

“We wait until Lee is ready to move and then we continue.”

*****

They had made a sling for Lee using Hinata’s pantyhose. The bleeding was under control and his wounds were redressed. Lee had taken three aspirin tablets. It barely curved the pain. He was given water and some of the trail mix. It barely curved his hunger and thirst. Naruto and Hinata assisted Lee as they walked. No longer was Choji the one to head up the rear. It was Naruto, Lee, and Hinata. They trekked through the forest in silence. Talking took up too much energy. The trees were thinning but the ground continued to tilt. It made walking difficult. Time seemed to blur as did the trees in the forest. They came to a stop at a stream.

“This is great!” Naruto exclaimed. “We can follow this!”

The consensus was the same. They would follow the stream. They began to fill up their water bottles from the running stream. The water tasted like rocks and dirt but overall it was drinkable. Naruto caught sight of Sasuke drinking from Suigetsu’s water bottle. Sasuke glanced at him before looking away. Naruto sighed. He wanted to thank Sasuke for warning him about the wolf, but couldn’t find a good time to speak to him. He assisted Lee in drinking and helped him re-position his arm and sling into a more comfortable position. After they filled up their water bottles and filled their stomachs with water they continued walking. This time the stream remained to their right as they trekked.

“I...want to go..home.” Lee spoke breathlessly. There was pain in his voice.

“You will!” Hinata assured. “We all will.” She corrected looking at Naruto.

Sasuke saw something. He saw sunlight. Unadulterated sun. He veered off the path of following the stream and walked towards the sun. They reached the promise clearing. The trees broke and a large rock jutted out from the side of the mountain. It overlooked a chasm. They were out in the open. There were cheers and tears and everyone was instilled with hope. Here they would be spotted by helicopters. It was a good enough place to stop and wait for help. They had access to running water and they were visible on the rock face. It was perfect. They were going to be saved soon!

Naruto helped get Lee comfortable. Propped up on his backpack and laying down to rest. He was directly in the sun and even though the air was still bitter and cold the sun felt good. The sky was clear and a startling blue. The air was clean and there was a breeze. Choji joined Lee and sat down next to him. Choji had taken off his socks and shoes and revealed they were covered in blisters and cuts. His feet were swollen. Hinata sat a little ways away, still refusing to be near Choji, and also removed her socks and ballet flats. Her feet mirrored Choji’s. There were blisters on her heel and her feet were swollen and red. There were small cuts on her feet and a few open sores. She winced as she massaged her feet and tried to get the blood circulating again.

All there was to do was wait...wait to be spotted...wait to be rescued by helicopter.

Naruto stood at the edge of the chasm and looked down. He could see where the stream weaved down through the forest and saw how large the stream grew. He continued following the stream until something caught his eye. It was the color of electric blue. Naruto had seen that familiar color before. It was the color of a tarp. The more he focused his attention on the blue tarp the more details began to emerge. He saw something yellow. Sunlight reflected off and realization washed over Naruto.

“HEY! IS THAT A CAMPSITE?” Naruto yelled out and pointed. Sasuke, Suigetsu, Ino and Sakura ran to him and looked in the direction Naruto was pointing. It was down in the valley on the other side of the stream. They saw the electric blue and vibrant yellow. Their faces began to glow. They saw the camp.

“That’s a camp!” Ino exclaimed. “That’s someone campsite!”

“People are camping! That means...we can get out of here sooner! They’ll know where to go! They’ll know what to do!” Sakura said happily. The possibilities crossed her mind and the smile on her cracked lips grew.

“We should go there!” Naruto spoke turning around to look at everyone.

“I don’t...think I can make it…” Lee called out weakly from behind. Hinata had hobbled behind Naruto on her bare feet and her face turned green when she saw the journey down the mountain and into the valley.

“I don’t think...I can either...my feet ...wouldn't carry my body.” Hinata spoke.

“We should split up. Some of us stay here and the others go investigate the campsite.” Sasuke said.

Suigetsu paled as his eyes traveled the same path that Hinata’s did. It wasn’t an easy journey. Judging by the distance it would be at least several hours before they reached the campsite maybe even longer. Suigetsu thought back to his head that throbbed and the cuts on his body. He had zero energy and still needed Sakura’s help to move through the forest. The rate they'd all go they probably wouldn't reach the campsite until after dark. It became steeper the more he followed the stream. His stomach dropped. They wouldn't make it before dark fall.

“I...don’t think...I can make it…” Suigetsu confessed. “I don’t feel good.” He felt feverish.

Naruto looked back at Hinata, Choji, and Lee. Neither looked to be in the condition to trek down the side of the mountain. They were all hungry, hurt, and reaching their limits.

“I can go!” Naruto volunteered.

“Me too.” Sasuke answered.

Sakura and Ino continued to look at the distant campsite then the journey they would need to complete before reaching it. Sakura looked down at her feet. She wore puma’s. They weren’t built for hiking they were built for fashion and to look cute. The sole of her shoes was peeling off and when she walked she could feel dirt and rocks get up into her shoes and irritate her feet. Ino touched her blistering cheeks. She felt weak and frail. She spent more energy itching her skin than anything else.

“Maybe...it would be faster if just Naruto and Sasuke went.” Ino spoke out loud. She looked at them as she spoke. “They seem to be the ones who are the most physically fit...and aren’t hurt like the rest of us.”

“Sakura?” Naruto asked. He wanted to include everyone.

“The soles of my feet are coming undone. I don’t know if I can make it all the way there.” Sakura confessed before removing a shoe and peeling back the foam.

“I agree with Ino.” Hinata spoke softly. “It would be faster if Naruto and Sasuke went.” She knew how slow they all slugged through the forest.

“You better hurry! I don’t want to miss them!” Suigetsu commented.

“Just the two of us?” Naruto clarified and looked at Sasuke who shrugged.

“If we hurry I bet we could make it there in a few hours!” Sasuke commented and looked over the path again. All they had to do was follow the stream until they reached the campsite. The campsite was only a few feet away from the stream.

Naruto hesitated and looked back at Lee, Hinata and Choji. He was worried. He didn't want to leave them alone.

“What about the shovel?” Naruto asked and turned to look at Sasuke who still had the shovel. “We’ll be faster if we leave it behind.”

“What about another wolf attack?” Sakura asked.

“Wolves prefer hunting at dusk and dawn.” Naruto answered. A fact he remembered reading while studying for the Academic Decathlon. Something he wanted to kick himself for not being aware of the threat of wild animals in the mountains. Something he wished he remembered sooner. “We shouldn’t cross them during the afternoon. We should reach the campsite long before dusk.”

“I’ll take it!” Suigetsu offered.

“NO!” Ino, Hinata, and Lee screamed at the same time.

“Then who?” Suigetsu asked. Ino looked to Hinata. “Hinata.”

“Huh? Me?” Hinata asked and pointed at herself. The rest of the group looked at her. Nobody had an objection.

“Hinata is the best option.” Sakura agreed. Lee verbally agreed and Choji looked down at his feet, ashamed.

“Fine.” Suigetsu commented with a wave of his hand. Nobody had bad blood with Hinata. Even though Hinata tried to stop them from leaving yesterday Sakura told Suigetsu it was Hinata who tried to get the first aid kit to help him, and Choji hit her with the shovel in the process. Naruto was the one who finally convinced Choji to hand over the first aid kit and Hinata was the one to patch Suigetsu up. Hinata appeared to be the voice of reason in Naruto’s place. They were all in favor.

Sasuke nodded his head and handed Hinata the shovel. “Looks like you’re in charge, Hinata.”

“Y-yeah.”

“Sasuke...take my water bottle!” Sakura offered and handed him her pink water bottle. Sasuke took it and looked down at it’s loud, obnoxious, color. “We have access to the stream from here so it’s no big deal. I’d rather drink from my hands than have you drink from your hands!”

“Thanks.” Sasuke mumbled. He avoided Naruto’s gaze and smile.

“Dude. Be safe.” Suigetsu said and nodded his head. The atmosphere had changed. It became relaxed. There was relief and re-instilled hope.

“Here...take my backpack.” Naruto offered and put the pack behind Lee’s back to give him more support. “I’ll just connect my water bottle to my belt loop!”

“Thanks.” Lee answered. Naruto went to stand up when Lee grabbed hold of Naruto’s wrist. He looked back at Lee. “I have to tell you something.” Lee spoke and leaned over, cupping his hands around Naruto’s ear.

“I was the one who put the flashlight in your backpack. I’m sorry.”

Naruto blinked. His eyes moving side to side going over Lee’s words from last night. He brought up Kiba and Naruto’s stomach flipped and twisted. He exhaled. He wasn’t angry with Lee. He knew why he did it, why he took the flashlight and slipped the flashlight into his bag. Lee was angry, upset, and guilty with what happened with Kiba. Thinking about Kiba was painful. He thought about him and Mrs. Yuhi still suspended upside in the van. He wanted to get help. He wanted to bring them home to their families.

“It’s okay, Lee. I’ll make sure to come back with help! We’ll get you to a hospital and everything will be okay!”

Lee’s face paled and it was twisted up into guilt and worry. He didn’t understand Naruto’s moral code. But he wanted to be more like Naruto. More compassionate. More forgiven. He glanced at Suigetsu and Sakura and Ino. It was just really, really, really hard. Naruto flashed Lee a big smile and squeezed his hand before standing up and moving to Choji. Naruto made it look too easy. The reality was different.

“Hey…” Naruto spoke as he crouched next to Choji. “I’m going to get help. Are you going to be okay?”

Choji glanced at Naruto. He hadn’t spoken since yesterday afternoon. Naruto patted Choji on the shoulder.

“I’m going to get help and we’re all going to go home. Shikamaru is waiting for you.”

At the mentioning of Shikamaru, Choji straightened up. Without saying anything Choji nodded his head and returned to staring at his bare feet.

“Be careful!” Hinata commented when Naruto moved to her. She reached out to touch his hand but he unconsciously moved back. She stopped and smiled weakly.

“I will. We’ll be back with help.” Naruto continued ignoring the fact that she reached her hand out and he moved away.

“Are you ready?” Sasuke asked. There was mild irritation in his voice. He had been watching Naruto say his goodbyes like he was about to ship off in his first tour overseas, and he rolled his eyes in annoyance. “Come on. Let’s hurry. I want to go home!”

“Mhm!” Naruto agreed. He clipped his water bottle to his belt loop and followed Sasuke back into the forest, and towards the stream. He turned around and waved one last time before disappearing into the trees.

“Let’s speedrun this!” Naruto called to Sasuke as he began running along the stream. Sasuke snorted but followed his lead.

Naruto was filled with happiness. The relief he felt when he saw the campsite. The emotional feelings of reaching the campsite and finding help. The belief that they were going to be rescued today! They would all go home. He found himself smiling. They would all be safe and sound. All of them will be going home. It felt like an explosion of warmness. There was finally a light in all of this darkness, and Naruto had enclosed his palms around it. He felt confident. He felt invincible. He felt lucky. Things were starting to look up and he was relieved.

What appeared to be a story with a happily-ever-after quickly turned into the tale of the Little Match Girl. A story about a dying child’s dream. Naruto never would have predicted what happened next. But if he were to do it all over again. Knowing what was about to happen. He never would have pointed out the campsite. He would have remained on the rock face and waited until help arrived.

Chapter Text

“They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling unable to communicate.”― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

They had advantages. They were traveling light. It was just the two of them. They were moving downhill. They moved faster, gaining kinetic energy, and reducing the gravitational potential. It was easier, less strenuous on their muscles, and the further they separated from the rock face, and the closer they got to the campsite the more elated they became. Their worries and anxieties and fears lifted off their bodies and evaporated. They slowed down when they began to reach obstacles. Fallen trees, large rocks that jutted from the earth, and roots. Although they continued following the stream, it widened and twisted and bent, and parts of the stream bank became difficult to maneuver.

They quickly realized the journey to the campsite wasn’t what they expected at all.

What started off as a light to moderate exercise turned into a vigorous intensity full body workout. They were forced to move more inland. The bank became slippery, and impossible to walk on without slipping into the ever growing and ever widening stream. They could still see the water, could still hear the rushing water, and could still smell the water. So it was okay.

Naruto looked at Sasuke’s back as they both balanced on a fallen tree. Sasuke took the lead and Naruto followed him. He told himself over and over not to look down. They walked across it as if balancing high on a tightrope. He was nervous and sweat formed on his temple. He wanted to break the silence. He told himself not to look down. He heard a noise, a bird squawking, to his right. His eyes looked down at the jagged rocks on the ground.

“I never got to thank you.” Naruto began to speak. He tried to look back at Sasuke but his eyes weren’t cooperating. His world began to tilt.

He found himself slipping. He moved too far to the right and found himself falling. Panic ensued. He slammed his knee down on the tree and tried to grab onto something before he fell off. He couldn’t find anything, and just when he braced himself to fall and slam into the rocky ground below, he felt someone grabbing his hand, and pulling him back from the edge.

“Watch where you’re going!” Sasuke yelled as he jerked Naruto back on the tree. Naruto exhaled and nodded his head as he righted himself. He felt the blood rushing to his head. He decided to continue to focus on Sasuke’s backpack. Navy and brown.

“I’m not very good at these things.” Naruto commented. He watched Sasuke reach the base of the tree and jump down. Sasuke turned around and watched him smirking.

“What walking and talking at the same time?”

“No!” Naruto laughed and jumped down. “Balancing.”

“I guess I have to thank you twice now.” Naruto spoke as he unlatched his water bottle from his belt loop and took a drink. He was beginning to calm down. Sasuke avoided him as he took a drink from Sakura’s pink water bottle.

“First-”

“Stop.” Naruto looked at him. “I don’t want to do this.” Sasuke cut him off and gave him a cold look.

“Huh? Do what?” Naruto asked raising his eyebrows and lowering the water bottle.

“This.” Sasuke gestured at himself and Naruto. “I don’t want to be your friend. I was never supposed to be on this trip. It’s your fault that I’m on this trip. All I want from you is to help me reach that campsite. When we get back home I want nothing to do with you.”

Sasuke’s sharp voice cut through Naruto like the levee failures in New Orleans during a hurricane. Naruto could feel the rush of water all around him. Sasuke had always felt like a natural disaster contained inside a human body ready to explode and wreak havoc all around him. To flood and drown everyone, and that’s exactly how Naruto felt. He was fully emerged in water and drowning. Sasuke’s eyes lacked any warmth just two hematite crystals born from volcanic activity. Naruto brought his eyes down. He tried to breathe but he couldn’t. The water had begun to fill up his lungs. He couldn’t bring himself to look at that expression on Sasuke’s face any longer. It was inflamed and painful mixed with resentment. He could feel an ache forming in his chest as every molecule in his body screamed for him to breathe.

He could feel the guilt piling up. He could still feel Kiba’s warm blood on his hand. He could still feel the blood pulsating out of the wound on Kiba’s side with each heartbeat. He continued to hold his breath again. He was punishing himself. He didn’t want any of them to die. Without realizing it he began to wipe his hand on his coat. He looked down. He could still see the blood. It was fresh, and no matter how many times he wiped his hand on his coat the startling red remained on his hands.

He felt woozy. He felt like he was floating, and the water that filled his lungs began to fill his skull. It was impossible to hold his breath forever. He tried it before, and it always ended the same way. The body had a foolproof mechanism. It overrides free will. Making breathing irresistible. Naruto was forced to take a breath. He felt like crying. He wanted to fall to his knees and cry. He wanted to come undone. He didn’t want to continue. He envisioned everything inside his own mind. He could feel the ground beneath his hands and knees. He could feel tears streaming down his face and he could hear his own cries as he sobbed. The world around him turned black and for a moment Naruto became blind.

“Naruto!” Sasuke’s raised voice caused Naruto to look up. “Let’s go!”

Naruto didn’t say anything. He lost the ability to speak. He didn’t know what to say because what Sasuke said was true, and Naruto didn’t know if he could ever look at himself in the mirror ever again. He didn’t know what to say to Kiba. Lying didn’t seem to help. He lied to Kiba and told him he could hear help. Kiba must have known Naruto was lying. Why else would he wear such an expression? He hooked the water bottle back on his belt loop. Sasuke was already several feet in front of him. Naruto moved his legs and fell in pace behind him. They continued their journey in silence.

*****

Sasuke was the first to take notice. The sun was blocked out. He looked up to see the sky was filling up with darkened black and grey clouds. He felt panic. He stopped moving, and continued looking up at the sky. The air had grown colder. He inhaled. He could feel the sudden drop in temperature the icy air stinging his lungs. What little warmth they felt was now gone. He remembered the rainstorm from two days ago. He didn’t want to be caught in another storm. Not now. Not when they were so close. He exhaled. He turned to Naruto and watched him as he stopped, and looked up at the sky. Naruto caught his eyes and grimaced.

“We better hurry.” Sasuke said and increased his speed.

Naruto hadn’t spoken in a while, and the longer he went without talking the more annoyed Sasuke felt. He glanced back at the blonde to ensure he was still behind him. He kept having to do it because even his footsteps became so quiet almost like his feet weren't even touching the ground. He was always behind him though. Naruto’s eyes were focused on the ground. Sasuke didn’t understand what was happening internally. He didn’t want anything from Naruto. He never did. No. That was a lie. He did. But he didn’t know what he wanted from him. His whole presence knocked him off balance. His existence threatened him and he didn’t know why. He didn’t want him close. He wanted him to be kept at arm's length.

Something inside set off an alarm. Sasuke came to a grinding halt. They came to a drop. There was a long jagged crack in the ground. It split. It dipped down and there was about the distance of an Olympic sized swimming pool until the forest picked back up on the other side. The massive crater looked like it used to be filled with water, but the water was gone, leaving a footpath through. Naruto stopped next to him and looked at the obstacle. Climbing down wasn’t the problem. He didn’t know if they could climb back out. He swallowed. He didn’t know what to do.

“Should we go around?” Naruto asked looking from side to side. The break seemed to go on for miles on one side. The other side the stream had turned into a river, and the water rushed angrily down the side of the mountain. It was impossible to cross.

“No.” Sasuke answered. He didn’t want to waste time going around. He looked nervously back up at the sky. The sky began to form one solid color. Slate gray. He could feel the increased moisture in the air. It was menacing. It was taunting them. Mocking them.

“Let's climb down?” Naruto asked. “I can go first.” He offered. Sasuke shrugged. He didn’t know why he felt relief in Naruto’s voice.

“Fine.”

Naruto walked along the edge looking to see where the best foot place would be. The distance from the edge to the bottom looked to be about three stories. He found it, and without warning he leapt down. Sasuke gasped, not expecting Naruto to disappear, and ran to the edge. He watched Naruto slowly climb down the jutting rocks using footholds. He slithered down easily. At about one story he jumped down and landed like a cat on all fours proving that he wasn’t completely human after all.

“It’s easy. We can use this way to climb back up!” Naruto reassured as he straightened up and turned to look up at Sasuke.

Sasuke wasn’t a rock climber, and never once participated in rope climbing during physical education. He mucked around on the bleachers as he watched his classmates one by one try to pull their body up the rope to ring the coveted bell at the top. He swallowed the painful lump that formed in the back of his throat. He was more careful with his movements. He moved slower than Naruto. Fear gripped him with each movement. He dangled his legs off the edge and slid down to the first foothold. He could feel the rock crumbling underneath this feet. He felt fright as he jumped to the next foothold. His hand reached out frantically and he steadied himself up against the rocks. Catching his breath he continued moving down until he reached the point where Naruto jumped down. He mimicked Naruto and landed on all fours although he didn’t stick the landing and fell over.

“See it wasn’t that bad was it?” Naruto spoke with a smile. When Sasuke looked at him the smile left his face and his blue eyes avoided his. Sasuke’s head whirled from the experience and he straightened up. He preferred feeling solid rock beneath his feet or balancing on a tree trunk to scaling down the side of a cliff.

“Are you part mountain goat or something?” Sasuke commented as they walked across the rock face. The ground was uneven with holes and cracks. Their movements became slower. Parts of the rock were crumbly, and when they stepped on it would break away forming uneven holes. Other parts were so smooth and sharp they became slippery. Sasuke looked over to Naruto when he didn’t answer.

“Don’t ignore me!” Sasuke snapped when Naruto remained quiet.

Naruto looked up just when Sasuke tripped and fell forward. He held his hands out to brace his fall when he landed against one of the jagged rocks. He could feel the flesh of his palm slicing open. He could feel shards of rock break off and become embedded into his hand. He let out a cry of pain as his knees slammed on the ground.

“Sasuke!” Naruto cried out and rushed to his side.

“Fuck!” Sasuke swore as he looked at his right hand that was now covered in blood. He could feel his pain nerves vibrating and his eyes watered. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been hurt. He had always been careful. He never broke skin. He was beginning to think he was impervious until he was god-smacked. The pain was unbearable and he couldn’t move. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes.

“Hold it above your head!” Naruto said.

“What?” Sasuke gasped not comprehending anything but the searing pain. Naruto took his wrist and pulled it high above his head. “What’s that going to do?”

“I don’t know I saw it in a movie!”

“Are you kidding me?” Sasuke barked and tried to wiggle his hand from Naruto’s grasp, but he held firmer than he thought.

“Do you have anything to wrap around it?”

“In my bag…” Sasuke exhaled. He could feel his hand shaking. He tried to curl his fingers in, but it only resulted in more pain prickling his arm up and down. He gasped again as he tried to force air in his lungs hoping if he focused on his breathing he wouldn’t think about the pain. It didn’t help. Naruto let go of Sasuke’s hand and moved to his backpack. He watched as Sasuke lowered his arm.

“Keep it up in the air!” Naruto commanded.

Sasuke lifted his arm back in the air and over his head. All it accomplished was the blood dripped down his wrist and stained his coat sleeve. Naruto looked back in Sasuke’s bag. There were clothes. They were all too big, and he didn’t want to cut anything. He shuffled through the clothes until he found it.

“How about this?” Naruto asked as he pulled a pair of boxer briefs out and showed Sasuke. Upon seeing them Sasuke’s face turned the same shade as his hand and his eyes grew as large as the moon.

“Wh...at?” He sputtered. He didn’t want Naruto touching his boxers. He didn’t even let his mother touch his boxers. He didn’t want anyone touching his boxers. Specifically Naruto! He wanted to tell him no, but Naruto had already taken his hand back and began to wrap the fabric around his palm. He tied it into a knot before he could protest. He was astonished at his speed and recounted Naruto had patched Lee up while he was writhing in pain from the wolf attack.

“Don’t...touch my underwear ever again!” Sasuke yelled at Naruto. He jerked his hand back and curled it protectively up against his chest. He watched Naruto as he breathed heavily. He was crouched down and at his eye level. He didn’t say anything back.

“This is your fault!” Sasuke yelled and he stumbled up. He turned his back on Naruto and continued their journey across the rock face. Naruto still didn’t respond and it began to gnaw at his insides. The silence loomed.

“ANSWER ME!” Sasuke screamed as he spun around. He saw Naruto standing up and his face melted into confusion. His blue eyes wide and unrelenting. Sasuke could feel his heart pounding.

“Why are you yelling at me?” Naruto asked exasperated and began to move after him. Sasuke let out a frustrated cry and turned back around. He didn’t want Naruto near him. He didn’t want to have to fall down and cut his hand on a rock, and he didn’t want Naruto to have to bandage him up with boxers. He didn’t want to be on this stupid trip, and he didn’t want to be Naruto’s friend!

“If you had answered me I wouldn’t have been looking at you and I wouldn’t have tripped!” Sasuke argued.

“I didn’t know you wanted me to answer you...I didn’t know you wanted me to talk to you!” Naruto argued back. Sasuke could hear the tinge of frustration in Naruto’s voice and it was a welcomed change. He never witnessed him becoming overly frustrated, and never witnessed him losing his temper. Did he ever? Did Naruto have a breaking point?

“I’m sorry!” Naruto continued softening his voice. “For everything. I’ll leave you alone. When we get back home I won’t bother you again. I promise.”

Sasuke felt his breath hitch. He didn’t want to look back, and he didn’t want to see the expression Naruto was making. The frustration in his voice vanished and it was steeped in such despondency Sasuke could feel it wrapping around his heart and squeezing. Even though his words should have made Sasuke happy it didn’t, in fact, it had the opposite effect. He didn’t understand why.

Nobody taught him how to deal with his emotions. He had to bottle everything up and be the perfect son to a perfect family. Nobody taught him how to deal with these conflicting emotions, and all he wanted to do was scream out in frustration and lash out at Naruto, because that was all he knew.

They finally reached the other side, and with it an excuse to change topics, and with it came a temporary truce. Naruto surveyed the cliff. It offered more rocks for them to grab onto and to hoist their body’s up on. He seemed to plan out the course they would take before turning back to Sasuke.

“I can carry your backpack.” Naruto offered.

Sasuke looked up the three story cliff and paled. The top looked impossible to reach. He felt himself shrinking and the cliff elongating. He didn’t know how he was going to climb with his gimp hand. He looked back down. His palm stung and every time he moved it the pain only worsened. Sasuke shouldered off his backpack and handed it to Naruto. He could feel his energy levels deplete. He just wanted to hurry. He wanted to go home. He wanted to cry.

“I’ll go first.” Naruto spoke being the first to test out the route.

The ascent took longer than expected. The whole journey took longer than anticipated. It was only supposed to be a few hours, and they were well past the allotted timeframe. The terrain didn’t look this complicated when they looked at it from the rock face. It looked like a hop, skip, and a jump and they’d reach the campsite. A few hours and they would finally reach help. It was more difficult than anticipated and they were unprepared and overwhelmed.

The sky was darkening. The shadows were growing. The sun was setting. Naruto ordered Sasuke to move exactly to the positions that Naruto had been in. He pointed to where he needed to go. Naruto even helped Sasuke by pulling him up during a few parts. By the time they reached the top both boys were panting and sweating.

“See?” Naruto wheezed, rolling over to his back, and looking up at the sky. “Piece of cake.”

Sasuke remained sitting cross-legged catching his breath. Sweat covered him from head to toe. He felt grimy. This was the longest it’s been since he had a shower. He stared down at his palm doctored up with a pair of his boxers. He grabbed Sakura’s water bottle and took a long drink. He could feel water sloshing around in his stomach. It felt empty and raw. He could hear his stomach groaning and could feel cramps from the hunger pains. What he wanted was to eat. They didn’t have food, and so he drank more water, engorging himself. He looked over to Naruto. His eyes were closed and his breathing became more rhythmic. If Sasuke didn’t interrupt it looked like he was going to fall asleep.

“Let’s go. I want to go home.” Sasuke said standing up.

They continued following the river that cut through the mountain quickening their pace to try and make up for lost time. The only reprieve was it hadn’t rained. Yet. The sky continued to look heavy, dark, like any minute it could open up and pour down. Ominous as it loomed above them causing flashbacks from their first night in the wilderness. When they saw the river curving around another bend they heard the sound of a gunshot. They both froze. It was unmistakable. Somebody was hunting in the mountains. Naruto’s face brightened and he turned to look at Sasuke.

“Is that a hunter?” Naruto asked. Sasuke didn’t know. He didn’t even know where the gunshot came from. It sounded like it was coming from all directions. It was a single gunshot and then absolute silence.

“HELLO?” Naruto called out. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “WE NEED HELP! WE’RE STUDENTS FROM KONOHA! WE WERE IN A CAR ACCIDENT!”

“WE’RE HERE! WE’RE ALIVE! HELP!” Sasuke yelled as he too cupped his hands around his mouth. Their voices echoed around the trees. They grew quiet waiting for a reply with bated breath.

“HELLO? WE’RE HERE! WE’RE OVER HERE! PLEASE WE NEED HELP!” Naruto continued. He grew quiet and listened. The forest was quiet and still. There was no response. Naruto began questioning his sanity. He looked desperately back at Sasuke needing confirmation. “That was a gunshot, right?!”

Sasuke nodded his head. “It must be from the campers! We’re probably too far away they can’t hear us!” Naruto nodded his head in agreement, feeling instant relief, and they set off again. The sound of the gunshot acted like a shot of adrenaline injected into their veins. It had grown even darker. When they moved around the final bend they saw the familiar blue tarp on the other side of the river. It had existed and they finally made it.

“HELLO?” Naruto yelled as he reached the edge of the river nearly falling in. “WE NEED HELP!”

It was deadly silent. Leaving only the noise of the water rushing by in the river and the trees swaying in the breeze. Naruto looked to Sasuke.

“Maybe they’re still out hunting? Let’s hurry up and cross.”

They reached the next hurdle. Both stared at the river in either direction. The river was wider and looked deeper than the meager stream that had started at the top of the mountain. They decided to move down the river in hopes of finding a spot they could cross. About fifteen minutes away they came to a stop. There were rocks jutting out of the water that led to a fallen tree which led to the other side of the river. It looked like they could use this and make their way to the other side.

“How are you at jumping?” Sasuke asked Naruto.

He moved his head back and forth. “Pretty good. My foster sister taught me how to jump rope. I got pretty decent at the end.”

Sasuke glanced at Naruto. It was the first mentioning of his private life. He could easily envision Naruto jumping rope. He was the type who would try anything regardless of if he looked ridiculous. He mentioned...a foster sister. Younger? Older? Was it recent? Or a memory from the past? Sasuke wanted to know, but he didn’t ask, and Naruto never elaborated. Sasuke knew that Naruto was an orphan and had been in the foster care system for years. How long exactly? He didn’t know. He didn’t know specifics. He didn’t know what became of his parents nor why he didn’t have any living relatives that could take him in. He didn’t understand with Naruto’s easy going personality and happy-go-lucky outlook why he wasn’t adopted. He looked like the perfect kid. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a charismatic smile.

He did know that Naruto was bounced around the country before settling into a group home in Konoha. He just didn’t know why.

“I can-” Naruto began.

“I can go first. I’m not an invalid. Besides I’m better at balancing than you are.” Sasuke interrupted. Naruto didn’t argue. He didn’t say anything else. Sasuke reached his hand out. “Give me back my backpack!” He didn’t think it would be good for Naruto to have added weight while balancing. Naruto complied without protest.

Sasuke didn’t need help jumping nor balancing on a tree trunk. The way the tree landed fell from their side of the river at a downward angle reaching the other side. There was a large rock in the middle of the river that jutted out, and next to it reached one of the branches that led up to the trunk. Although it was a large rock the way the rock was worn by the water about five, dry foot paths were visible and the rest of the rock was submerged under water. Sasuke easily crossed the first few foot holds. The third one was slippery and he found himself sliding, but he shifted his weight and remained upright. He turned around and saw that Naruto successfully jumped to the first foot hold. He watched as Naruto leapt to the second rock, and Sasuke couldn’t help but think he looked like a frog. Sasuke reached the branch and turned back to see Naruto reaching the fourth foot hold.

Sasuke was the first to climb up on the trunk. It sagged with his weight and he felt the trunk drop a foot. His stomach dropped. He stood up. He looked at the trunk. It was thinner from this angel. He always had good posture. It was something that was drilled into him since he was learning how to walk. It was about being center, being balanced, lengthening the spine, pulling the shoulders back, and remaining upright with both feet flat on the ground looking forward. The trick of balancing was to think light. To imagine weighing nothing more than a feather.

Sasuke was nearing the edge and getting closer to the other side. He could feel the trunk sagging as Naruto climbed up. He thought about turning around to see how Naruto was making out, but he saw that he was so close to the other side that he continued walking across, and jumped off. He landed on solid ground and smiled before turning around. What he saw caused him to cry out, and he reached his hand out as if he was able to do anything but bear witness.

“NARUTO!”

He watched as the tree trunk snapped in two beneath Naruto’s feet and he plummeted down disappearing beneath the waters. It didn't look that deep maybe six feet. The tree enclosed around him and into the waters. He froze for a moment his brain comprehending that Naruto was gone. He wasn’t on the tree anymore. He was underneath the water. Just when he was about to jump into the river he saw Naruto break through the waters, several feet away, gasping for breath. Choking, and coughing. He tread water for a few seconds trying to catch his breath.

“Naruto! What are you doing? Get out of the water!” Sasuke called out again.

It got his attention. Naruto began doggy-paddling towards him, and when Sasuke reached out his hand he grabbed it. Sasuke held his hand tightly and pulled him from the river. He was completely soaked and water poured off him as he stood on his feet. In that moment the sky opened up. White fluttered down. He saw snowflakes falling all around, and when they hit the ground they began to melt. Sasuke looked up at the sky. It didn’t rain. Instead it began to snow. When he exhaled, he could see his breath.

“Just so we’re clear...that had nothing to do with balancing.” Naruto said with a smile while his teeth chattered. “Is it snowing?” Naruto asked and he held his hand out and looked up at the sky. A few snowflakes landed on Naruto’s outstretched palm. It was snowing.

“I have extra clothes you can wear.” Sasuke offered without thinking. Naruto waved his hand in the air. Now wasn’t the time, not when they were so close.

“It’s fine. Let’s just hurry to the campsite.”

Sasuke nodded his head, and the two began making their way back to the campsite. He glanced a few times over at Naruto. He heard the squelching of his shoes, soaking wet, expelling water with each step, as he ran alongside him. Naruto shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. He appeared unfazed by the waters. It didn’t matter they would be helped soon. They would reach the campsite and notify the campers. Help would be called and they would be taken care of. Sasuke’s hand would be properly cleaned and bandaged and Naruto would be dried off and ushered into clean, dry clothing.

“I see it!” Naruto cried happily as he spotted the blue tarp. Sasuke also saw it and the two ran closer and closer and closer and...

“HELLO?” Naruto called out as they reached the edge of the camp.

More things came into sight. Things became clearer. There was a fireplace and next to the fireplace tin pans. A clothes line. A yellow and blue tent beneath the blue tarp. There were camping equipment. There was a phenomenon that sometimes happened. Some call it intuition, a gut reaction, a foreboding feeling. A sense that something bad is going to happen, or had happened. A premonition that something was off, terribly wrong and would end in pestilence and death. Sasuke was the first to take notice. He hit an invisible barrier and it ripped through him and he felt...afraid.

“HELLO!” Naruto continued to yell. He moved around the empty campsite. “WE NEED HELP! PLEASE!”

Sasuke walked to the fireplace and looked closer at the tin pans. They were rusted and covered in dirt and leaves. He looked closer to the yellow and blue tent. There were three torn strips on one side of the tent. It looked like claw marks. Looking closer this camp wasn’t currently in use, and hadn't been for a long time. Looking closer this camp was abandoned. But why? Who left it here? Sasuke walked up to the tent, and unzipped it. Inside the tent was a singular sleeping bag. It was worn out, moth bitten, musty. The insides were covered in dried up leaves and dirt. He saw a spider web in the corner of the tent, and at the foot of the sleeping bag he found a stained, faded backpack. Sasuke dropped the door of the tent and turned around. There was nobody here.

He turned around slowly and watched as Naruto continued to call out for help. Did he not notice?

“NARUTO!” Sasuke yelled. It was enough to force him to stop and look at him. “STOP!”

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s nobody here...there aren’t campers here.”

“What do you mean? They’re probably just out hunting. We heard the gunshot. We’ll wait here until they come back.”

“LOOK AROUND!” Sasuke yelled and gestured around the campsite. He wanted to slap him.

“No.”

“What do you mean 'no'?”

“No. They’ll come back.”

“Are you stupid? Did you hit your head when you fell into the water? Nobody is here and nobody will be coming back! Nobody is coming! We’re all alone! Do you understand? Nobody is going to rescue us!”

“No! You’re lying!”

“Yes! This was a complete waste of time! It’s getting dark and we can’t make it back now! This is all your fault! Your stupid idea!!”

“It wasn’t stupid!” Naruto screamed.

“Yes it was!”

“We should have stayed back at the van! You were the one who wanted to leave!”

“You think this is my fault?”

“Is it true?” Naruto posed the question that was in the back of his mind. Hinata had told him what had happened. Lee had told him what had happened, and now he wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Just how ugly was humanity?

“Is what true?”

“Yesterday morning. You were going to leave with the supplies. You were going to leave and if Lee and Choji hadn’t stopped you...you really would have left.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything. He looked through Naruto. Why was he talking about something that happened yesterday? Didn’t he understand what was happening right now? Right here? He could feel the desperation deep inside. The devastation that they weren’t going to be rescued tonight. The revelation that they were forced to stay here tonight. The hunger pains grew and grew. If Naruto wanted an answer he’d give him an answer.

“What would you know? You stayed in the van like a coward!”

“Kiba died! Don’t you understand? Kiba died! Where were you? Where was anyone? It was me! I was with him! Don’t you care about Kiba?”

“No! He didn’t mean anything to me!”

“What is wrong with you?” Naruto wailed out in frustration. He couldn’t understand just how dark and selfish humans could be. He wanted to cry. He was too dehydrated. He had been defending Sasuke this entire time, because he believed what was inside was different than what he portrayed. Hiding his true feelings. He wanted to remove the mask and see the real him, but when he did he saw something frightening. They weren’t humans. They were animals. Barely civilized.

“I was never supposed to be on this trip! It’s your fault! If I die it’s your fault!”

“Stop saying that! I know that already!”

“No! I want you to understand! We’re all going to die out here, Naruto. If we don’t get rescued we’re going to die. Do you understand? And what would you know? You have no one! Nobody is going to mourn your death! The rest of us will be mourned! We’ll have ceremonies and you’ll be buried in a pauper’s grave! I don’t deserve to die! I’m an Uchiha! So if I have to steal supplies to survive I will!”

*****

Naruto felt himself slipping. He was disassociating. He wasn’t able to process any information. He didn’t understand what was happening. There were bits of information and he didn’t know how they were connected. He remembered Mrs. Yuhi talking about the Academic Decathlon. There was a poster in her classroom. She wanted to get a team together for the competition in April and they needed nine participants. He remembered moving to Konoha, and into the group home. His caseworker promised Naruto it would be his last move. He stopped believing him. He told him that the last three moves. Who would mourn his death? Kiba had died. They were all going to die if they didn’t get rescued. Would anyone mourn his death?

They’d all drop dead like flies. Ashes...ashes...we all fall down.

He turned and walked away. He sat at the log that was pushed up to the fireplace. He looked up at the sky. It continued to snow harder. He didn’t take notice of his physical state. He was detached. He looked across the fireplace and saw himself sitting on a log, parallel, looking back. He didn’t feel anything. He didn’t take notice that he was still dripping wet, and the temperatures had plummeted, and that it was snowing. He didn’t even notice that he had stopped shivering. He looked to the ground. The snow was still melting when it hit the ground. That’s when he noticed it. There was a hatchet laying blade first into another log. He reached over and wrapped his hands around the handle of the hatchet. He looked up and watched himself. The him across held the hatchet and dragged the blade across the throat. It left behind a large cut that spurted out blood. The him across smiled as blood soaked him. Naruto watched as the eyes rolled into the back of his head and he fell over.

 

*****

Sasuke immediately regretted it the moment he said it. The words tumbled out of his mouth without a second thought. It was the heat of the moment. He was hysterical. He felt a surge of emotions, all he wanted to do was lash out, because all he felt was pain and hurt. The physical pain he could handle but he hurt inside. He hurt inside his chest, inside his stomach, inside his skull. He watched as Naruto turned away from him and sat in front of the fireplace. He went back to being silent. He went back to ignoring him. Once again he looked...unaffected. Closed off. Distant. He wanted to apologize, but he didn’t know how. He never had to apologize before. Nobody ever taught him how to apologize. He was a Uchiha. He felt panicked. He could feel tears rolling down his face.

He didn’t know what was happening. His heart began to beat irregularly. He could feel both numbness and tingling in his fingers, hands, and arms. He was hyperventilating. He was inhaling and exhaling so rapidly oxygen didn’t have enough time to absorb into his lungs before being pushed back out. He felt dizzy and faint. He felt like he stuck his head inside an oven. Heat erupted over his face and neck. His vision blurred. He was staring down a tunnel. He collapsed. He grabbed his chest. It felt like he was having a heart attack. It felt like he was dying.

When it passed he screamed. He threw himself backwards and screamed. He kicked and thrashed. He grabbed fistfuls of the earth, dirt and stone, and twigs and leaves. Everything that had been bottled up inside over the last two...three days was expelled as if a priest was conducting an exorcism. Still it wasn’t enough. He could feel the demon, Lucifer, curling itself around his liver. He could feel tears rolling down his face and he choked on snot that rolled down the back of his throat. When he exhausted all his energy he remained on his back for a few more minutes.

They had to stay here overnight. They wouldn’t be able to make it back to the rock face tonight. There were supplies here they could bring back. Useful supplies that could aid in their survival. His survival. When they returned tomorrow they wouldn’t be going back completely empty handed. Supplies they didn’t have before they now had. There was a tent. A tarp. A sleeping bag. A backpack. Sasuke pushed himself up and crawled towards the opened tent. He reached in and took the backpack out. It felt heavy. It felt full. He unzipped it. It was full of things, many things, and the first thing he pulled out was a flashlight.

“Naruto! I found a backpack!” Sasuke called out over his shoulder. “It’s full of stuff!”

He turned the flashlight on. It still worked! He wondered what batteries were used, or maybe they were new and were never fully used. There was still juice left. They wouldn’t have to spend the night in complete darkness. He turned around ready to show Naruto when he found him slumped over on his side.

“Naruto?” Sasuke called out. There was no response. No movement. No indication he was even listening. He stood up and walked over to him. “Naruto?”

He touched his shoulder and rolled him over. Naruto let out a groan as he rolled to his back. There was something in his hand. He was still soaking wet. He was still wearing the same clothes, the same jacket, the same shoes he wore when he fell into the river. How long ago had it been? He needed to change out of his clothes.

“Naruto. Go into the tent and change. I told you I have extra clothes you can wear.”

Naruto pushed himself up and dropped whatever it was he was holding. He paused in a seated position. Sasuke shouldered off his backpack and handed it to Naruto when he finally stood up. He still didn’t say anything. Sasuke watched Naruto from the corner of his eye as he stumbled towards the tent, and didn’t turn away until Naruto crawled into the tent, and zipped it closed. He collected the backpack and sat on the same log that Naruto had been sitting on. He reached down to see what Naruto was holding. He picked up a hatchet. It was better than the shovel. He didn’t need the shovel anymore with this. He examined it before dropping it back on the ground. He pulled his hood over his head and reached for the flashlight. He didn’t know what time it was but it was going to be dark soon. He began to look through the backpack.

The second thing he pulled out was a map. He began to unfold it. He didn’t know how to read a map. He noticed there was writing in the margins. He took the flashlight and began reading. The first entry documented what happened exactly one year ago.

April 1, 2005
Lost?!
I heard a gunshot.
Compass doesn’t work.
Hit icy weather.
I fell down.
Twisted my ankle.
Can’t climb out.
Running out of food.

April 3, 2005
We’re not alone.
I sense them in the woods.
They come out at night.
Daisy barks at them.
They don’t like Daisy?!?!

April 5, 2005
I found Daisy dead.
They killed her during the night.
I buried her.

April 7, 2005
I ate Daisy.
Please God forgive me.
No sign of help.
Last night I heard them laughing.

April ???, 2005
I see them watching me.
They are going to come for me.
When?!?!?!

April ???, 2005
Beware the gunshots.
Do not trust them!
Do not trust them!
Do not trust them!
Do not trust them!

April ???, 20xx
Daisy came back.
Give the boys a kiss.
Goodbye.

Sasuke found himself trembling. It was the ramblings of a madman. At least that was what he told himself, but he keep re-reading the entries, and the more he read them the more the words sunk in. In the beginning the handwriting was legible. Perfectly blocked lettering, even spaced, and straight lined. Sane. Coherent. Competent. As the entries came the handwriting became more illegible, the sizes varied and it became slanted. Insane. Incompetent. Some words were darkened, others were so light he barely read it, and ‘Do not trust them!’ was written well over twenty-five times both forwards and backwards.

The last entry haunted him. He re-read it several times ensuring he was reading it correctly. He heard an unidentifiable sound. He instantly looked up and noticed how nighttime befell the campsite. The darkness of the woods. The white snow still fell from the sky. He was trembling, and it wasn’t because he was cold. He wanted to flash the light in the direction of the sound, but he was afraid. He heard the same sound again this time it was closer. His breathing hitched. He didn’t want to be outside any longer. He put the map back in the backpack and zipped it up. He put the backpack on and picked up the hatchet.

He moved towards the tent. It was safer inside the tent than outside the tent. He wanted to show Naruto the map and the entries. He unzipped the tent and looked inside. What he saw caused him to become paralyzed, and those intense feelings began to overwhelm him, he wasn’t just worried he was agonizing. Something awful was going to happen if he didn’t do something. Naruto was lying motionless on his back. It was the same feelings he felt when he first stepped into the campsite only they were heightened with the entries scribbled on the map gnawing at the back of his mind.

“Naruto?” Sasuke called out. His coat and shoes were removed but that was as far as he got before losing unconsciousness. His eyes were closed and Sasuke couldn’t tell if he was breathing. He heard that unidentifiable sound again. This time it was so close he knew if he turned around he would see what was making that sound. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He didn’t want to turn around. Sasuke leapt into the tent, and quickly zipped it up. There were three claw marks strips on one side of the tent that caused cold air to filter inside, but other than that he felt immensely safer inside the tent. His heart thumped madly.

“Naruto?” Sasuke called out and began shaking Naruto’s shoulder. He was unresponsive. His clothing was both wet, stiff, and frozen. Sasuke brought his fingers to Naruto’s nose. He could feel shallow inhaling and exhaling. Naruto’s lips were a bluish tint and his face drained of blood. He reached out and touched his hair. It was frozen stiff and when he moved his fingers through his blonde hair he felt sheets of ice sliding off. He needed to get Naruto out of his wet clothes or he was going to freeze to death. The expression of Jack Nicholson when he froze to death in the snow in 'The Shining' flashed before his eyes. He propped up the flashlight onto his backpack and set out on removing Naruto’s clothes.

“I’m removing your clothes because they’re wet!” Sasuke announced. He didn’t know why he was telling him, because maybe if he didn’t it would be weird...wrong.

It was harder than expected. Naruto was completely unresponsive and it felt like Sasuke was moving around dead weight. Well he was. He removed Naruto’s over-sized sweater with great difficulty, finally moving to the front of Naruto to free him of it. The sweater was saturated in wet. Much to his disappointment Naruto was wearing a long sleeved button-up shirt underneath the sweater. He began unbuttoning his shirt and pushed the shirt apart. He rolled his eyes and exhaled haughtily when he saw that he was wearing an undershirt. It was easier to remove. He looked down at Naruto’s exposed chest and he barely saw it raising in falling. He still wasn’t moving. Sasuke placed his hand back under Naruto’s nose. His breathing was still shallow but he was still breathing...still alive.

“Naruto? Can you hear me?” Sasuke asked loudly. No response. “I’m going to remove your pants...shit.”

He felt his face burn as he unbuttoned and unzipped his pants. He never felt so embarrassed in his life. Fuck what was he doing? He thought the sweater was difficult to remove? Ha. The jeans seemed to have suctioned to his body and the denim fibers were so stiff from freezing over he had to move to Naruto’s feet to remove the pants. He threw his whole body into it and he fell backwards falling up against the side of the tent. The pants were removed and he threw them to the other side of the tent beneath the claw marks.

“Naruto?” Sasuke asked again. Should he remove his underwear?

He reached down and touched Naruto’s face. He was so cold. He wasn’t shivering anymore. He picked up Naruto’s wrist and turned his hand over feeling for a pulse. His fingers were stiff and his fingertips the same bluish-tint as his lips. His pulse was weak barely registering. He remembered watching a TV show. A sitcom from the 90s. One episode the two characters were caught in a blizzard while driving. One character tried to leave and find help, the other chasing after him. The one character became unconscious forcing them to return to the car. The conscious character stripped both their clothes, wrapped her body around his, and huddled under a blanket saving them both. They were rescued the next morning.

He wondered if it would work. Sasuke unzipped the sleeping bag. He covered his nose and mouth. It smelled awful. It smelled musty and weather worn. He gagged and coughed. He wanted to air it out but he was too afraid to leave the tent. He refused to leave the tent until morning came. He placed the sleeping bag over Naruto’s body, leaving only his face exposed so he could breathe. He picked up his flashlight and opened up his backpack and removed a pair of boxer briefs. He looked back at Naruto and shined the flashlight on him. He didn’t react. He bit his bottom lip. Would it be fine if he just left him like this? No...the impending dread overwhelmed him again and he felt cramps in his abdomen.

He didn’t want Naruto to die. He was petrified. He removed the sleeping bag and looked down at Naruto’s wet boxers before jerking his head away in embarrassment.

Get it together! Sasuke scolded himself. They were both boys. They both had the same parts. There was no sense in getting all worked up over it. So why was he? He felt shameful and he didn’t know why. His heart was beating faster than a hummingbird’s.

If you wanted my attention you could have just asked me.’ Sasuke heard Naruto’s voice from last week. ‘I would have given it to you. You didn’t have to do all this.’ He didn’t know why he was remembering that right now. Why he was hearing Naruto’s voice now. He felt a tingling sensation in the pit of his stomach. Was that what he wanted from Naruto? His attention? He gave it so freely to everyone around him. Was that what Sasuke wanted?

Isn’t this what you wanted?’ It was Naruto’s voice again and the scene when they were in the back of the van replayed. Sasuke turned and looked at Naruto as the van shifted into drive and they set their way back through the mountains.

What?!

Me sitting next to you?

Sasuke could feel the heat licking his skin. It felt as if he was standing naked up against a fire and soon it was going to consume him. Was that what he wanted when they were arguing about where to sit? Did he want to sit next to Naruto the whole time? No...that couldn’t be why. He wasn’t supposed to be on this trip and he didn’t want to be sitting next to Naruto.

There’s a sadness in your eyes. I see a lot of pain. If you want to be friends, I bet I could make you smile...make you happy.’ Naruto’s words kept replaying inside his head. The volume was turned up on the speakers. How was it that Naruto knew so much about him and he knew nothing at all?

“I’m...going to remove your...underwear…” Sasuke said out loud covering his face with his hand as he spoke.

He peeked through his fingers and checked his face for a reaction. Nothing. Naruto wasn’t here. He was gone. He closed his eyes tight, and removed Naruto’s soaking wet underwear. Only opening them when he reached his ankles. He threw them into the wet pile in the corner of the tent. He picked up the dry boxer briefs and put them on his legs. He closed his eyes again, and pulled them up until he was covered. He peeked and looked down. He was completely covered. He felt relief. He opened up his eyes. Sasuke placed the sleeping bag back over Naruto. Sasuke found himself panting. He could still feel heat all over his body. He felt sweaty. Uncomfortable. The only consolation prize was Naruto was completely knocked out and wouldn’t remember anything.

Was he really going to do this? Would this really revive Naruto? If he did nothing...would he die?

Sasuke began to remove his clothes. He folded them into a neat pile. He grabbed the flashlight and slipped his body under the sleeping bag gagging over the smell. The ground was hard and uncomfortable. He looked at Naruto’s lifeless body. Unconsciously looked him up and down. His smooth skin now looked pale and bloodless. He brushed his hand against Naruto’s. It was lifeless he held his hands over Naruto’s for a moment. He picked Naruto’s hand up and he watched it drop back to the ground. He threaded his fingers with Naruto’s, and he pulled Naruto’s hands towards his mouth breathing softly on them.

Sasuke inched his body closer and closer to Naruto’s until he was on top of him. A chill went through him. He exhaled and shivered. Naruto’s body was freezing, and it felt like he had curled up besides an ice sculpture, or a corpse. Sasuke moved down so that his head rested on Naruto’s chest, and his arms thread on either side of him warming him up with his own body heat. He pressed his ear to Naruto’s chest, and closed his eyes. He could hear the thump-thumping of his heart. It was slow and weak. He stayed like that for a moment. The closeness of Naruto's body pressed beneath him began to relax his tense muscles. He was like a spring being slowly undone. He didn’t know when it happened but the steady beating of Naruto’s heart lulled him into sleep.

*****

Naruto was awake and aware before he opened his eyes. The first thing he felt was warmth. It wrapped around him encasing him into a cocoon where he felt safe and secure. He didn’t want to break through this cocoon or leave this welcoming warmth. Consciousness began to fill in the blanks. He tried to remember where he was and what he was doing. He opened his eyes. He was greeted by pitch-black. He didn’t know where he was. He did know somebody was wrapped around him. He began to take notice. He wasn’t wearing clothes. He felt flesh pressing up against him and when he moved his hand he felt the warmth of another body that wasn’t his. An internal alarm sounded off.

“AHHH!” Naruto cried out. He instinctively shoved and kicked at whoever was pinning him down in pure panic.

“Naruto! It’s me!” Sasuke’s voice called out. He felt Naruto’s hands and feet attacking him. The flashlight that had been dropped beneath the sleeping bag rolled out and light flooded the inside of the tent.

“Sasuke? What are you doing?” Naruto asked his voice high-pitched. He pushed himself into a sitting position, and looked down at himself. “Why am I naked? Why are you naked?” He asked taking notice that Sasuke also wasn’t wearing clothes. His mind was whirling. The last thing he remembered was arguing with Sasuke at the campsite. Everything else became murky and indecipherable like waking up and immediately remembering a dream, but as time went on those memories were fleeting, and soon all was forgotten.

“You were unconscious. You never changed out of your wet clothes don’t you remember?” Sasuke tried to explain as he pushed himself up and away from Naruto. He watched as Naruto grabbed the sleeping bag and covered his face with it.

“What were you doing?” Naruto asked his face still hidden. He didn’t remember.

“I was warming you up! They do it all the time in movies and TV shows to save someone from hypothermia! You should be thanking me!” Sasuke defended. He felt his face flushing. He was glad that Naruto was hiding his face because he didn’t think he would be able to have this conversation otherwise. Sasuke began to put his clothes back on suddenly feeling more mortified than he ever felt in his life.

“Did you change my underwear?” Naruto asked as he popped his head out of the sleeping bag. His eyes were wide and his pupils dilated. He stared at Sasuke as he struggled putting his shirt on.

“Uh...ah....I didn’t look!” Sasuke stuttered and quickly turned away.

“You did look!” Naruto accused.

“No I didn’t!”

“What else did you do to me?”

“Nothing! I fell asleep!” Sasuke spoke as he pulled his shirt down and covered up. Naruto stared at him, but didn’t press anymore. He looked around taking notice of their surroundings.

“Where are we?” Naruto asked and he began shivering.

“We’re in the tent. At the campsite.” Sasuke answered. He grabbed his backpack. He handed Naruto his school uniform. The one he intended on wearing during the competition. “Here. Wear these. Unless you want to put your soaking wet clothes back on.” Naruto hesitated but leaned over and took them. Sasuke averted his eyes as Naruto began to put the clothes on.

“I didn’t do anything. Okay? I just warmed you up, and I swear I didn’t look!” Sasuke felt the need to further explain what did and didn’t happen.

“Mhm.” Naruto nodded his head as he began buttoning up the shirt.

“You better not tell anyone! I’ll deny it if you do.”

Suddenly there was a sound coming from outside. It was the sound of a dog barking. There were two sequential barks followed by silence and then two more sequential barks. Out of the different barks a dog had this type of bark was alarm, warning it’s owner of potentially unusual, dangerous, or concerning circumstances. The barking grew louder as if the dog was running towards them. Sasuke felt fear. He remembered the entries written on the map. 'Daisy came back'. His heart thumped painfully in his chest and his breath caught in his throat. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck and arm stand up.

“Is someone here? Is that search and rescue?” Naruto asked elated. He reached for the zipper on the tent door before he was able to unzip the tent Sasuke lashed out. He grabbed his hand and pulled it back.

“DON’T!” Sasuke spoke. He was trembling. Naruto turned to him and noticing his body language and the grave expression on his face paused.

“What’s wrong?” Naruto asked. He lowered and softened his voice. Sasuke continued holding Naruto’s hand. “What if it’s search and rescue?” There was a loud noise between Sasuke’s ear like a tornado siren. What if it wasn't?

“Call out first...if it’s a dog the dog will come here and bring search and rescue. Don’t leave the tent yet.”

Naruto looked Sasuke over. He didn’t press and didn’t ask anymore questions. He didn’t even remove his hand from Sasuke’s. Instead he did what Sasuke asked and he called out for help. He screamed out for help.

“WE’RE HERE! WE’RE OVER HERE! PLEASE HELP!”

There was silence. He didn’t hear anything. The dog grew quiet. Naruto removed his hand from Sasuke’s and crawled to the side of the tent where the claw marks were. He stared through the claw marks and outside. It was pitch black. He couldn’t see anything. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. This time louder and hoping his voice carried.

“WE’RE OVER HERE! WE’RE THE STUDENTS FROM KONOHA! WE WERE IN A CAR ACCIDENT! PLEASE HELP!”

There were a few seconds of silence, and then there came more barking. This time the barking sounded like it was right outside their tent. It was so loud it engulfed them. It was repetitive and increased in intensity. A territorial bark mixed with growls. Alerting to an intruder stemming from fear and anxiety. The barking continued.

“Sasuke! The dog is right outside the tent! Let’s go!” Naruto spoke as he turned to look at Sasuke, and stopped. Sasuke was holding the hatchet. Naruto’s eyes grew larger. “Sasuke?”

“Don’t move!” Sasuke yelled. Naruto’s eyes moved from the hatchet to Sasuke back to the hatchet.

“Are you crazy? It’s search and rescue!” Naruto argued. The barking sounded like it was right on the other side of the tent. He turned around and reached for the zipper hellbent on running out and alerting the search and rescue where they were. When he unzipped three-quarters of the tent was when he felt Sasuke shoving him down. He felt a knee on his lower back and he struggled to get up. Sasuke was pinning his chest down and he felt his entire weight on his back.

“GET OFF ME!” Naruto yelled. Sasuke wretched Naruto’s hand from the zipper and forcefully zipped the tent back up. Just when Naruto was going to yell at Sasuke again he was interrupted.

A nauseating sound. The dog began whining and whimpering. It screeched as if being attacked by evil incarnate. There was the sound of something monstrous outside their tent. It was an overwhelming feeling of ineptitude and helplessness. He heard the dog’s screeching painful yelps as if it was being picked up and disemboweled. There was the sound of intestines hitting the ground followed by a thump as the body was dropped. They didn’t hear the barking anymore. All they heard was the howling of the wind.

They remained perfectly still neither breathing. Sasuke gripped the handle of the hatchet. It was already poised in the air ready to attack. Sasuke shifted his weight and removed himself off of Naruto, and Naruto pushed himself up, he turned to stare at Sasuke.

“What was that?” Naruto asked his voice barely audible. He pushed his body away from the tent door and away from the slits on the side of the tent.

Sasuke shook his head. “We’re not alone.”

“What are you talking about?”

Sasuke reached for the backpack with the map inside. He pulled it out and handed it to Naruto. “Look.” Naruto took the map and picked up the flashlight. “I found it in the backpack. It belonged to whoever’s campsite this was. They’re entries from last year.”

Naruto began reading and his eyebrows furrowed together and his face scrunched up into apprehension. He read it over twice. The first time he read quickly and the second time he read more slowly. He took in the lettering and words so that everything imprinted into his memory. He lowered the map and looked horrifyingly back at Sasuke.

“What is going on?” Naruto asked. He looked back down at the map and shrugged. He tried to be logical. “Maybe this is just ramblings…hallucinations.”

“They’re not ramblings or hallucinations! You heard the dog barking!”

Naruto laughed nervously. “Come on, Sasuke. You think there’s a ghost dog outside?” He looked doubtfully back at Sasuke. Even saying it out loud sounded ridiculous and made him laugh.

“What else was that right now?” Sasuke yelled angrily and gestured towards the tent door.

“I don’t know an animal attack? Lee was attacked by a wolf this morning!”

“You heard the dog barking too! You thought it was search and rescue, and it wasn’t! They didn’t come! Even if it was a wolf...what attacked it?” Sasuke continued to argue and tried debunking Naruto.

“I don’t know what I heard! I’m hungry and thirsty and I'm cold!” Naruto argued back. He didn’t understand what was happening. He decided to ignore it, because the alternative was frightening, and he didn’t know how to respond. He blamed it on the hunger. He blamed it on the thirst. He blamed it on the weather. He blamed it on the terrain. He blamed it on slowly slipping into madness. He blamed it on the circumstances.

“You’re ridiculous!” Sasuke bickered. He didn’t like feeling that his sanity was slipping through his fingers. It frightened him.

“I hope the other’s are okay.” Naruto commented. He could still hear the howling wind outside. He glanced at Sasuke who started going through the stranger’s backpack. He pulled out a clear gallon sized ziplock bag. It was full of little things and he started going through it pausing when he pulled out a matchbox that read waterproof matches on the front. He shook it and heard the matches moving around inside. He opened it to be sure. It was filled with matches. They would be able to make a fire with this. A signal fire.

“I guess there’s nothing else to do but wait for morning?” Naruto spoke again.

Sasuke didn’t answer he was still fuming. Naruto found himself shivering again. He reached for his jacket and found it wet, frozen, and stiff. He frowned. He began to ring out the excess water. He hoped it dried some by morning. He put on Sasuke's jersey sweatshirt, and wiggled on Sasuke's pants. He felt warmer. He wanted to quickly return to the others. They must be worried sick about them. Naruto’s stomach dropped. They would be returning with bad news. They would be returning empty handed. They hadn’t found help. There was nothing else to do but wait. Naruto slipped under the sleeping bag and curled up on his side. He felt weak. He felt hollow and empty inside nothing more than a wooden puppet.

“Naruto.” Sasuke spoke. Naruto looked in his direction. Sasuke was holding a small handheld silver camcorder. “It still has battery life...and it’s full of videos.” Naruto pushed himself back up and crawled until he was sitting down next to Sasuke. He leaned over his eyes on the screen watching as Sasuke played the last video that was recorded.

*****

Morning took longer to arrive than it had the previous nights. On the third morning Naruto was the first to awake. He saw soft light shining through the fabric of the tent. He pushed himself up. He felt weaker. He hadn’t eaten in three days, and his stomach was cramping. It took every ounce of strength to move. Dizziness and nausea washed over him when he moved to a sitting position. He looked over and saw Sasuke was a few feet away, curled on his side, with his back facing him. He reached over and shook his shoulder causing Sasuke to jolt awake.

“It’s me. It’s morning.” Naruto answered as he retracted his hand. He watched as Sasuke placed his hand on his forehead and covered up one of his eyes, groaning. “Is it okay for me to leave the tent now?” Naruto asked. Sasuke glared at him. “Do you think they’re going to be anymore ghost dogs?” Sasuke looked away and didn’t say anything. Naruto looked down at his own feet and frowned, they were bare, and his socks were damp. He pulled the damp socks on and reached for his shoes and shoved his feet into them. He immediately felt the wetness.

Naruto left the tent without saying anything else. Sasuke watched him leave before pushing himself up. He reached for his sneakers and began to put them on. He started tying his shoes. He peeked out of the unzipped tent door. He didn’t see or hear Naruto. He rolled his eyes. He was probably peeing. When he finally stepped out of the tent he immediately looked around in search of Naruto. The ground was covered in a dusting of snow. He was standing about ten feet away. His back was to Sasuke and he wasn’t moving.

“Naruto?” Sasuke called out his name. There was no response. Naruto remained standing still.

Sasuke started moving towards him and when he got closer he noticed something in the snow. A bright red. He finally saw what Naruto had been staring at. It was the body of a Shiba Inu on it’s side. It had been cut from stem to stern. There was an explosion of blood that dyed the snow a nefarious red. Rib bones peeked through the matted fur and pooled out in front were the bowels. Sausage-like intestines spilled out of the abdomen. The dog’s glassy eyes were open. Sasuke tore his eyes away from the dog and placed a hand on Naruto’s shoulder.

“Naruto?” Sasuke asked. The only response he got was Naruto crumpling to the ground. Landing on all fours, head down, and panting. His bare hands buried in the snow. He wasn’t wearing a coat and the only thing protecting him was Sasuke’s uniform. He started trembling and covered his mouth with one hand and screamed.

It was real. What they heard last night was real. Sasuke felt fear slowly encroach and tightening its grip around his lungs and throat. Naruto scrambled up, spinning around he cried out. “We have to get out of here!”

“And go where?” A voice carried over the campsite. Neither one of them spoke. Sasuke and Naruto both turned towards the voice. What they saw caused them to question their sanity. It was Hinata and Choji both assisting Lee, and Ino and Sakura both assisting Suigetsu. They reached the edge of the campsite. It was Suigetsu’s voice that had spoken. He looked from Naruto to Sasuke.

“What the fuck have you guys been doing all this time?” Suigetsu demanded viciously. His face had turned red and the vein in his forehead throbbed. Naruto and Sasuke looked at all their faces. Naruto stopped and lingered at Hinata, Lee, and Choji.

“What do you mean? We were just about ready to pack up and meet you guys!” Sasuke answered.

“When?”

“What do you mean when?”

“You’ve been gone for two days!” Suigetsu's eyes fell down to their hands. Both Naruto and Sasuke's hands were dripping in blood and droplets rolled down and stained the white snow. "And why are you guys covered in blood?!"

Chapter Text

“I'm frightened. Of us.” ― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

“Mommy why does my skin itch so much?” Ino asked as her mother fitted oven mitts over her hands. Ino wore her hair short and her bangs were pulled back by a barrette. She looked up at her mother’s bloodshot and swollen eyes down to her reddened nose that was still glossed in clear snot. Her mother tried to pretend she wasn't crying.

“You have eczema.” Her mother answered as she wiped her eyes and smeared her mascara across her face. She stood up and reached for the calamine lotion on the top shelf of the bathroom. Ino glanced at her mother before she began to use the oven mitts to furiously itch at the outbreak in the folds of her arms.

“Ino!” Her mother chastised as she turned around.

“It itches!” Ino argued back and stomped her foot. Her mother rubbed her nose with her index finger and sat on the toilet seat. She began to apply the calamine lotion over Ino’s skin careful to apply copious amounts in her outbreak areas: the folds of her arms, neck, and cheeks.

“It’s only going to be worse if you keep itching.” Her mother sniffled and warned. She continued to moisturize her skin. Ino scowled back. She wasn’t being sold by her mother’s words, not when she felt instant relief every time she scratched. “You’re going to get sick if you keep itching!” Her mother threatened. "You'll get an infection." That word scared Ino and she immediately stopped.

“Nobody wants to play with me.” Ino confessed as she dipped her head down low. “They think I’m gross because of this ah-zema.”

“Eczema.”

Ino held her breath and puffed her cheeks out as she stared furiously up at her mother angry that she wasn’t listening to her. Taking notice of her daughter her mother pressed her hands on either side of her face forcing her to expel her breath.

“What did you touch?” Her mother asked wanting to get to the root of her daughter’s outbreak.

“Nothing!”

“Did you touch a cat or a dog?”

Ino didn’t say anything and stared down at the floor. She had. Sorta. She knew she wasn’t supposed to touch any animals. It only caused a flare up. She had to be careful of the clothes she wore. She could only wear soft clothing or 100% cotton. She couldn’t eat certain foods. She had to avoid citrus, dairy, and eggs. Those things were easy, but what wasn't easy was she couldn’t touch any animals. When her class took a trip to the petting zoo she was forced to stay home. She was upset. She remembered sulking in the living room and pretended to play dead. Her mother didn’t care. She allowed her to play it out curious herself to see how far she would take it. She took it as far as to refuse to get up from the floor until her father came home from work and took her to the movies.

Her mother let out a loud sigh. “You’re not supposed to touch animals, Ino! Now go play in your room.” Her mother sounded drained, exhausted, and upset. She watched her mother remain sitting on the toilet. Her mother dropped her head and her shoulders sagged.

Ino didn’t say anything and stormed out of the bathroom and into her bedroom. When she slammed her door shut she immediately took off the oven mitts and threw them. She went to her school bag and looked over her shoulder checking the door. She didn’t hear anything. Her mother probably went back to crying in the bathroom. She unzipped her backpack and pulled out a dead squirrel. It was hardened and she examined it more closely. Every part of the squirrel was stiff including the tail. It looked like a realistic toy. She pet the head and stroked the tail. The eyes were bulging, open, black spheres. She found it on her way home from school. Her mother forgot to pick her up, again. She didn’t care she only lived two blocks away and she knew the way back to her house. She thought it was beautiful. She examined the squirrel more closely. It was speckled grey with tints of reddish-orange throughout its fur and had a soft white underbelly. The tail was as soft as a long-haired cat. She placed the squirrel in a shoe box and placed it underneath her bed. She didn’t want her mother to find out and make her get rid of it.

She knew one thing about death. The irreversibility. She knew that when her grandmother died and her mother brought her to the open casket funeral. Her mother held her while they viewed her grandmother one last time to say their goodbyes. She didn’t understand why her mother was crying when grandmother looked as if she was sleeping tucked comfortably inside her coffin. There was powdered white makeup over her gaunt face attempting to cover up the age spots, the rouge on her cheeks attempting to give her life, and the mauve lipstick on her paper-thin lips to give the illusion of fullness. Grandmother didn’t have hair at the end, her mother told her cancer treatment caused her to lose all her hair. But now she was wearing a wig and Ino thought she looked beautiful. She asked her mother why grandmother was sleeping. She was told her grandmother was dead, and she was never going to wake up again. Death was finite and nothing like the stories in her fairy tale books.

Death would happen to everyone at some point and when it did they were to be put into a box and buried in the ground.

She knew those things, but what she didn’t understand was the process of decomposition. She didn’t understand that all living things rot when they die. She didn't understand why her grandmother had to be in a box in the ground. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t keep her at their house in the guest bedroom. She found that out when she kept the squirrel in the shoe box underneath her bed. She’d come home and check on it everyday after school. She picked it flowers and placed it around the corpse just like the flowers she saw at grandmother’s funeral. She thought about showing the box to her parents to ease them before she asked for them to dig grandmother out of the ground. She would show them that they could keep grandmother here, in the box, and she would take care of her just like she was taking care of the squirrel.

Only unlike Snow White who remained picturesque and ageless inside the glass coffin her squirrel did not.

As the days passed the squirrel’s appearance began to change. The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was the smell of rot and gas and she gagged and choked on it. She sprayed the squirrel with Frebreeze. She thought she wasn’t taking good care of it. The next thing she noticed was the squirrel began to bloat. The stomach expanded dramatically and it nearly doubled in size. When she touched the stomach it felt like she was touching a balloon and if she pressed too hard it was going to pop. Then, the squirrel began to deflate, and the rotten smell permeated outside of the shoe box and throughout her room. It was so bad she had to open up her window. She didn’t understand what she was doing wrong. She noticed the stomach shrinking and the thinner the squirrel became the more white fibers began to sprout from the squirrel’s skin. The last time she opened the shoe box and looked down she saw maggots gnawing away at its eyes, stomach, and anus. The squirrel’s flesh was deteriorating and she could see the tiny bones of it’s rib cage. The white mold like fibers covered the majority of the body and spread around the box including the top of the box. The squirrel was unrecognizable and parts were completely liquidated and sludge like smearing across the bottom of the box.

She thought back to grandmother, making the connection, and she screamed a gut-wrenching cry of realization.

*****

“Ino.” Sakura greeted sitting down next to her on the rock. Ino glanced at Sakura before standing up and walking away. “How long are you going to ignore me for?” Sakura asked as she watched Ino sit down besides Hinata and Lee. When she didn’t get a response she turned away angrily.

“Ah come on don’t pout.” Suigetsu commented as he sat down next to Sakura.

The sun was almost setting. It had grown colder. Sitting out on the rock ledge that jutted off the side of the mountain put them in the direct line of the frigid winds that picked up. There were no buffers. It stung their cheeks, chapped their lips, and watered their eyes. They were all chattering and blue-lipped. They were in a constant state of shivering, but neither wanted to leave the clearing and retread back into the woods. They wanted to be rescued. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to go home.

“There’s a difference between us and them.” Suigetsu continued his voice so low that only Sakura could hear. He had recouped some strength being able to sit for several hours and relax instead of journeying down the side of the mountain towards the campsite. In truth he didn’t want to do anymore extenuating work. He wanted others to do the work for him while he reaped the benefits. His mood had improved, somewhat, and he became talkative. Sakura turned and looked at him her eyebrows furrowed together. She glanced at Hinata, Lee, and Choji instantly identifying who ‘us’ and ‘them’ were.

“I wouldn’t feel bad about it. It just means you have a stronger will to live than they do. It’s survival of the fittest after all.”

'No it was different', Sakura thought. After she had time to think about it, she felt the pangs of guilt. She didn’t want to really leave Ino behind...did she? She really wouldn’t have left...would she?

“I wouldn’t have really left her behind.” Sakura answered with a shrug, although the seeds of doubt were already planted. She was going to keep repeating it like a mantra until she fully believed in those words as gospel until those words became her reality.

“Yes you would.” Suigetsu rebutted with a smirk. Sakura's eyes widened. “If it meant survival you would have.”

“What about you? Would you leave Sasuke behind?”

Suigetsu smirk spread like lard across his face. His violet eyes darkened and swirled with internal heat lightning. “I don’t think I would have the chance. He’d probably be the first to leave.”

“He didn’t want to leave back then. He told me so!” Sakura argued. She didn't want to believe that Sasuke was beneath Suigetsu in the humanity department.

“Sasuke is an opportunist. It wasn’t the right time to leave.”

Sakura stared at Suigetsu for a moment hypnotized by his electrifying eyes. The Uchiha’s were notorious for getting absolutely everything they wanted. A chill went down her spine. She didn’t have to think about life or death anymore, or what lengths she will go to survive, or who’d she have to step on to achieve it. She didn’t have to tap into the primal animal inside her. They were going to be rescued soon. They would return home, and Ino would eventually start talking to her again. She was thinking maybe she’d be the first to apologize. Tell her she wouldn’t really have left her she was just hysterical.

She looked up at the sky. The sun had been blotted out from the sky long ago and it looked like someone painted the sky in monochrome watercolors. She looked over the rock ledge and down into the valley. She barely saw the blue tarp anymore. She knew it was there, but she couldn’t really see it. The shadows overtook everything. Naruto and Sasuke had been gone for a long time. Did they make it okay?

“Where are they?” Sakura asked impatiently. She was beginning to get anxious.

“I’m sure it’s going to take a bit for them to call for help and for help to arrive.” Suigetsu answered logically.

“But it’s getting dark.”

“We have the flashlight. We have the first aid kit. We have water. We still have some food. We’ll be fine. All we gotta do is sit and wait for help.”

“I hope they made it safely.”

“Mhm. I want to go home.”

*****

“How is your arm doing?” Hinata asked Lee.

She had gotten the flashlight from Suigetsu so she could check Lee’s wounds. It was nighttime. They were forced to move inland and away from the blistering wind that whipped violently on the rock ledge. The wind was so powerful if they stayed out on the ledge any longer they would probably be swept right over the edge. Lee was still laying down. He hadn’t moved since they moved locations. She shined the light on Lee’s arm. It remained in the makeshift sling they made from her hosiery. She peeked at the bandages stained in blood.

“Painful…” Lee gasped his teeth chattering. His arm was trembling and his fingers were swollen in reds and purples. Hinata looked at Lee’s face. It was pallid and clammy. He was sweating and strands of his hair was plastered against his face. When she reached over and touched his forehead it felt hot. Lee was running a fever. She brought the flashlight to the first aid kit. They only had a few more aspirin left. She decided to give the last two aspirin to Lee. She helped him swallow. She watched as Lee settled back down and closed his eyes.

Hinata glanced at Choji who had his back faced to them. She didn’t know if he was asleep or awake and listening. A shudder went down her spine. She didn't care.

“Help should be here soon...it’s already night.” Hinata reassured.

“What if something happened to them?” Ino asked her voice filled with trepidation. She was the voice of doubt. “What are we supposed to do?” She continued to ask what they were going to do. She’s been asking this question since the beginning, and she wasn't going to stop until they were rescued.

Ino had been unusually quiet and it was the first thing she said in a long time. Hinata turned the flashlight to Ino. Her cheeks were blistered and scabbed. Parts of her skin had turned a putrid yellow and oozed pus. Her cheeks were smudged in dirt and dried blood. Other parts of her skin were darkened, discolored, and began to peel away. She was fighting an infection. She didn’t have a hood, and neither did Lee. In order to stay warm she let her long blonde hair down and wrapped a shirt around her head like a hat. The longer time passed the worse Ino’s appearance became.

Hinata swallowed. She didn’t know how to answer. All eyes were on her. She felt them.

“Are we supposed to stay here another night?” Ino asked. Her eyes watered up.

“Suppose something did happen to them.” Suigetsu joined their conversation. “What should we do? Go after them or stay here?”

“It may take longer. If there is no cell reception. They might all have to leave to get help.” Hinata offered. Sakura turned her cellphone on and verified she did not have reception. She tried to think of the different possibilities. She didn’t want to think negatively.

“So you think Sasuke and Naruto are already rescued?” Suigetsu asked.

“Maybe?” Hinata asked her voice wasn’t confident.

She became unsure. She didn’t know. They said it looked like a couple of hours to reach the campsite. She didn’t know how much time had passed. They must have reached the campsite. A voice from the back of her mind decided to play devil’s advocate. What if they didn’t? What if they were hurt? What if they were dead? She shook her head. She didn’t want to think such dark and wicked thoughts, afraid if she did she was going to birth them into existence. What if they did reach the campsite? What if they met up with the campers and were on their way to get help now? The mountains were enormous and it must take time to leave and get help.

“What do you mean maybe?” Suigetsu accused. He was testing her. She had the shovel in her possession, and he was testing her ability to be the owner of the shovel. His eyes looked at the shovel that was between Hinata and Ino.

“I think they made it!” Hinata spoke definitively. She knew Naruto. She knew he would stop at nothing to reach that campsite and to find help. She knew even death wouldn’t, couldn't, stop him. He’d probably trick death. “We just have to wait here.”

“All night?” Ino asked. Her voice was shrill and sounded like nails dragging across a chalkboard.

“We wait until help comes!” Hinata answered. She tried to sound confident but she was still unsure. She did know one thing. She reached down and touched the socks that were on her feet. The socks Naruto gave her to warm up her feet. She had taken her shoes off. Her feet ached and were covered in cuts and bruises. She believed in Naruto. She felt her face and neck blooming in reds. Her flesh felt hot and she was glad it was nighttime. She pressed her cold fingers against her own cheeks to warm them.

“Do you think they’re coming from land or air?” Sakura asked. She turned her head up towards the sky and listened for the sound of a helicopter. She closed her eyes begging and pleading that she could hear the sound of a helicopter soon.

“Air. They know we’re injured!” Suigetsu answered. “Shit. I wouldn’t mind if help came from land. I just want to get the hell out of here!”

Hinata nodded her head in agreement. They were in no condition to walk out of the mountain, but if that was the only way she’d do it as long as help was leading them out. Silence suffocated them. Hinata placed the flashlight in the middle. She had been sitting next to Lee. She looked at Ino who was sitting on her other side, and across from her were Suigetsu and Sakura. Choji remained a few feet on the other side of Lee. Hinata continued to ignore Choji. She hadn’t forgiven him for hitting her with the shovel, and she didn’t think she could forgive him for a very long time. The last time she squatted among the trees to go to the bathroom she looked and saw that a large bruise had formed where she was struck.

“Why don’t we talk about something to lighten the mood?” Hinata suggested. She thought about what Naruto would do. He’d break the tension. She tried to mimic it.

“We can play fuck, marry, kill.” Suigetsu answered with a coy smirk. Sakura rolled her eyes and snapped. “Can you please not be so disgusting?”

“Come on. Entertain me. Out of us, all of us, who would you pick Sakura?” Suigetsu asked tilting his head to the side.

“I’d kill you probably.” Sakura answered sardonically.

“Who would you fuck?”

“None of your business!”

“Then who would you marry?”

“I don’t want to play this stupid game!”

“I would kill Sakura. Fuck Sasuke, and marry Naruto.” Ino answered automatically. She glared at Sakura from across the way before settling her attention to Suigetsu. It caused Sakura to straighten up. A chill went down her spine hearing Ino say she would kill her. It felt different. The context felt different. She didn’t say it as a joke in the same way Sakura said she’d kill Suigetsu. She felt truth in those words. Ino wasn’t saying it hysterically she was saying it in a matter-of-fact tone with a stone cold expression carved in her face.

“Alright. Solid answers. Why wouldn’t you marry Sasuke? He’s an Uchiha. Think of all that money and fame.” Suigetsu answered pleased that somebody was entertaining him.

“Sasuke is the type of person you’d have a fling with but nothing serious. Nobody could ever really love him because he could never really love someone back. He’s an Uchiha. He’s arrogant and selfish. Naruto is the relationship type. The honest type. The stand-up, good-natured, lovable type.” Ino answered. Ino was a natural born observer. She paused for a moment and turned her attention back to Sakura. “Which is why I don’t see why you’re so obsessed with Sasuke, Sakura.”

“Shut up, Ino!” Sakura yelled. She felt her cheeks flush and her hands rolled into fists. She was trembling.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Sakura. Sasuke is a good looking guy. Everyone here can agree.” Suigetsu consoled and nodded his head slowly up and down.

Ino rolled her eyes. “Your turn, Suigetsu.”

“Ah. Let’s see. Out of you three girls. I would fuck Sakura, marry Hinata...and I would kill Naruto.”

“Ehhh?” Sakura reeled back and spun her body around to look at Suigetsu. “You would marry Hinata?” She asked not hiding the shock and appall from her voice.

“What are you jealous?”

“No! Just wondering why.”

“It’s exactly how Ino explained it. Marriage is about loyalty, right? And Hinata, she’s a good girl. Aren’t you, Hinata?”

Suigetsu’s voice was oily and the way the shadows hit his face all Hinata could see was a predator. A shark in the waters. She felt nauseous. The way he said her name and looked at her she felt...dirty. The way he stared at her made her feel naked and exposed. She wanted him to stop staring at her and she never wanted him to say her name again. She wanted to turn away, but she was paralyzed in disgust. She didn’t like this game and she didn’t like the way Sakura, Suigetsu, and Ino were speaking so candidly about something so...vile. This wasn’t at all what she had in mind when she wanted to talk about something to lighten the mood, and now it was so far gone she didn’t know how to derail the conversation.

“I probably know who you’d pick, Hinata.” Sakura spoke turning her attention to Hinata. She didn’t know why she was being dragged into this conversation. She could feel her heart beating painfully in her chest. She looked at Sakura as she spoke. “You would kill Choji, fuck Lee, and marry Naruto...wouldn’t you?” Hinata didn’t answer. She felt her eyes widen and her jaw drop. Her skin turned the color of a firetruck.

“Leave her alone, Sakura.” Ino sneered coming to Hinata’s defense.

“Shut up, Ino! Trying to defend her? Don’t make me laugh! Wasn’t it you that said Hinata looks like a boy with that stupid haircut...and wasn’t it you that always complains how creepy Hinata is because she never talks?” Sakura revealed. She felt like she was being backed into a corner. She didn’t want to show weakness.

“That’s big talk for somebody who hasn’t started their period yet and is as flat-chested as a boy! Who knows maybe Sasuke would be attracted to you after all!” Ino sneered. Her quips came swift as if she was already locked and loaded. Sakura wouldn't win when it came to insults and cleverness when she was up against Ino.

“STOP! EVERYONE JUST STOP!” Hinata had slammed the shovel against a rock and called for order. The metal slamming against the rock caused everyone to flinch as the sound irritated their ears and nerves. “No more talking! Everyone let’s just calm down and wait in silence. We need to be able to hear the helicopter so we can be rescued!”

She didn’t understand the power of the shovel. She wielded it and with it came cooperation. Everyone listened to her. Nobody argued or protested. It was a democracy. They had voted her in the leadership role and as so they had to listen when she made an executive decision. She continued holding the handle of the shovel. Her heart was now beating in her throat and she could feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She wasn’t expecting it to work, and it did, and with it she was beginning to feel confident. She had to be the voice of reason she wanted to pull everyone together and keep things together until they were rescued.

*****

Ino hadn’t slept. She remained awake during the night. She couldn’t sleep. The sounds of the darkness kept her up. She heard the sound of rocks slamming up against rocks. The sound of squealing, the sounds of chains, and saws. She heard the sound of bodies hitting the ground. The sound of bones breaking. The sound of children laughing. The sound of a clown making a balloon animal. She heard the sounds of beasts clawing and scratching against bark. She heard the sound of her mother sobbing. She heard the sound of a heart monitor in grandmother’s hospital room flat-lining. She heard the sound of the front door slamming shut. She heard the sounds of her own internal, incessant, screaming.

The sounds of the woods amplified when morning came. She heard squirrels running up and down trees. She heard birds fluttering and pecking at the ground for insects. She heard termites devouring fallen, rotting trees. She heard a wolf spider sinking its fangs into a mouse’s flesh and paralyzing it. She heard the sound of a dead fox decomposing and bloating with gases and maggots.

She heard all of this and the only thing she didn’t hear was the sound of a helicopter, or the sound of search and rescuers boots pounding against the ground, or the sound of dogs barking. Nobody had come for them. It felt like she was back during that first night of the accident. An overwhelming feeling of helplessness. She had grabbed onto hope that they were going to get rescued but when morning came there was a devastating reality that help wasn’t going to come, and they were all alone in the mountains, fending for themselves.

Ino stood up and walked back to the rock ledge. There wasn’t any wind. The air was still cold. Her limbs felt frozen and stiff. Her face felt both raw and numb. She felt a tingling in her cheeks. She no longer felt itchy that sensation vanished with the frigid temperatures. She sat on the ledge in the clearing still listening for the helicopter that never came. She trained her eyes in the direction of the blue tarp as the sun slowly crept into the sky.

She opened up her bag and began to apply a thick layer of lotion on her cheeks. Her fingers weren’t cooperating. They were dry and cracked, stiff, and wouldn’t bend at the knuckles. Her lips were dry and she could feel them peeling and bleeding from dehydration. Her eyes hurt. Every time she blinked her corneas stung and watered. She rubbed her eyes and felt rough patches of skin beneath her eyes.

The other sensation that consumed her besides the cold was the hunger. She was beyond starving. Her vision blurred. Her tongue felt dry and she could feel sores forming on the inside of her mouth. Her stomach hurt and cramped. She couldn’t swallow. She brought her dirty water bottle to her lips. A polar springs water bottle. Her father insisted she take one for the car trip. She swallowed. She opened up her bag and took out her tube of toothpaste. She unscrewed the cap and squeezed the toothpaste into her mouth. She felt the toothpaste fill her tongue. She closed her mouth and swallowed. The toothpaste stuck to the roof of her mouth and it was difficult to swallow. She filled her mouth with water, swished, and swallowed. It felt good to feel something solid sliding down her throat and into her empty stomach. She continued this until half the tube of toothpaste was consumed.

She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t, instead the debilitating sadness clung to her every molecule. She didn’t know how long they were supposed to wait. She wasn’t a decision-maker. Instead she was an observer. Her father told her she had an uncanny ability. She was able to observe those around her and understand their patterns, behaviors, and styles. She was able to get inside their head and figure out what made them tick. What was driving them. She didn’t use her ability for good instead she used it to exploit those around her. At her core she knew she was selfish. Her father said she’d make a good diplomat. She would be able to work with people in a sensitive and effective way because she could understand both sides.

It was the reason why she was drawn to Naruto. She wanted to gleam some of his qualities, specifically his genuineness, warmth, and empathy. Qualities she wasn’t even able to put into words yet knew if she was around him long enough she would start picking up those qualities. Being around him forced her to act better, be better, and strive to do better. But being in the woods lost she felt weak and small.

She never wanted to be weak. She wanted to be strong. Didn’t everybody? But she was nothing more than a powerless kid pretending to act older and appear older than she was. Her blossoming body didn’t accurately reflect what was going on internally. She still had the mind of a child, the emotions of a child, and the motivations of a child. A lost child. Soon to be dead child. Soon to be buried in a box child. Soon to be rotting six feet under pushing up daisies child. She thought to her mother who nearly lost her hold on reality when grandmother died, and wondered how she’d fair when the police told her they recovered her daughter’s deceased body in the mountains.

She wondered if this time her mother would be successful in taking her own life. Ino crawled closer to the edge of the rock face. She looked down at the drop. She wondered if she’d be killed on impact if she jumped. She wondered if it would hurt.

“What are you doing?” Sakura asked from behind. Ino pushed herself back and rolled her eyes.

“Waiting for help to come.” Ino answered bluntly.

“So you are talking to me.”

“Doesn’t mean I want to be your friend anymore.”

“Ino! I wasn’t going to leave you!”

Ino stood up and turned to face Sakura. She laughed coldly. “Like I’m supposed to believe you? You, Sasuke, and Suigetsu wanted to leave from the very beginning!”

“You were going to leave too!”

“I didn’t want the group to separate. More importantly, I didn’t want to be separated from you! I didn’t want to leave you!” Ino screamed being brutally honest.

She was against them separating in the beginning. She was against it when she was approached by Sakura, Sasuke, and Suigetsu. She wanted everyone to go. She didn’t understand why they had to separate. When she saw how adamant Sakura was, and how she had already made the decision to go, Ino felt torn. She didn’t want to separate from Sakura. Especially since Sakura had been her best friend since elementary school. Sakura was the first person to speak to her when the other kids ran from her on the playground whenever she had an eczema outbreak. She loved and adored Sakura.

Everything changed when she heard Sakura begging Sasuke to leave them all behind after Lee's attack. She named Suigetsu, and when Sasuke asked about Ino, she saw her as dead weight, someone who would be a hindrance to their survival. ‘Ino is a wishy-washy mess! She can stay here!

“I’m sorry Ino...I was hysterical.”

“I was hysterical too and I wasn’t going to leave you behind! That's not an excuse!”

“We’re okay. See? We’re both fine. We’re going to be rescued soon. All of this is going to be put behind us. We can just move on and forget all of this!”

“Kiba is dead.” Ino commented. “How are we supposed to just put this all behind us? How are we just supposed to forget? One of us is already dead!”

“That’s not…” Sakura choked out. Her eyes watering. “...what I meant.”

Ino didn’t say anything else. She walked past Sakura and back into the woods where they had set up a makeshift camp near the stream. When she returned the rest of them were awake. Hinata was checking Lee’s injured arm, Choji was sitting with his back turned towards them, and Suigetsu was sitting cross legged and watching Hinata with slanted eyes. She didn’t like the way he was staring at Hinata. She didn’t like Suigetsu. There was a difference between Suigetsu and Sasuke. Sasuke tormented people because he was starved for attention and Suigetsu tormented people for the sheer pleasure of it. She wasn’t afraid of Suigetsu. She wasn't afraid of Sasuke or Sakura. She was afraid of the mountains and she was afraid of death.

“How much longer?” Ino asked Hinata. “How much longer until we’re rescued?”

Hinata looked up and answered ubiquitously. “Today.”

“Don’t pull the same shit Naruto did on our first day!” Suigetsu sneered. He remembered the positive shit Naruto said after the accident. “You need to say we’re going to get rescued when we get rescued.”

“Shut up Suigetsu! You’re outnumbered. So why don’t you shut your mouth. You should have left with Naruto and Sasuke!” Ino argued. Ino looked past Suigetsu and saw Sakura walking up to them. She rolled her eyes and turned away.

“I told you, Ino. I don’t like Naruto. If I was left alone with him I would probably kill him. Don’t you remember our game last night? I spoke truthfully about each and every one I picked. And guess what there are no rules out here in the mountains!” Suigetsu answered with a cold smile.

“Suigetsu stop.” Sakura spoke softly as she sat down next to him.

“Do you think they’re okay?” Lee asked referring to Naruto and Sasuke. Hinata wrapped another layer of bandage around his arm. This time she made sure to wrap it tighter and more secure. She nodded her head.

“They’re okay. Help will be here soon. They’re moving as quickly as possible.”

“What’s that sound?” Suigetsu asked. He pushed himself up. It grew quiet.

“What sound?” Hinata asked. She didn’t hear anything.

“What do you have in your hands you fat pig!” Suigetsu screamed. Choji turned around wearing a shit eating grin. In his hand was the empty package of trail mix, and sunflower seeds. His cheeks resembled a hamster’s. Bloated and full. He finished chewing and swallowed. He threw the empty packaging on the ground.

“You piece of shit!” Suigetsu screamed.

“Choji!” Sakura screamed.

“I was hungry.” Choji answered and wore an expression that said ‘what are you going to do about it’. Suigetsu lunged at Choji.

“STOP!” Hinata screamed. She stood up holding the shovel in her hands. She jumped between Choji and Suigetsu.

“THAT WAS ALL WE HAD LEFT!” Suigetsu screamed. Hinata slammed the handle up against Suigetsu’s chest trying to prevent him from reaching Choji. Suigetsu still talked wildly with his hands and spat at Choji as he yelled. He looked down at the shovel in Hinata’s hands and looked at Hinata’s face.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Suigetsu yelled. “This fat fuck ate all our food!”

“We’re going to be rescued soon!” Hinata answered.

“And if we’re not? What if we aren’t going to be rescued. What if something happened to them? What are we going to do then?” Suigetsu asked. Hinata wasn’t able to respond because Suigetsu was already answering. He pointed and spoke threateningly at Choji. “I’m going to bash your fucking face in that’s what I’m going to do, pigboy! If we're not rescued you're going to be the first to die.”

Suigetsu spun on his heels and stormed away. He walked past Sakura and in the direction of the rock face.

“Why did you do it?” Sakura asked. It was a rhetorical question. She had stood up and approached Choji. She was screaming. “You officially ate 90% of the food! You’re twice our weight! If any of us can afford to skip meals it’s you! You can starve for weeks and still wouldn’t lose weight! I’m going to tell everyone when we get back! That we had food but this fat fuck selfishly ate it all!”

“Sakura!” Hinata interrupted and stepped in front of her.

“Suigetsu is right! We don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait before help arrives!”

Choji began laughing. Sakura looked down at Choji. “Why are you laughing you freak!” It only caused Choji to laugh harder. It was an unsettling laugh. It was full of lunacy. “STOP LAUGHING!” Sakura screamed and kicked Choji with all her strength in the face. Her puma sneaker connected with his lip causing his head to jerk to the right.

“SAKURA PLEASE STOP!” Hinata cried. Sakura was panting. Choji didn’t stop laughing. Blood trickled down his chin from the blow. His laughter was high-pitched as if he inhaled helium. His jaw became unhinged, and Sakura could see all the way in the back of his throat to his uvula.

“FREAK!” Sakura screamed before storming off in the same direction as Suigetsu.

“Choji…” Lee spoke weakly. He pushed himself into a sitting position and turned to look at Choji. Hearing his name Choji stopped laughing. His face became stoic and flat. He brought his beady black eyes to stare at Lee. “Choji are you okay?” Lee asked. Choji didn’t answer. He didn’t blink. He didn’t move. The only sign he was listening was his clenching and unclenching jaw.

“Nobody is going to like you if you keep pulling this shit.” Ino answered.

“SHUT UP!” Lee shouted turning to Ino. “You’re not one of us! So just shut up!”

“What are you talking about?” Ino asked her eyes widening in confusion.

“You only spoke to us because of Naruto, and since he isn’t here stop pretending you like us, and shut your mouth!”

“Lee!” Hinata shouted. She was losing control. There was chaos all around her.

“Leave us alone!” Lee shouted at Hinata. “I want to be left alone with Choji! Everyone just leave!”

Hinata didn’t say anything else. She gathered up her belongings, picked up the shovel, and moved back towards the rock ledge. Ino followed behind wordlessly.

*****

“Give me the shovel.” Suigetsu demanded when Hinata appeared on the rock ledge. She stopped moving when her feet reached the smoothness of the rock. She was wearing her ballet flats and every time she walked sharp pains went up and down her legs. She brought her eyes up to see Suigetsu standing in the middle with his arms folded. She felt frightened. It was difficult to breathe. His eyes turned into slits. The shadows on his face deepened. His face looked beastly now that the bruising has fully formed over his face. There was dried blood in his wild hair. She found herself trembling.

“N-no.” Hinata answered and tightened her hold on the shovel. “We all agreed I would hold it.”

“You’re doing a shit job at it.” Suigetsu answered.

“Choji and Lee have lost it.” Ino answered as she came into view behind Hinata. She looked from Hinata to Suigetsu sensing she had walked in on something.

“I want the shovel.” Suigetsu repeated and held his hand out expecting Hinata to hand it over. “Be a good girl and give me the shovel, and I’ll go back and have a one on one conversation with Choji. Teach him some manners.”

“You’re not getting the shovel.” Ino answered and stood alongside Hinata. “Maybe we should hit you with the shovel again and knock some sense into you. None of us trust you!”

Suigetsu looked at Ino and snorted. His lips peeled back into a forced smile. It stretched his face and darkened his eyes. He didn’t say anything else and sat back down on the rock. Ino glanced at Sakura, but she had her back to them. Her eyes were looking over the cliff and down at the blue tarp. Ino looked back at Hinata. She noticed her trembling. Ino reached out and touched her hand. Hinata turned to her. Ino leaned over and whispered in her ear as she nodded her head in Suigetsu’s direction.

“The trick is to not show fear. Have more confidence in yourself.”

Hinata nodded her head and watched as Ino went out onto the rock to sit in the same spot she occupied yesterday. She didn’t understand Ino. She was prickly. She’d say things so harshly and unabashedly, and then she would say surprising things that caught her off guard. Ino was the one to suggest Hinata carry the shovel, and she was the one to suggest that Sasuke and Naruto go to the campsite to seek help. Out of the two Hinata always thought Sakura was the nicer more gentle one. In truth, Sakura was wearing masks and Ino was just being herself. Hinata couldn’t bring herself to sit down. She felt antsy. She turned around and saw the outline of Lee and Choji talking with one another.

She felt uneasy and the feeling wasn’t going away. She felt uneasy the moment Choji turned around and revealed that unnerving grin and proudly showed them he had eaten the rest of their food. The feeling was amplified when he started laughing uncontrollably. There was something broken inside Choji’s head. A few screws were loose and nobody seemed to be able to screw them tight again. It was the mountain. It was poisoning all of them one by one and exploiting the darkness that lived inside each and every one of them.

It exposed Sakura’s selfishness and willingness to betray Ino if it meant surviving. There was wrath brewing inside her and it had revealed its ugly head multiple times.

It further deepened, the darkness, that already manifested inside Suigetsu augmented his violent side into something sinister. His greed for survival and need to punish those that interfered was unmatched. He would have beaten Choji to death if nobody stopped him.

Choji was a glutton prior to the accident. He engorged on food as a coping mechanism. He had a learning disability and was slower than most. He had been terrorized by Suigetsu and Sasuke throughout the school year, and when he felt power holding the shovel, it changed him. Twisted him. In a way Hinata couldn’t explain. Choji would have killed Suigetsu, and almost killed him, by preventing any of them from tending to his wounds if Naruto hadn't stopped him.

Ino who was normally confident and full of energy was now hesitant and anxious. She second guessed herself and those around her. She had become a sloth. She was the one to question things and spread the seeds of doubt, because everything was so uncertain and fragile.

Lee had become paranoid with an ‘us’ against ‘them’ mentality. He was envious of those he perceived higher on the social hierarchy. She felt it with Lee, he was losing his touch on reality and his paranoia was manifesting delusions and he was pushing everyone away, everyone, except Choji.

Hinata brought her hand to her chest. She knew how the mountains were poisoning and exploiting her. It was making her more doubtful and distrustful. She couldn’t trust Lee and she couldn’t trust Choji. The only person she thought she could trust was Naruto and she didn’t know where he was, or if he was safe, or if he had made it to the campsite, or if he had found help. It left her troubled and uncomfortable. She had begun to like Naruto more and more, and wanted him to be okay. She felt the anxieties and worries burrow a hole right through her chest and it made it difficult to breathe.

Silence befell around them as they sat idly by on the rock. Waiting and listening for a helicopter that never came. When Hinata grew tired and couldn’t stand anymore she dropped to her knees. The longer they sat the more the darkness crept into each of their bodies and one by one a demon took hold of them and made a home inside them.

*****

It was getting dark. The sun would set at 7:34PM.

They were left forgotten. Moods that had already soured quickly turned to hostility. Everyone had lost hope that they would be rescued by nightfall, and everyone was teetering between madness and sanity.

“Something happened to them!” Ino was the first to speak. “They’re probably hurt or dead! I mean a wolf attacked Lee...there are other animals in the mountains. Wolves, bears, coyotes! They didn’t take the shovel, we have the shovel!”

“That bastard.” Suigetsu spoke shaking his head. Ino was saying out loud what he had been thinking for the better part of the hour.

“What do we do?” Ino asked turning towards Hinata.

“We can’t keep waiting here if something happened to them!” Suigetsu said raising his voice. There was instability in his voice.

“We need to go to that campsite ourselves!” Sakura joined the conversation. “I’m not going to die here!”

“We’ll go. All of us. We’ll go to the campsite tomorrow morning.” Hinata answered agreeing with Sakura. It was their only option if they wanted to survive. She was running out of excuses on why they needed to stay here. Naruto and Sasuke had been gone for a day and a half and there has been so sign of help. Something must have happened to them. She felt her heart thump painfully. She thought to Naruto. She felt her eyes tearing up. Something must have happened to both of them that prevented them from reaching the campsite. They should of had the shovel. They needed something to protect themselves as they journeyed down the mountain.

“All of us?” Suigetsu sneered.

“If I remember correctly you weren’t able to move without Sakura’s help.” Ino snapped. “So shut your mouth or we’re going to leave you behind.”

Suigetsu snorted again but didn’t protest. It was decided. Tomorrow morning they would set off towards the campsite, and hopefully discover what prevented Sasuke and Naruto from reaching their destination. Hinata looked to the sky. It was a menacing color. The wind picked up again and the temperature plummeted. It became unbearable to remain on the rock ledge and they were forced to move inland again.

*****

“Wait!” Hinata said before they began their journey. “We should be on the other side of the stream.” Hinata pointed to the other side. “Let’s backtrack and cross to the other side.” She mentioned the initial crossing about fifteen minutes back.

“Why?” Suigetsu questioned. “This side looks easier and more direct. Plus it’s right here!”

“If we’re on that side it’s going to pop us out on the same side as the campsite. If we’re on this side we’re going to have to cross to reach the site.”

“What way did they go?” Sakura asked. The stream was large, too large to safely cross without falling against the slippery rocks and getting wet. She looked from one side of the stream to the other. This side looked easier and more direct. She was agreeing with Suigetsu, but she also wanted to know what path they took.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see which side they picked!” Suigetsu answered impatiently. “They probably went this way, because they probably didn’t double back. I wouldn't have doubled back.”

“Let’s go Hinata’s way. I’d rather cross the stream now when it’s easier. It looked like it gets bigger as it goes down.” Ino answered. She had spent a lot of time looking down the side of the mountain and into the valley. She knew the distance played a trick on their eyes and even though it may appear small from the rock ledge she knew it had grown and widened. The current was probably rough and violent the further down they traveled.

“If they had gone this way.” Sakura spoke. “They would of had to cross the stream. Do you think they fell in?”

“Shut up, Sakura! We don’t know what happened so stop it!” Ino answered. She didn’t want to think about what prevented them from finding the campsite.

“If they took this path.” Hinata said pointing down. “Should we take this path and see if we find them?”

“No.” Suigetsu answered. “We should take the other side. If you’re saying it’ll pop us out on the same side as the campsite without us having to cross anything. Let’s go the other way. If we go down the same path they did...and reach the same obstacle they did what good will that do us?”

“Let’s put it to a vote.” Hinata asked. She had already regretted bringing up which side to take. She had a gut feeling Naruto and Sasuke went the most direct path down the side of the mountain, meaning they would of had to cross the river eventually, and if they did fall in...there was nothing they could do about it now.

“All in favor of going the most direct path down.” Hinata asked. She looked around. Nobody voted. “All in favor of going down on the other side?” Everybody raised their hands including Choji and Lee. The decision was already made the moment Sakura hypothesized they had fallen into the river when attempting to cross. Hinata holding the shovel began to lead them back up the mountain. They were going to cross to the other side and make their descent down to the campsite.

*****

“What’s this?” Suigetsu asked as they came to a halt.

They had been traveling for almost two hours when they came to their first obstacle. They were looking down. The ground had become completely slanted and was covered in hundreds of tiny rocks. Looking down they saw bigger rocks, and stationary boulders, and the further it dropped the more slanted the ground became. It only took a moment to realize if they went down they weren’t going to be able to climb back up. It was impossible to climb down. They would have to slide down. They would have to slide very carefully down or they would end up falling down and possibly breaking or spraining a bone. It looked dangerous, but it was the only way to go.

“Should we go back?” Hinata asked.

“No! We’ve come all this way!” Sakura argued. “We can do this. We just have to slide down.”

“Why don’t you go first, Sakura.” Ino offered and shoved her lightly towards the edge before folding her arms over her chest. A small cry escaped Sakura and she leapt back.

“I’ll go first.” Hinata offered. She was the leader. She would be the one to go first.

Hinata sat down and inched her way up the edge. Her feet dropped over. She looked down. She had to be able to slow down. She thought back to Newton’s laws of physics. She decided to slide with one leg folded up, and one leg stretched out so she was able to slow down if needed.

“Be careful!” Ino told Hinata as she crouched down.

Ino glanced back behind her. She knew she was going to be the next to go. She didn’t want to be left alone with any of them. Hinata nodded her head. She held onto the shovel and pushed herself down. It was a long way down. Ino watched as Hinata controlled her speed with her feet. Hinata leaned back and put one arm behind her to slow down when she reached another steep section. She watched as rocks began to dislodge and roll down after her. She didn’t know why but she thought to a landslide. A shudder went down her spine. Ino didn’t wait until Hinata reached the end. She positioned her body in the same way and pushed herself off.

She moved faster than she thought and the increased speed caused her to become frightened. She leaned back and stretched her arm back to try and decrease her speed. She still moved fast. She wanted to close her eyes and cover her face but she didn’t. Her vision became blurry. It hurt. She felt rocks and dirt sliding under her and when she reached the steep section she almost screamed out. There was a small drop. For a moment she felt nothing underneath her and then she slammed onto rocks and continued sliding down. She looked and saw that more and more rocks began sliding down on either side of her. She moved her body out of the way of the bigger rocks and the bigger boulders were noticeable. When she reached the bottom she rolled to her side panting. Hinata was there and was helping her up. Ino looked down at her hands. They were filthy and there were small cuts on both palms. Her nail polish was chipped and under her fingernails were covered in dirt.

“Are you okay?” Hinata asked. Ino nodded her head. “I’m going to go wash up.” She moved away and walked towards the water only when she walked closer and closer she noticed just how large and wide it became. It was no longer a stream but a coursing river that ripped down. It was impossible to get close to the water. The current was strong and the banks of the river were deep. If she got too close she would fall in and drown. Instead she stumbled backwards and took out her water bottle and began to take her fill wondering if both Naruto and Sasuke had drowned. Her eyes grew hauntingly larger as she watched the current unable to look away.

Hinata stood at the bottom and looked up. Suigetsu and Sakura were the next to go. They went together. Hinata watched as Suigetsu traveled faster down the side than Sakura. She brought her eyes to the falling rocks all around them. Her eyes widened as she saw one of the bigger rocks became dislodged and began to roll down after them.

“LOOK OUT!” Hinata screamed and pointed. “GET OUT OF THE WAY!”

Suigetsu and Sakura both turned around. The rock was now rolling fast down the side and it was aimed directly at Suigetsu. He tried to dive out of the way, but it only resulted in him becoming vertical. The rock struck Suigetsu in the shoulder before flying over him and down towards Hinata. She cried out and ran to the side. The rock slammed against the ground and rolled away. Suigetsu began rolling the rest of the way down and when he reached the bottom Hinata ran to him.

“Are you okay?” Hinata asked. Suigetsu rolled to his back and was coughing. He was covered in dirt and blood. His wounds on his face opened up and she saw fresh blood smeared across. Sakura reached the bottom and ran towards Suigetsu.

“How is your shoulder?” Sakura asked. Suigetsu only groaned in response. His eyes fluttering open and close. His vision was blurry and the world around him wouldn’t stop spinning. His entire body ached from skull to toe. There was an explosion of pain against his shoulder blade and he noticed the impact knocked the breath right out of him. He began gasping and inhaled oxygen through his mouth.

“Come on if you stay here more rocks are going to fall on top of you.” Sakura answered and attempted to help Suigetsu to his feet.

Hinata looked up to see Choji and Lee were the last to take the descent. Their trips much like hers and Ino’s was uneventful. They reached the bottom with only a few bumps and bruises. Although Lee who was already struggling with an injured arm was wincing and his eyes watered up as he struggled into a standing position. Choji was on his side helping him balance and walk away. Ino returned and reported on the river.

“We can’t get access to the water. The current is too fast and the bank is too high up. If we get close we’ll fall in. We’re going to have to keep going and find a calm spot to wash up in and fill our waterbottles.”

*****

They were all exhausted, covered in dirt, and sore. Lee and Suigetsu the most injured out of the group needed assistance or else they were going to have to keep stopping to take breaks. Hinata assisted Lee who was moaning and grunting as they walked, and Ino begrudgingly assisted Suigetsu. They did the final stretch in complete silence. Suigetsu was the first one to notice the blue tarp.

“We’re here!” Suigetsu announced.

Neither had the energy to cry out for help, and instead they continued to trudge closer and closer to the campsite until reaching the edge. Suigetsu, Ino, and Sakura who were several feet in front of Hinata, Lee, and Choji stopped in their tracks and stared in front of them. They remained quiet. They were staring at something Hinata couldn’t see.

It was Naruto. He was wearing nothing but a school uniform. His back was to them and he was looking down at the ground. From this angle all they saw was a large reddened stain across the ground in front of him. It looked like a mirage. It was incomprehensible. They questioned their sanity. The next person they saw was Sasuke. He exited the tent. He was calling out to Naruto. Neither had noticed them. They didn’t know what to make of this information, and all they did was stare.

When Naruto spun around and grew hysterical claiming they needed to get out of there was when the spell was broken. Suigetsu was the first to speak.

“And go where?”

Ino looked at Naruto’s jersey sweater and pants. Ino wasn’t paying attention to the exchange of words between Suigetsu and Sasuke.

There was a dark stain across Naruto’s sweater and his hands were dripping in what looked like red paint. Ino didn’t see the snow. What she saw was the forest ground. Grass-less. Covered in dirt and rocks. Flattened. Tall skinny trees stretched up with naked branches. It was unmistakable. Neither Naruto or Sasuke wore socks or shoes. They were barefoot. Neither wore coats. She looked to Sasuke. They had witnessed him coming out of the tent. He wore the same confused expression as Naruto. Sasuke was in a similar state. He wore a long sleeved shirt and pants. On his front was a large darkened stain and his hands were also covered in the same red paint as Naruto's. There was a look of delirium in each of their faces, and their eyes were saucer-like and bewildered.

“What’s going on?” Hinata asked walking away from Lee and Choji and towards Naruto. Her eyebrows furrowed and her face twisted into shock, confusion, and relief. She looked frantically from Sasuke to Naruto. They were alive!

“DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!” Sasuke screamed and held a hand up. There was lunacy in his voice. There was no light in his eyes. Hinata stopped moving. Blood dripped off Sasuke’s palm.

“Naruto?” She called out shaking her head back and forth and turning to Naruto whose face appeared to be drained of blood. He hadn't said a single word.

“What the fuck have you guys been doing?” Suigetsu repeated. He pushed himself away from Ino and Sakura and hobbled towards the pair. Hinata also didn’t listen either and moved closer. The rest kept their distance.

“DON’T ENTER THE CAMPSITE!” Sasuke screamed again.

“Sasuke!” Naruto chastised. He finally spoke and turned his attention to Sasuke. “Enough! You’re scaring them!”

“Is that...a deer?” Ino asked. She too decided not to listen something caught her attention and she walked up behind Hinata. Her eyes were focused on what was behind Naruto and Sasuke and the closer she came the clearer the image was. It wasn’t just a deer. It was a fawn. It was laying on it’s side. Ino looked down its spine seeing the speckled white dots against its reddish-brown fur. The fawn’s throat was slashed and its belly was cut open. Intestines spilled out of the abdomen and pooled out in front. Covered in blood, left forgotten on the ground, was the murder weapon...a hatchet.

Naruto and Sasuke turned around and looked down at the slaughtered fawn.

“You killed a baby deer?” Ino asked stopping on the other side of Naruto and looking down.

“NO! THAT WAS A DOG!” Sasuke screamed. “We didn’t kill anything! That thing last night did!” He was hysterical and spun back around. “What do you mean we’ve been gone for two days? It’s only been one night!”

Suigetsu stopped next to Hinata and stared at Sasuke. “Dude what the fuck is going on!”

“We must have killed the deer.” Naruto admitted. He looked down at his bloodied hands and clothes. His stomach growled loudly. “We're probably just forgetting because we’re hungry.”

“This campsite is abandoned isn’t it?” Sakura called out from behind. Her voice was saturated in despondency. She had observed the campsite. She saw the torn tent and musty sleeping bag. The clothes line. She looked closer and saw clothes were hanging up. They were Naruto’s clothes and coat he was wearing laying, on the ground beneath the clothes line were his sneakers. She didn’t understand what was happening. She noticed the rusty, dirty, pots and pans by the fireplace. “How did you guys make the fire?” Sakura asked turning back to the fireplace. There were ash and blackened bits of wood left. Evidence there was a recent fire. White smoke was billowing up from the embers.

“We never made a fire!” Sasuke insisted and he began shaking his head. “We couldn’t! It snowed last night!” There wasn't any snow on the ground or any evidence there was any snow. “Right, Naruto?!” He turned and looked at Naruto.

“I don’t remember what happened. I fell into the river and went unconscious.” Naruto answered. “It's been two days?” He avoided Sasuke and looked at Hinata. She nodded her head yes.

“I’m not crazy!” Sasuke yelled frustrated that Naruto wasn’t agreeing with him and chose not to even look at him. He stormed to the tent and grabbed the mysterious backpack. It was still real. It was still heavy. He unzipped it and looked inside. It was still full of everything. He pulled out the map and opened it. He wanted to make sure the entries were still there. They were. He left the backpack in the tent taking only the map. He handed the map over to Suigetsu.

“Read! This belonged to the camper whose camp this belonged to. He documented everything that happened here exactly one year ago!” Sasuke explained. Suigetsu looked down at the map and began to read the entries. All seven entries. His expressions were similar to Naruto’s as he read. When he finished he looked up.

“This is fucked up.” Suigetsu answered and handed the map to Hinata who took it and began to read the entries. “It still doesn’t account for why you were gone for two days and why there is a slaughtered deer behind you...and...” Suigetsu let out a cold laugh. He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose with his index and thumb. Realization washed over him like taking a bitter pill. “There was nobody here. That’s why help didn’t come. For fucksake.”

Hinata finished reading it and handed the map to Ino. Sakura walked up behind Ino and began reading over her shoulder.

“Naruto...what happened?” Hinata asked Naruto.

She followed Naruto as he stumbled away from the dead fawn and Sasuke. He was avoiding Sasuke. His eyes focused on his hands and clothes. He moved back to the tent. He was beginning to see the things that they saw. He noticed he wasn’t wearing socks or shoes when he remembered...he remembered putting on socks and shoes before he left the tent. He remembered feeling the wetness as he walked and the way his socks chafed against his wet sneakers. He didn’t understand why he was suddenly barefooted. He was looking for his sneakers in the tent.

“The last thing I remembered was falling into the river yesterday. We made it to the campsite and found it was abandoned. I argued with Sasuke and I blacked out. I woke up in the middle of the night in the tent. Sasuke showed me the map…” Naruto’s memory was becoming fuzzy. “I read the entries and then I fell back asleep. When I woke up it was morning. I literally just woke up a few minutes before you arrived...two days passed?”

“Naruto...it’s afternoon now. We’ve been traveling all day.” Hinata explained. She watched as Naruto moved around the tent. He couldn’t find his sneakers, or his socks, or the clothes he wore yesterday. His wet clothes that he remembered being in the corner. Were gone. He was able to spot Sasuke’s socks and shoes inside the tent. He didn’t understand why they were both barefoot. He didn't understand what was going on.

“I have to wash the blood off me.” Naruto murmured and left the tent and made his way to the river. Hinata followed him. She looked around the abandoned campsite. The heaviness of the situation was pressing harder and harder against her chest. Help didn’t come because they couldn’t find help.

“I think we were both just tired and hungry. We must have slept longer than we realized.” Naruto continued his explanation. He kneeled down and began to wash the blood from his hands in the cold waters.

“Naruto...aren’t you cold?” Hinata asked noticing that Naruto was still barefoot, and dressed lightly. He wasn't shivering or trembling or acting like he was exposed to the same cold temperature as the rest of them.

“Yeah...I think…” Naruto lied. He couldn’t feel anything. He felt numb, confused, lost. He had lost time. Chunks of time weren’t just missing they were obliterated.

“Naruto!” Sasuke called from behind. He kneeled next to Naruto and looked at him, but he didn’t look back. Naruto looked down at Sasuke’s feet. He must have returned to the tent. He was wearing his socks and sneakers. “Tell me you remember last night!”

“I fell into the river. We argued. I fell unconscious. I woke up inside the tent. I read the entries on the map and fell back asleep. That's what happened last night.”

“No! We heard the dog barking. We heard the dog barking and you thought it was search and rescue and wanted to leave the tent. We heard the dog whining and then when we left the tent this morning we both found the dog slaughtered!”

“I don’t remember that.” Naruto lied. He still refused to look at him.

“Yes you do!” Sasuke argued.

“Sasuke...we’re losing it. It was a shock when we came here and found it abandoned and an even bigger shock when we read those messed up entries. It’s just our minds playing tricks on us!” Naruto answered without looking at him.

“The camcorder!” Sasuke insisted. “Remember the camcorder?” As soon as he said the words he stopped. “That’s it! The last thing I remember was we were looking at the camcorder and then...I blacked out.”

Naruto continued to ignore Sasuke and continued cleaning the dirt and grime off his hands and fingernails. He watched the water turn pinkish and brown as his hands became clean again. Sasuke grabbed Naruto’s hand and jerked him towards him. Hinata remained by his side. She was quiet and listened intently. She wanted to hear more of Sasuke’s perspective. The way his voice was desperate for validation caused Hinata to want to believe him, because regardless of whose reality was true two days had gone by.

“Look at me!” Sasuke demanded jerking Naruto even closer.

Naruto turned, looked up, and stared at him answering bluntly. “I am.” Sasuke’s breath hitched. Naruto's voice remained steadied and his eyes stared deep into Sasuke's. “Sasuke, do you remember what you said to me when we argued at the campsite?” Sasuke’s eyes widened. He did. Naruto reached out and wrapped his hand around the wrist that Sasuke was holding him by. He was going to twist his version of what happened into something logical and coherent...and not into the ramblings of a madman.

“This is what I think happened. I fell into the river. You said you had extra clothes I could change into and I said no because I wanted to reach the campsite.” Sasuke nodded his head. “When we reached the campsite. I was calling for help. You noticed it was abandoned. We got into an argument.” Sasuke nodded his head again. “I went unconscious.” Sasuke nodded his head. “I woke up in the middle of the night.” Sasuke nodded his head. Naruto bit his lower lip leaving out the part with how he woke up, and how Sasuke went about reviving him. “You showed me the map and the entries.” Sasuke nodded his head. That was where Naruto stopped recapping and instead told him his version of events.

“I think the shock of everything, the exhaustive journey to the campsite, your injured hand, our hunger, the abandoned campsite, those entries. It messed with us. It messed with both you and me. I think the shock of everything caused us to blackout, and I think we stayed in that tent longer than we thought, and didn’t leave until this morning, and we must have killed the deer with the hatchet because we were hungry.”

Sasuke continued to stare into his eyes. He felt Naruto’s hand wrapped tightly around his wrist and his words wrapped tightly around him, binding him into a cocoon. There was sanity to his words. Naruto’s explanation made...sense. Sasuke looked down at his right hand and saw that it was still doctored up with a pair of his boxers. It was bloodied. It was real. He felt the dull pain across his palm. If this was real why wasn’t his version of the night real? He remembered experiencing a panic attack after he argued with Naruto. He remembered screaming and crying over reaching the campsite only to find it abandoned. He remembered feeling the hunger pains and cramps. He remembered telling Naruto to go into the tent and change, and he remembered going into the tent and finding him unconscious. He remembered removing Naruto's clothes, and then his own. He remembered warming Naruto up with his own body to save him.

What about the stuff he remembered that Naruto was now saying didn’t happen?

Did he not hear those unidentifiable noises while he sat at the fireplace and read the entries? Noises that sounded like rocks slamming against rocks, the sound of some omniscient presence, some mythical beast that haunted these woods. Inside the tent did he really not hear the barking sound? The barking going from alarm to territorial to whining in pain as it was being disemboweled. Maybe they fed into each other’s madness. He couldn’t remember who was the first one to point out the barking. He tried to remember. His mind was all muddled and murky and left him questioning everything. Had they really both blacked out? Lost time? Came too only when the rest of them appeared? His head whirled. It must have been the way Naruto described it...right?

“Yeah…” Sasuke answered softly.

He let go of Naruto and in turn Naruto let go of him. He watched as Naruto returned to cleaning off his hands. Sasuke undid the boxers from his hand and looked at the jagged mark across his palm. It had sealed up into a nasty scab. When he put his hands into the river’s water Naruto stood up abruptly, and left, with Hinata trailing behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and watched as Naruto went about ignoring him again. Realization washed over him. Sasuke exhaled loudly and turned back to the river.

He remembered who noticed the dog barking first. He remembered who asked about the gunshot first. He remembered and he wasn’t crazy.

It was the first time he experienced Naruto lying, and if Naruto wasn’t the first one to point out the barking dog, and the gunshot he might have believed him and his words. Naruto had been resistant since last night about what was happening. He was in denial and continued to be in denial. Sasuke couldn’t explain the phenomenon of what happened to them, or why they seemed to both lose a day and a half of their memory, but he knew the memories he did have were as real as the cut on his palm. They had lost time. His healing cut was proof the only discrepancy was what did they do in that day and a half?

He decided he needed to find the camcorder thinking maybe they would find answers there.

*****

“I say we cut up this fawn, and cook it. We’re all starving and we could all use some protein. We'll have ourselves a barbecue.” Suigetsu suggested as he looked down at the fawn. “No need to let it go to waste.”

“Do you know how to cut it up?” Sakura asked and crossed her arms nervously.

“No. But it can’t be that hard can it?”

“What are we going to do?” Ino asked. “This campsite is abandoned!”

“We’re going to eat meat first and decide what we’re going to do next.” Suigetsu answered. “Why don’t you two go gather wood and start a fire and clean out those pans in the river?”

“I’ll go wash the pots and pans.” Sakura answered and left. She was hungry and salivating thinking about eating cooked meat.

Ino glowered back at Suigetsu. Her stomach growled and she looked down at the dead fawn. Even though she didn’t want to eat bambi she was starving and needed to eat something or she was going to die. She turned and began to look around the campsite for wood and brush to put into the fireplace. Suigetsu smiled. He crouched down and picked up the hatchet. He examined it. For being left behind for over a year it was surprisingly sharp. He looked at the blade. It looked as if it was sharpened recently. He shrugged and his oily smile spread thick and heavy across his face. He didn’t think too much of it and set to work hacking up the fawn.

Naruto walked back to the campsite and noticed the clothes line. He saw his clothes hanging up to dry. His last memory of his clothes they were soaking wet in the corner of the tent. He reached for his sweater, it was bone dry, and he felt the ground beneath him pulsating. A memory surged through him.

A memory of it being pitch-dark and the only light was coming from the roaring fire. He looked to see a shadowy figure pinning his wet clothes on the clothes line. He was sitting a few feet back, and he was holding a golden goblet. He raised his cup and a shadowy figure with long jagged horns jutting out of it's face filled his cup with red wine. He brought the cup to his lips and drank every last drop raising his goblet for more. He was laughing when he felt hands on his cheeks. He looked and saw Sasuke crawling on top of him, his hands reaching for the same goblet he held onto. He peered past Sasuke and watched himself sitting parallel on the other side of the campfire. He let go of the goblet and he felt Sasuke's lips up against his.

It was as if he was looking into the mirror only the reflection was only of Naruto. The image flipped. He was now sitting on the log watching himself across the fire. He watched as an unknown force wrapped a plastic bag around his face. The plastic bag handles were tightened and twisted around his neck. His hands went up desperately to remove the plastic bag. The outline of the plastic bag fitted around his face. He saw the outline of his eyes, nose, and mouth twisting up into a scream. The plastic bag was inhaled into the mouth suffocating him further. Both legs were kicked out and kicking violently at the ground and air. He began to squirm and contort his body clawing desperately at the unknown force that was slowly suffocating him to death. He saw the veins popping out of his hands. He watched as the strength gradually left him. His hands fell limply at his side and his body slumped over. The plastic bag was still held around him even when he stopped moving. After what felt like an eternity he was released and his lifelessly body fell over. Moving into focus was the perpetrator...and it was Sasuke.

Naruto gasped and clutched at his throat. He dropped his sweater and doubled over choking and gagging. Hinata wrapped her arm around him. “What’s wrong, Naruto?” His neck stung and when he brought his fingers to his neck he felt the ligature marks. He could still feel the plastic bag in his mouth and could still taste the polyethylene. Catching his breath he looked to Hinata frightfully.

“What’s on my neck?” Naruto asked and raised his head so Hinata could see his neck and adam's apple.

“Just some red marks and scratches on either side of your neck.” Hinata answered and brushed her fingertips against the location. “Why?” She was confused and panicked.

“It just...hurts.” Naruto murmured. He bent over and picked up his sweater. He gathered up the rest of his clothes from the line and picked up his sneakers. He wanted to change out of his clothes. He could smell the putrid smell of blood and it was curdling his stomach. He felt feverish. He stumbled towards the tent and saw Sasuke was walking towards him.

“Naruto…”

“I’m going to change!” Naruto said abruptly and held a hand out to Sasuke. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Sasuke. He turned around and entered the tent and zipped it closed behind him. He saw Lee laying down.

“Hey…” Naruto greeted. Lee opened his bloodshot eyes. His hair was wild and untamed like a briar patch. “How are you doing?”

“Not good.” Lee answered. “What were you guys doing all this time?”

Naruto shook his head and said truthfully. “I don’t know. Everything is blank.”

“We’re not alone.” Lee answered his voice was low and hoarse. “I sense them. They’re watching us.”

“Who?” Naruto asked. He crawled over to Lee and placed his palm on Lee’s forehead. It felt warm. His face was flushed. Small beads of sweat formed along his brow line and temple. Lee was on his back laying on top of the sleeping bag using his own backpack as a pillow.

“Evil. It lurks in the forest and it’s poisoning us. You’re new so you haven’t heard what happened to the children who were murdered.”

“What happened?”

“There used to be a camp, Konohagakure, operating in the mountains. Only it wasn’t really a camp. It was a reformatory school. About five years ago it was leaked that things weren’t being run properly. When the state came in to investigate they found it was really a house of horrors. They found the bodies of four boys in the basement. They were bound, beaten and sodomized to death in a ritualistic fashion. During the raid they found two employees had hanged themselves. The headmaster and five employees were arrested and charged. They were all sentenced to death, and still sit on death row. Only that’s not the worse thing. They found another boy. He was buried in a shallow grave on the property. He wasn’t on any of the records, and when they found his body he was beheaded. He was never identified and his skull was never recovered.”

“What does that have to do with…” Naruto asked as a chill went down his spine. Lee spoke in a trance. His eyes pierced through Naruto and it felt like he was looking at someone or something else as he talked. It didn't feel like Lee was really talking. A foreign spirit took possession of Lee's body and was speaking through him.

“When they were arrested the headmaster and employees all said they were possessed and did not have control over their bodies. Neither staff member or headmaster were able to identify the body even when prosecutors offered them life in prison in exchange for the identification. They said something evil lurked in the mountains and that evil is still here...in the mountains.”

“Do you think that camp is on a map?” Naruto asked. He wasn't going to allow himself to be pulled into the feverish ramblings of Lee. He was thinking back to the map they had found in the backpack. He looked and saw the mysterious backpack was still inside the tent. He glanced at Lee and his eyes were back to being closed. He looked as if he hadn't even spoken at all, and maybe he hadn't, and maybe Naruto made it all up.

“I guess it would depend on how old the map is.” Lee answered.

Naruto grabbed the backpack and unzipped it. He looked inside and reached for the map. But it wasn’t there. He remembered Sasuke took it out to show everyone the entries. Even if the reformatory school was on the map it wasn’t like he was able to read a map, or navigate his way through the mountain. He paused again. His eyes fell on the camcorder. Sasuke mentioned the camcorder. He felt anxious. He glanced at Lee and his eyes were still closed. Naruto took the camcorder out. He bit his lip, and zipped the backpack up. He needed to think clearly. He could still smell the blood on him.

“I’m going to change out of these clothes.” Naruto announced and turned his back to Lee. He began to undress. Naruto looked over his shoulder and saw Lee’s eyes remained shut. He reached for his backpack and unzipped it. He placed the camcorder inside before zipping it closed.

“You’d better watch your back.” Lee warned. “Don’t spend any time alone with Suigetsu.”

“Why?” Naruto asked with a forced laugh.

“If you do he’ll kill you.”

Naruto laughed nervously. “Lee. You’re delusional. You’re running a fever.”

“You can’t trust Sakura, or Ino, or Sasuke. You can't trust any of them.”

“I think you should stay in the tent and rest.” Naruto spoke changing topics.

He looked down and saw that he was still wearing Sasuke’s underwear. He didn’t want to change completely in front of Lee and decided to keep them on. He pulled his undershirt over his head and felt a hand wrap around his bicep. Naruto turned and saw Lee’s face inches from him. His eyes were circular, unblinking. His eyes like two black holes bore into him and Naruto felt trapped. He was so close he could feel Lee’s heavy breath against his shoulder blade.

“You’re going to die, Naruto.” Lee prophesied. “And if you die...we’re all gunna die. It’ll be like that one nursery rhyme. Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. We're Jill...you got that? We're Jill and you're Jack.”

“I’m not going to die.”

“You can’t escape death. No one can.” Lee spoke his voice deep. Naruto felt Lee’s hold tighten on his bicep and he could feel Lee’s fingernails digging into his flesh. He felt the sharp pain of nails embedded into his skin and Lee continued to tighten his hold. Squeezing him more and more. The shadows under Lee’s face darkened. His face was pale. His eyes were flat and dull. So dark, pitch-black, if Naruto kept staring he thought he was going to become blind. It began to frighten him. He felt it in the pit of his stomach. Gut-wrenching fear. His body screamed for him to run.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” Naruto asked nervously and looked away. He couldn't stare at his eyes any longer.

“ You reek. You smell just like him.” Lee spoke bitterly. He refused to let him go. He leaned close and sniffed Naruto’s neck. It caused Naruto to freeze, his mind whirling trying to keep up with Lee’s delusions, and he felt goosebumps form on his skin.

“I smell like who?” Naruto asked.

“Sasuke. His scent is all over you. What exactly did you two do the past two days?” Lee accused. He leaned over and smelled Naruto’s chest. Naruto found himself moving away, but he couldn't move far not when Lee still had an iron tight hold on him. It only caused Lee to laugh mockingly.

“What are you doing? You should see the look on your face. I thought I could trust you but you smell just like him.”

“I smell like him because I was wearing his clothes.” Naruto defended. “Smell me again when I’m in my own clothes.”

Lee released Naruto, pushed himself back, and returned to laying down. He didn’t answer Naruto. He closed his eyes and remained silent. Naruto glanced at him a few times before he finished dressing. His heart thumping painfully. He wanted to leave the tent. He didn’t want to be baited by Lee’s madness. It left him motion sick.

“Choji. I want Choji in here with me. He’s the only one I trust.” Lee answered breaking the silence. His eyes remained closed and he remained laying on his back.

“Okay.” Naruto answered. He put his jacket on, zipped it up, and grabbed his backpack before leaving the tent. Naruto almost leapt out of his skin. He came face to face with Sasuke. He was crouching low and at eye level. Was he listening the whole time? He felt panicky.

“What are you doing?!” Naruto exhaled speaking almost manically. It felt like his heart was going to explode out of his chest.

“I want the backpack.” Sasuke said before dropping his voice. “And the camcorder.” Naruto stepped out of the tent avoiding Sasuke’s eyes. He didn’t say anything else, and left glancing over his shoulder to see Sasuke had retrieved the backpack in question. He moved past Hinata increasing his speed to a fast-paced walk.

“Where are you going?” Hinata asked.

“I’m going to the bathroom! Don’t follow me!” Naruto answered and he quickened his speed practically running in the direction of the river. He wanted to get rid of the camcorder. He didn’t want to find out what was on it. He wanted to get rid of it before Sasuke realizes the camcorder is missing, and before he can accuse him of taking it. Slam it up against a tree, throw it into the river, or bury it. Anything to get rid of it so he didn’t have to confront what he and Sasuke did these past two days.

Chapter Text

“Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood.”― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

The sound of static began to fill Naruto’s head.

It started inside the tent when he carefully put the camcorder into his backpack. It started out low. It was barely recognizable. A humming noise he could tune out. When he unzipped the tent door and came face to face with Sasuke that noise grew louder, and he wasn’t able to tune it out any longer. It sounded like a cackling, hissing sound as if it were coming out of blown out speakers. The further he ran along the river, the louder the noise became until it was deafening. It began to incapacitate him.

“Naruto?”

He looked up to see Kiba stumbling to keep his balance. There was thick coyote fur outlining his hood. The fur was matted and bloodied and raw as if freshly skinned and sewn to his coat with barbed wire. His gray parka was unzipped revealing his band shirt with the mouth and tongue sticking out on the front. The mouth on his shirt was bleeding. The white shirt becoming soaked as it tried to absorb the blood from the gash on his side that ripped through the fabric and flesh. Both hands covered his left side. Both of Kiba’s pupils were blown and his eyes were swollen. The left side of his face was disfigured and bruised resembling a rotten tomato.

Kiba began to stumble towards him. His movements were contorted. It didn’t look right and Naruto noticed why. His knees were bent backwards like a flamingos. His knees jutted behind him and his front was thrown forwards. He took wide steps like a duck. His hands stretched out as he tried to keep his balance and his body lopped from side to side as he made long sweeping strides all helter skelter closer and closer. Naruto was petrified. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move and he swore his heart stopped. He wanted to scream but when he opened his mouth nothing came out.

“Naruto! Why did you lie? You said you heard help! You said help was almost here! You said I was going to be okay!” Kiba’s voice temporarily overloaded the sound of static. His voice the equivalent of a pumpjack of an oil well. Naruto remained immobilized and unblinking. This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t real.

“Do you think you’re safe? You’re not.” Kiba continued. His jaw became unhinged like a snake’s. Blood poured down the sides of Kiba’s mouth and dripped from his nose. Naruto kept telling himself this wasn’t real, and this wasn’t happening, kept telling himself he was dreaming.

Kiba had finally reached Naruto. His bloodied fingers grabbed hold of Naruto’s orange puffer jacket jerking him closer. It was becoming harder to deny the reality. He could feel Kiba’s hot breath on his face and Kiba’s hands around his coat. Kiba’s eyes became two black holes and inside the blackness Naruto saw something monstrous staring back. It was terror personified. The sound of the pumpjack grew louder and the repetitive droning became faster sending vibrations through the ground. He could feel the vibrations against this feet and soon he found himself trembling.

“Beware the gunshots. Do not trust them! Do not trust them! Do not trust them! Do not trust them!” Kiba recited. His voice became mechanical and machine-like as if he were speaking through a distorted microphone. “I see them watching me. They are going to come for me. When?!?!?!”

Kiba lunged on top of him and knocked him over. Naruto’s back slammed against the ground and his head hit something hard causing his vision to blur. He could feel Kiba’s weight straddling him. Kiba’s body felt warm and his weight pressed against his abdomen squishing his organs up into his rib cage. He could feel Kiba’s hands wrapping themselves around his throat, and when he finally found his voice and screamed, Kiba shoved his fingers down his throat. He could feel Kiba’s fingers pushing further into the back of his throat. His nails scratching against the lining of his esophagus. He could taste the mixture of blood and dirt and rot.

“Daisy came back. Give the boys a kiss. Goodbye.”

Naruto found himself choking and gagging his fingers clawed at his throat as he tried to buck Kiba off of him.

The sound of the static came rushing back. The sound drowned out all other sounds and it hijacked every other sense. He lost the ability to see. His eyes rolled into the back of his head. He lost the ability to speak. He lost the ability to feel. He found himself unable to move his limbs.

Birthing from the static were screams and wails. He could decipher the screams of children. The children Lee spoke about inside camp Konohagakure. They came from every direction echoing and funneling inside Naruto’s eardrum. Torturous, dying, screams gasping for breath. Their voices echoed off tiled walls and floor and ceiling inside the basement. It sent shock waves through the puddles of blood that collected on the floors.

“Naruto?” A voice came from the darkness.

Someone was touching his shoulder and pulled him back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked up to see Sakura crouching above him. Her round eyes staring down at him. He was on his back staring up at the treetops. “Are you okay?” Naruto found himself gasping for breath. He pushed himself up struggling to breathe and comprehend what was going on. His eyes looked frantically around almost expecting to see Kiba but there was no sign of him. Because Kiba was dead, hanging upside down in the busted up van, left behind.

“You have a nosebleed.” Sakura commented. Her voice was soft and soothing. Almost maternal. Naruto reached up and touched the skin below his nose. He felt it. When he looked at his fingers he saw it. He had a nosebleed. He smeared the blood with his thumb and index finger. His nostrils stung and the back of his throat felt raw. He could still feel Kiba’s fingers in the back of his throat, and he began coughing. He cleaned off the rest of the blood with his coat sleeve. He felt shaken up and on edge. His hands wouldn’t stop trembling.

“Naruto?” Sakura called out again. “What’s going on? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m fine.” Naruto answered hurriedly. He didn’t understand what had happened. “I’m just...hungry.” He looked to see Sakura had wet pots and pans beside her on the ground. They were a few feet from the riverbed. He couldn’t hear the static anymore, couldn’t hear the sound of the pumpjack anymore, couldn’t hear the screams of the children anymore. Instead he heard the babbling sounds of the water and the swaying of branches in the wind. He inhaled sharply through his nose and held his breath before exhaling.

“I saw something.” Sakura confessed. She sniffled and used the back of her hand to wipe away the clear snot that dripped down from her nose. They hadn’t yet adjusted to the cold temperatures, and they probably never would. They were all shivering with runny noses and chapped cheeks. “When I was washing the pots and pans in the water. I saw something.” Sakura explained.

Naruto looked at her blistered cheeks, parched lips, the darkened circles under her eyes, and the small cuts and bruises on her face. Sakura looked...different. She was lacking in color. Her emerald eyes seemed colorless and appeared grey. Her pastel pink hair looked white washed. Even her red peacoat looked lackluster. The vibrancy gone and in its place a dirty, stained, coat. All the colors that once belonged to Sakura were pooled at her feet. They were becoming feral children of the woods.

“What did you see?” Naruto asked.

“I thought I saw somebody…watching me. From across the river on the other side. I followed them and called out, but they vanished.”

“It’s the woods. It’s playing tricks on us.” Naruto answered automatically. He dismissed Sakura just like he dismissed Lee and just like he dismissed Sasuke. He wasn’t going to entertain anything out of the ordinary. He wasn’t even going to believe the vision he saw of Kiba as truth. It was nothing more than a delusion brought on by starvation.

He picked up the pots and pans. He looked to the river. He didn’t know how far away they were from camp. He saw rocks jutting out of the waters and saw the coursing water splashing up against the blackened rocks. He remembered falling into the river. He remembered how the cold water sliced through him as if he was being cut up with a blender. He remembered the feeling of fear that he wasn’t going to be able to emerge from the river. He looked up to the elongated skinny trees jutting up towards the sky like fingers. The dull muted colors of the trees and the rocks and the moss. It muddled together. Finally he looked across the river to the other side. Everything was still and nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

“Yeah...you’re probably right. I just thought...we were going to be rescued.” Sakura continued softly. Her eyes watered up and more clear snot rolled down. “You know?” Her voice cracked. He looked to her. He knew. He remembered when the world came crashing down when he realized the campsite was abandoned.

Naruto nodded his head solemnly. He didn’t know how to answer. A few tears rolled down Sakura’s face. They remained still and silent basking in the hopelessness of their situation. He felt disenchanted. He felt despair seeping into him and weakening him. He didn’t know what they were supposed to do. He didn’t have a plan. He didn’t have a plan. He didn’t have a plan. He didn’t have any idea on what to do. He was stuck. His mind blank. None of this was supposed to happen. They should have been rescued on the first night...and now they were going on day five...day six? And nothing? He hadn’t even heard a helicopter. Where were they searching for them? Were they even searching for them?

You have no one! Nobody is going to mourn your death! The rest of us will be mourned! We’ll have ceremonies and you’ll be buried in a pauper’s grave!’ Naruto grew stiff and rigid. Numbness filled him momentarily. The silence was beginning to eat him up slowly.

“Maybe we’ll feel better after we eat.” Sakura was the first to break the silence and Naruto felt relief. “Suigetsu is going to cook the...meat.” Naruto nodded his head. He didn’t know how they had come to slaughter the fawn in a ritualistic manner. He was beyond starving and nearing desperation of eating bark and dirt if he went another day without eating. He would. He would eat anything if it meant filling his stomach and ending the sharp pains and cramps he was experiencing. Meat sounded delicious. He could feel his mouth salivating as memories of eating meat washed over him.

“What were you doing?” Sakura asked. Naruto blinked. He had forgotten. He wanted to get rid of the camcorder. It was the reason why he left the campsite in the first place. Why he was running so frantically away from Sasuke.

“I had to go to the bathroom.” Naruto lied with a nervous laugh. The camcorder was still in his backpack. He needed to hide it. His backpack felt heavy as if loaded with rocks and bricks. His shoulders hurt. The camcorder weighed over fifty pounds. It had to be.

“Oh! Actually...I have to go too.” Sakura accepted the answer and noticed the building pressure on her own bladder. “Wait here! I’ll be right back!” Sakura stood up and moved through the trees. Naruto watched her and when she disappeared he placed the pots and pans back on the ground and opened up his backpack. The camcorder was still in his backpack. He reached in to take it out when he heard his name coming from behind.

“NARUTO!” Sakura cried out from behind. “COME QUICK!”

The sound of shock and alarm in her voice rocked through him and he felt his fight or flight response kicking in. He retracted his hand and looked up. He stood up and ran in the direction of Sakura’s voice. He slid to a halt when he saw her on her knees next to a fallen tree. She turned to him and held her hands up revealing bell-shaped mushrooms with a prominent papilla.

“Look! I found mushrooms!” Sakura beamed. She looked and acted as if she had found a chest of diamonds and gold.

“Are they edible?” Naruto asked as he walked closer. He grabbed one of the long stemmed mushrooms from Sakura’s hand and examined it. “What if they’re poisonous? Suigetsu is going to cook meat. We don’t need mushrooms.” Naruto continued. Sakura’s excitement diminished and she looked down at the mushrooms in her hand.

“What if they aren’t? What if they’re edible?” Sakura asked.

She grabbed her backpack and opened up the smaller compartment and popped the mushrooms inside before zipping it up. She wasn’t going to give in so easily. Hunger had hijacked her brain. She was being future-oriented. What were they going to do when they ate all of the meat and were back to starving? Naruto continued to examine the mushroom. He didn’t know about fungi. The wind picked up around them. It cut through them and it felt like tiny knives were being inserted into their flesh. Although it was April the wind still had the chill of winter and ice. Just when Naruto was about to drop the mushroom he heard a familiar sound.

It was the sound of a gunshot. It was the sound of a hunting rifle firing off. It echoed through the woods. Sakura straightened up and her face snapped towards Naruto. A chill went down his spine. He was rooted to the spot. The fear he felt inside the tent with Sasuke last night came rushing back. He felt his bottom lip tremble.

“Did you hear that?” Sakura asked.

“Hear what?” Naruto asked trying to be nonchalant.

“That was a gunshot!” Sakura continued and stood up.

“I didn’t hear any-” Naruto wasn’t able to finish his sentence. There came another gunshot. This time it sounded closer. It echoed and the direction of where it was coming from couldn’t be discerned. The second gunshot came as a shock and it was revealed on Naruto’s face that he heard it. Sakura’s face lit up. She knew that he heard it too.

“There!” Sakura spoke. “It came from this direction!” She was about to take off running when Naruto grabbed her wrist.

“Wait! Where are you going?” Naruto asked.

“In the direction of the gunshot! That’s a person! We can be rescued!”

“We don’t know in what direction the gunshot came from. We can’t just go running blindly through the woods! We need to go back to the camp.”

“I do. I know what direction!” Sakura looked in the direction she thought she heard gunshots coming from. “If we don’t go after it...what if this is our only chance?”

“NARUTO? SAKURA!” It was Hinata’s voice. She was calling out for them. There was worry and fear in her voice.

“No! Let’s go back!” Naruto stated before turning his head and shouting. “WE’RE OVER HERE!”

Sakura bit her lower lip and turned back to Naruto. She didn’t say anything. She looked once more in the direction of the gunshots looking to see if she spotted anyone moving. She didn’t. She turned back around and followed Naruto back to the river. Naruto saw Hinata standing where his backpack and the pots and pans were. Her face lit up when she saw both Naruto and Sakura. She ran up to them.

“I was worried when you guys. You didn’t come back!” Hinata spoke breathlessly and turned her attention to Naruto. He didn’t know how long he was gone for. Time became an elusive thing.

“We heard a gunshot!” Sakura said and pointed in the direction she heard it. “Over there. We heard two gunshots! Someone is hunting! Someone is out there!”

“You did?” Hinata asked and her eyes lit up. She looked to Naruto for confirmation.

“Yeah…” Naruto confirmed unwillingly, and looked away. He wasn’t expecting the second gunshot. The second gunshot solidified that maybe there really was a hunter in the woods. If there was they couldn’t separate and go chasing after the echoes. They needed to travel together. They couldn’t risk becoming separated and lost even further in the woods.

“Let’s go back and tell the others!” Sakura concluded and she ran back to the campsite. Naruto bent over, picked up his backpack, and put it on before collecting the pots and pans. His mind was whirling. He felt a glimmer of hope. Similar to when he spotted the blue tarp. If there was a hunter in the mountains and they found him...they would finally be rescued.

*****

“We can’t trust the gunshots!”

Sasuke argued the moment Sakura finished explaining she and Naruto heard two gunshots. Sasuke’s face remained pale and iridescent. His eyes appeared darker. His features were all right angles and symmetrical. His skin was clear and blemish-free and his bone-structure perfect. It is an understatement to say that he was handsome. He was Adonis. He was the personification of the god of beauty and desire. Sakura had been stricken with his beauty since the first time she laid eyes on him.

Right now the beauty was still there beneath the hysteria he was exhibiting. Sakura was speechless. She was witnessing the unraveling of Sasuke and it left her anxious and unsure.

Naruto ignored both Sakura and Sasuke and took the pots and pans to Suigetsu. His eyes rolled down to the ground. The fawn’s flesh was peeled back from it’s neck down. It’s entire rib cage was exposed and the chest spread. The stomach and intestines were pulled all the way out and settled into a heap of sausages. The hooves were hacked off and strips of meat were cut up. He didn’t say anything, and he watched as Suigetsu raised the hatchet and proceeded to behead the fawn. Suigetsu looked manic. There was a frightening smile corrupting his features. He looked older and ruthless. He didn't look fourteen. He looked like a war veteran who enjoyed torturing his enemies. The shadows that covered his face made him look unsightly. He was hacking the blade through the jugular and decapitating it, not because he had to, but because he wanted too. He was so engrossed in the sick actions he didn’t notice Naruto’s presence.

He put the pots and pans down and left with that unsettling feeling burrowing into his abdomen.

“Naruto!” Sasuke yelled and it caused him to stop. “Where is the camcorder?” Naruto didn’t know how the topic devolved to the camcorder, and he turned to stare at Sasuke. He felt his hands shaking.

“Sasuke. Calm down.” Naruto answered as he saw the delirium on Sasuke’s features. It was the wrong thing to say.

“Don’t tell me to calm down! You took it didn’t you!” Sasuke accused.

“What about the camcorder?” Sakura asked. She was trying to understand the logic within Sasuke’s madness.

“I know whatever happened the past two days is going to be on that camcorder, and it’ll explain why we shouldn’t trust the gunshots!” Sasuke yelled. “You took it out of the bag didn’t you Naruto! DIDN’T YOU!”

Naruto didn’t answer. He felt afraid. He knew the camcorder was still in his backpack. He never had the chance to dispose of it. He couldn’t in front of Sakura and Hinata. Sasuke already knew he took the camcorder. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say. So he did none of that and remained speechless. Hoping it would just all go away. But it didn’t.

“Did you see Naruto take out anything from his backpack?” Sasuke asked Sakura. She shook her head. “No?” She sounded unsure.

“Give me your backpack!” Sasuke demanded of Naruto. He walked up to Naruto and instantly Naruto backed up.

“What is the camcorder going to prove?” Naruto asked with difficulty. His tongue wasn’t cooperating and he was fumbling over his words.

“It’s going to prove I’m right and you’re wrong!”

Naruto didn’t say anything else, and continued to stare at Sasuke. He didn’t want Sasuke to be right. He didn’t want to delve into the madness with him.

“Do you have the camcorder?” Sakura asked Naruto. She was aligning herself with Sasuke the same way she did when Sasuke and Suigetsu were looking for the flashlight. It was deja vu only this time he did have the camcorder. He didn’t answer. He didn’t say anything and continued to move backwards.

“You do?” Sakura pressed taking his silence as a confession. Naruto’s face paled as Sakura continued. “Let’s see it then!”

“No! I don’t have it.” Naruto answered bluntly, and tightened his hold on the straps of his backpack. He clenched his jaw and tightened up his muscles. He wasn’t used to lying.

Sasuke couldn’t take his eyes off Naruto. He didn’t understand why he was still in denial over what had happened. He didn’t understand why he was so willing to agree with Sakura when they heard gunshots, and why he was willing to follow the gunshots if they heard them again. Sasuke believed the entries on the map. He believed the camper when he said don’t trust the gunshots. It was a premonition. He remembered hearing the barking. There was evil lurking in the woods and if they went after the gunshots they would end up entrapped just like the camper and his dog. Dead. He wanted Naruto to agree with him. He didn’t want to appear crazy in front of everyone. He wanted Naruto to validate everything they had experienced including the dog and the snow and the noises last night.

He could hear his mother’s voice as if she was standing next to him and telling him not to embarrass her. A chill went down his spine. He could feel the pain on his cheek from where his mother slapped him and the click-clicking of her heels against tile as she walked away.

“Give me your backpack!” Sasuke continued and lunged at Naruto. He didn’t want to be made a fool of any longer.

“Sasuke you’re acting crazy! Just stop it!” Naruto yelled as he held his hands out in front of him. It was futile. He stumbled backwards. A small cry escaped Hinata’s mouth. Her eyes widened as she watched unsure of how to make it all stop.

“Just give me your backpack and I’ll stop!” Sasuke shrieked. His voice was hysterical. High-pitched. Sasuke’s hands grabbed onto Naruto’s and he jerked him closer. Naruto’s skin felt cold against his hands. Just like his entire body felt when he stripped him of his wet clothes. He felt as cool as a block of ice.

Naruto lifted his hands and tried to pull himself from his grip but it was impossible. Sasuke had brute, deranged strength on his side. Adrenaline coursed through him, and Naruto had sheer desperation and fear dulling his senses and slowing him down.

“Don’t!” Naruto yelled and he tried to push Sasuke away from him. “I don’t have it!” Naruto lied again. He didn’t want to tell the truth. He wanted to remain in denial. He couldn’t go back on his word. He had to continue to save face. Even though it was futile.

“YOU’RE LYING!” Sasuke yelled and he made motions to grab Naruto’s backpack.

“Naruto just give him the camcorder!” Sakura yelled and she began to aid Sasuke. Her hands reaching towards his backpack.

Naruto’s heart thumped loudly. Fear drowned him. He was fighting a losing battle. He didn’t know why, but the more he thought of the camcorder the more dread filled him. He could still feel the plastic bag tightening around his neck and cutting off his oxygen. Naruto knew that he and Sasuke weren’t totally alone for the past two days. Someone or something was with them, and infecting them, making them do things they didn’t want to do. Maneuvering them around the campsite as if they were mere puppets performing. He could feel it brewing inside. Duress.

Just when he thought he was going to explode he felt something warm and wet around his neck, and something firm pressed up behind him. Suigetsu had appeared. He held Naruto by the neck from behind. He could feel Suigetsu long and jagged nails digging along his trachea. The blade of the hatchet was pressed against the thin skin of his neck. Suigetsu tapped the blade over his beating carotid artery wanting nothing more than to decapitate him in the same fashion he did the fawn.

Sasuke looked up to Suigetsu and then back to Naruto. He was going to get what he wanted, one way or another, and if Suigetsu was going to threaten Naruto with a hatchet...so be it. He should have just listened and handed over the backpack in the first place, and things wouldn’t of had to escalate so far.

“Give him the backpack.” Suigetsu demanded. Naruto could feel the maliciousness in his voice. There was something inhumane about it even though Suigetsu was in absolute control. He could feel the blood of the fawn dripping down his neck.

Naruto’s arms went limp at his side. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. The static noise had returned and began to consume him. Suigetsu grabbed the backpack and tossed it to Sasuke and Sakura. It felt like an out of body experience. He was outside himself watching himself just like he watched himself suffocate to death. He saw himself, he was lying lifeless on the ground. The plastic bag was removed from his head and he stared at his own bulging, bloodshot, eyes. They were open and unblinking. His face morphed into Kiba’s petrified expression. His mouth twisting into a never-ending scream, and soon his body began to twitch violently. A centipede crawled out of one of his nostrils and across his face.

Sasuke unzipped the backpack and looked inside. He began to pull things out violently. He unzipped the other compartment and dumped the backpack upside down and shook it. All of Naruto’s belongings fell from inside the backpack and scattered across the ground once again. Only...the camcorder wasn’t inside.

“What did you do with it?” Sasuke accused.

Naruto’s eyes moved down to the ground. They shifted through his belongings. The clothes. The toiletries. The pendant. The camcorder was not apart of it. He didn’t know what was happening. He remembered watching Sakura disappear behind the trees, and he unzipped his backpack. He remembered opening it and looking inside. He remembered reaching for the camcorder and stopped when he heard Sakura calling out his name. He left his backpack unzipped as he ran after Sakura. He knew all of these things to be true...and yet when he returned to where his backpack was it was zipped back up.

Naruto felt Hinata’s eyes on him. He was careful not to make eye contact. He kept his eyes down.

“Naruto said he didn’t have it.” Hinata announced. “And he didn’t! See! So leave him alone!” Sakura took a step back hesitant on what to do next. She began chewing on the skin around her thumb believing maybe Sasuke had really lost it.

“He did something with it!” Sasuke accused. He wasn’t going to let him off the hook. He had the culprit and he wasn’t going to let him go just because he didn’t find the evidence he needed.

If he did! You have no proof!” Hinata argued. She had found her voice and came to his defense. Naruto knew exactly where the camcorder was. Hinata had it. She took it. She was there by the river when Sasuke mentioned the camcorder just like she was standing by his backpack when he and Sakura returned. The only thing he didn’t know was why she took it.

“She’s right.” Ino interrupted. “Forget about the stupid camcorder! Unless it’s going to get us rescued I don’t give a damn about it!”

“Why are you doing this?” Sasuke ignored Ino and yelled at Naruto. “LOOK AT ME!” Sasuke screamed at Naruto, but Naruto didn’t look up. He kept his eyes down and his blonde hair fell over his face. Sasuke saw red and all he wanted to do was hurt Naruto and force him to pay attention to him.

“Sasuke! You’re acting crazy!” Ino yelled. “Knock it off!”

She spun around and stared at Suigetsu and Naruto. “Suigetsu let go of Naruto and hurry up and cook the meat before Sasuke loses what little sanity he has left! I got the fire going! See!” Ino gestured towards the fire that was now burning beautifully. She had done her task dutifully. She had gathered up wood, sticks, brush, and leaves into a neat pile to keep the fire going. There was a look of accomplishment on her features. The mysterious backpack was left a few feet from the fire. It was unzipped and a plastic bag of various things from it was laying on one of the logs around the fire.

Suigetsu snorted and released his hold on Naruto. He turned around and picked up one of the pans and began to fill it with all the chopped up pieces of meat before walking over to the fire.

“Sasuke…” Sakura spoke her voice as soothing as a warm washcloth pressed to the forehead. He wasn’t listening to her. His eyes remained trained on Naruto who wasn’t looking at him. “Let’s go for a walk.” Sakura offered. “You can clear your mind.”

Sasuke didn’t answer. Instead he spun around and began walking away, taking the same path Naruto took when he left the campsite, hoping to find where Naruto disposed of the camera. Sakura trailed behind him. Naruto dropped to his knees and began to collect his belongings glancing out of the corner of his eye to see Sasuke walking away, and when he disappeared from his view, he looked back down.

“What’s going on with Sasuke?” Ino asked crossing her arms. “He’s fucking losing it! I don’t blame you for not agreeing with him. You can’t enable that kind of thinking, Naruto. Crazy is contagious.”

“We’re all going to lose it if we don’t eat!” Suigetsu barked from the campfire. He was holding the pan above the flames. Naruto finished gathering his things and zipped up his backpack.

“There’s no point in thinking about what went on here the past two days. We’re all hungry and once we eat we’ll all think clearer, and figure out what we’re going to do next!” Ino continued.

She walked up to the mysterious backpack and picked it up. Naruto was now sitting cross-legged on the ground wearing his backpack. Both hands holding onto the straps more so as a comfort thing than anything else. Hinata sat alongside him her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around her shins. They were having a silent conversation without any words. Just sharing a secret. Naruto asking if Hinata had the camcorder and Hinata nodding her head yes. It was in her possession. In her backpack. She had taken it.

Ino joined them making the third point of a triangle and placed the backpack in the middle.

“I went through the backpack.” Ino admitted. “It belonged to a man named Sakumo. There are useful tools inside...along with matches I used to start the fire.”

“Sakumo?” Naruto repeated and looked at the backpack. He now had a name for the camper who wrote such cryptic entries on the map. Entries that began to drive Sasuke stark raving mad. Sakumo who had a dog named Daisy. It was another person they needed to bring home to give closure to his family. How many people fell victim to the mountains?

“I also...found this.” Ino dropped her voice. She pulled from her coat pocket a compass. It was a beautiful handcrafted silver grand voyager compass. On the back engraved was the name, Sakumo. She opened it up and showed Naruto and Hinata. The magnetic needle kept spinning and no matter how many times Ino moved the compass it was unable to accurately predict where North was. “It’s broken.”

April 1, 2005
Lost?!
I heard a gunshot.
Compass doesn’t work.
Hit icy weather.
I fell down.
Twisted my ankle.
Can’t climb out.
Running out of food.

“What about it?” Naruto asked taking the compass and examining it. “A broken compass can’t help us.” He sounded annoyed. He didn’t want to talk about Sakumo. He didn’t want to think about the entries.

“The first entry on the map...” Ino spoke but was interrupted.

“Don’t tell me you’re falling for it too?” Naruto asked. “It’s the ramblings of a dying man!”

“I know! I know...I’m just telling you what I found.” Ino defended. She peeked at Naruto and watched him continue to observe the compass. “Do you think the first entry is true?” She asked. Naruto looked at her and shrugged.

“Yeah at least the part about the compass.”

Ino pulled the map out of the backpack and unfolded it. Naruto sighed loudly unsure of where she was going with it. He didn’t even want to look at the map ever again.

“It also said he heard a gunshot.” Ino continued reading over the first entry.

“People hunt.” Naruto answered. “What are you trying to say?”

“Maybe Sasuke is right. Maybe we shouldn’t trust the gunshots.” Naruto scowled at her. She wasn’t making sense. First she said Sasuke was crazy and not to believe him, and now she was saying maybe there was truth in Sasuke’s statements. Ino was exactly as Sakura described...wishy-washy.

“It doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t know where to look.” Naruto closed the compass and handed it over to Hinata who began to examine it. “If we hear gunshots and follow it we can potentially be saved.” He wanted to be saved no matter what they had to do.

“What if we run into whatever killed Sakumo?”

“We don’t know what happened to Sakumo! He could have been rescued for all we know! We don’t know if he died out here!” Naruto snapped. He was twisting the reality around him. He was becoming frustrated. He was losing control. He felt himself trembling. His head began to ache and all he wanted to do was lay down and curl up into a ball and go to sleep.

“It’s true we don’t know what happened to Sakumo...I mean...if he died here...where’s the body?” Hinata asked. Her eyes darted around the campsite before settling on Ino. “Did you find anything while searching for wood?” Ino shook her head no. She didn’t find a body. She looked to Naruto. “Did you and Sakura see anything out of the ordinary?” Naruto shook his head no. Would there still be a body after a year? Maybe not an entire body but there would be bones...a skeleton left behind, and clothes.

“He could have been rescued.” Hinata suggested and her voice lowered. She was taking Naruto’s words into consideration. “Or he could have run off and died from starvation, an animal could have attacked him and dragged his body away, or maybe he jumped into the river and drowned. We don’t know. But to not trust gunshots when they could save us...I don’t know.” Hinata shifted her weight around the ground. She became increasingly more uncomfortable.

“Sasuke is going to want to put it to a vote. If we hear gunshots again what are we going to do?” Ino asked and looked at Naruto.

“We’re going to follow them.” Naruto answered raising his eyes to meet Ino’s. Hinata nodded her head in agreement. Ino slowly nodded her head up and down before pausing to bring up the worst case scenario. Any plan was better than no plan.

“What if it separates us?” Ino asked.

“I won’t let that happen.” Naruto answered firmly. “We’ll all go together. We won’t separate again.”

Ino glanced over her shoulder at Suigetsu. She looked at his right hand which was holding the handle of the frying pan hoovering it over the flames. She looked to his left hand which gripped the handle of the hatchet. He had refused to let it go since the moment he picked it up. She turned her attention to the shovel that had been dropped and forgotten a few feet away. There was no meaning left to the shovel. Hinata’s position as leader was usurped by the hatchet. She was having doubts on if Naruto really could keep them together.

“Suigetsu has the hatchet.” Ino spoke her voice barely above a whisper. Naruto and Hinata both looked and saw Suigetsu. He was staring into the flames of the fire, unblinking, unmoving, seemingly oblivious to what was happening around him. “The rules have changed.” Naruto and Hinata both shook their heads yes. They both knew too.

“In numbers we have the majority...but…” Ino commented before trailing off. She didn’t have to finish for them to understand what she was saying. In a democracy they had the majority. The pen wasn’t always mightier than the sword. The dynamics had shifted.

Naruto knew he didn’t have influence over Sasuke anymore. He continued to be in denial over the reality Sasuke claimed occurred, and had betrayed him. Naruto did what he had to do. They both couldn’t succumb to madness. A delusion perpetuated by hunger and fear. Crazy was contagious. It was nothing more than the side effects of trauma and he wasn’t going to allow it to get to him.

Naruto needed to keep things together, sane, because it wouldn’t be the mountains that would consume them, madness was going to kill them before hunger and exposure.

*****

“Where are you going?” Sasuke demanded as Naruto stood up.

“I’m going to bring food to Lee and Choji.” Naruto answered without looking at Sasuke. He had felt Sasuke’s eyes on him during the duration of them eating, and he continued to avoid his gaze. He kept his attention to Hinata, Ino, Sakura, and the meat he was eating. Anywhere else and Naruto found it exhausting. Avoiding him.

They were all sitting around the campfire. Feeling the warmth of the flames as they filled their stomachs with tender baby meat. Even though Naruto could feel the flames he didn’t feel the warmth. He still felt cold. A chill that wouldn’t leave him. He felt it in his bone marrow. Their stomachs had shrunk exponentially that they couldn’t eat much without feeling full and cramping.

“I’ll go with you.” Sasuke answered before Naruto could say anything. Naruto had pulled cooked meat from the frying pan and put strips and chunks into the pot he was now holding. He was going to give the pot of meat to Lee and Choji who remained inside the tent. Neither left the tent. He turned to Sasuke.

“Everywhere you go I’ll go.” Sasuke stated loudly for everyone to hear.

“Why?” Ino asked. “Naruto didn’t do anything.”

“He’s lying, and he took the camcorder! So I’m not going to let him go anywhere without me! Not until he admits I was right!” Sasuke continued. He wasn’t letting things go. Naruto didn’t say anything. He stood up and Sasuke followed.

“Drop it already!” Ino continued. “You’re the only one who cares about the camcorder!”

“I care!” Sakura defended aligning herself with Sasuke. Suigetsu leaned back and focused his attention on Sasuke and Naruto. He remained silent and observed.

“Why are you doing this?” Sasuke demanded. Naruto chose to play dumb and answered. “Choji and Lee haven’t eaten.” Naruto tried to leave when Sasuke grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand back. Sakura’s eyes widened as she watched Naruto and Sasuke. Hinata averted her eyes as her face bloomed the color of pink and red carnations. Ino rolled her eyes in annoyance at the scene.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” Sasuke continued haughty. “I saved you!” He wanted some acknowledgement. He saved him and this was how he was repaying him? Suigetsu quirked an eyebrow at this statement and narrowed his eyes as he turned his attention back to Naruto.

Naruto leaned close to Sasuke and when he was inches from his face he said endearingly. “Thank you Sasuke for saving me.” His actions and words shocked Sasuke. He let go of Naruto and pulled back averting his eyes. Suigetsu’s hold on the hatchet tightened until his knuckles turned white. Sasuke’s face flushed and his breathing became irregular. It was enough of a shock that Naruto used this as an opportunity to turn around, leave, crouch, and unzip the tent.

“Lee? Choji?” Naruto called out as he pushed the tent door to the side and looked inside. Both were sleeping and began to stir awake. Naruto crawled into the tent with the pot of meat cradled in his arms. “I brought you guys food. It’s meat. Eat and you’ll feel better.” He placed the pot of meat between them. Lee opened his eyes and they were bloodshot. It looked as if his blood vessels popped and blood pooled around his pupils. They looked beastly.

Lee pushed himself up and his eyes rolled to the pot of cooked meat. It took a moment for him to process what it was, and when he did he reached in and took a singular chunk of meat. He examined it before placing it into his mouth. Choji reached into the pot grabbing a fistful of meat before stuffing his mouth. Lee turned his attention to Choji and observed him for a moment before laying back down.

“I’m not hungry.” Lee murmured. He looked lethargic. The energy sapped from him. “You can have the rest, Choji.”

“Have you been drinking water?” Naruto asked out of concern.

“No.” Lee answered looking at his empty water bottle.

“Let me see your water bottle I’ll fill it up for you.” Naruto offered leaning forward and holding his hand out.

Lee looked at Naruto from the corner of his eyes. All Naruto could see were bloodshot corneas beneath long eyelashes. He didn’t answer Naruto. He watched Choji continue to eat seemingly ignoring the conversation they were having. Choji appeared to have become mute. Even when Lee attempted to speak to him he wouldn’t answer. Lee felt protective over Choji and wanted him to remain by his side so he could continue to protect him.

“What did you and Kiba talk about?” Lee asked turning his attention back to Naruto. He clarified when Naruto gave him an inquisitive look. “The last night...what did you guys talk about?”

“Spider-Man.” Naruto answered. The memory lit up like bombs on a battlefield. He wasn't going to say anything else.

“Really?” Lee asked and he surveyed Naruto’s expression.

“Mhm.”

Lee assessed him carefully. Naruto couldn’t bring himself to form any words. He was choking up. He could feel Kiba’s hand. The warmth of his fingers being absorbed into his flesh and body. The hold Kiba had around his hand grew weaker and weaker until it wasn’t Kiba who was holding onto him, he was the one holding onto Kiba. He looked down at his palm and traced the lines etched on his skin with the thumb of his other hand. His foster sister read his palm from a palmistry book, and said he had a long, deep, tender and rosy life line. Meaning high resistance to disease and full of vitality.

He wondered what Kiba’s lifeline said about him.

“Are we going to be rescued?” Lee asked. His voice was demanding careful consideration. There was a threat if Naruto didn’t answer correctly he was going to lose all respect. He didn’t want Naruto to give him a quick response, or the response he thought he wanted to hear, or some overly-forced motivational quote that’s been beaten dead answer. He wanted Naruto to be real and authentic. He wanted Naruto to answer truthfully.

Naruto took his time. He knew what Lee wanted, just like he knew what they all wanted, what he wanted. Reassurance. A way out. To be saved. To go home. To wake up from this never-ending nightmare. His thumb continued tracing the lines on his palm. The only lines he remembered were the life line and the heart line. The same question had been buzzing around in his skull like the hum of a mosquito. A high pitched buzzing noise that wouldn’t go away. Were they going to be rescued? He licked his lips wetting them before answering.

“If we don’t...we’re just going to have to rescue ourselves.”

Choji stopped chewing. He was listening to their conversation. The gravity of his words weighed heavy on them. There was strength and hope in that sentence. If they wouldn’t be rescued by someone they had to rescue themselves. They couldn’t wait around for a fairy tale ending. They couldn’t follow sleeping beauty’s path who slept for one-hundred years awaiting her prince to rescue her. They had to forge through and pen their own ending.

It was the answer that satisfied Lee and he handed Naruto his empty water bottle to fill up. Naruto took it and left. Naruto glanced down to see Sasuke was sitting outside the tent and listening. Naruto looked away, and ignored him as he made his way down to the river. Sasuke stood up and followed.

“So that is your new plan? To rescue ourselves? How are we supposed to find our way out of the mountains?” Sasuke asked brusquely as Naruto bent down at the riverbed.

“We keep following the river.” Naruto answered. It was what they were doing from the beginning. He kept his eyes on the water bottle as the water flowed in. He rinsed it a few times before filling it.

“I want to leave this campsite!” Sasuke continued. “I don’t like it here! When are we going to leave?”

“Tomorrow...if Lee is feeling better.”

“You want us to stay another night here?” Sasuke’s voice was high pitched. He acted like a scared alley cat slowly being backed into a corner ready to bear teeth and claws.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Naruto answered. “Nothing at all.”

“I’m not afraid!” Sasuke protested. He turned his head in the direction of the campsite. “What if something happens tonight? What if something bad happens to us?”

“All of us are together. Nothing is going to happen. We’ll keep the fire going all night. We’ll have light and warmth. We can take turns staying up and keeping watch. It’ll be okay.”

Sasuke snorted. “We thought we were safe in the tent and look what happened to us!”

“I’m fine. You’re fine.” Naruto said defensively. He looked up at Sasuke catching his attention and holding his gaze. “Nothing happened to us, Sasuke.”

“You took the camcorder.” Sasuke continued. “Why?” Naruto turned back to the water bottle.

“I don’t have the camcorder.”

“I know you don’t have the camcorder! You still took it!”

“I don’t remember seeing a camcorder.” Naruto lied. He stood up to face Sasuke. “I think you dreamt the whole thing.”

“I...didn’t…” Sasuke spoke his voice shaky and unsure.

“Why does it matter? What’s done is done. We’ll stay one more night and leave tomorrow.”

“What if something happens tonight?” Sasuke asked again.

“Nothing will happen. We’re all together. There’s safety in numbers.” Naruto repeated.

Sasuke didn’t answer. He just continued to stare at him as if he were his own bete noire. There was vulnerability showing through Sasuke’s veneer something Naruto was witnessing for the very first time. Sasuke’s mask was cracked and emotions he normally kept under lock and key were flowing to the surface. He didn’t know how to handle such emotions. He looked younger. His young age was apparent whereas everyone else appeared to age years. Naruto stepped forward and reached his hand out. He wanted to comfort Sasuke. To hug him and tell him everything was going to be okay. He brought his hand until his fingers were inches away from Sasuke’s shoulder.

Kiba flashed through his mind. Hanging upside down and dead. He stopped. The image of Sasuke suffocating him with a plastic bag flashed through his mind. The image of himself with bulging eyes, blue lips, and lying lifeless on the ground flashed through his mind. Sasuke's words about being buried in a pauper's grave echoed inside.

“I told you before when we go back home. I’ll leave you alone.” Naruto spoke withdrawing his hand.

“Stop saying that!”

“Huh?”

“If we ever go home! What if we don’t go home? What if we never go home?”

“We will!”

“How can you be so sure?!” Sasuke screamed.

“Because I’m not going to let anyone else die!” Naruto yelled. “Because we’re going to find a way out! All of us!”

He was attempting to match his tonality and energy to Sasuke’s but still came up short. Sasuke didn’t say anything else for a moment and looked at Naruto as if he had sprouted a second head and became a conjoined twin. The only sound that could be heard was the flowing water in the river and Sasuke’s heavy breathing. It was growing darker. The sun was setting on another day and soon they would be spending another night in the mountains. The shadows of the trees grew longer and crisscrossed over them and imprisoning them in a cage.

“I promise. Everyone will go back to their families.” Naruto spoke calmly. “You will go back to your family...so trust me okay?”

“Tell me why you took the camcorder.” Sasuke asked. “And why you’re lying. Tell me and I’ll trust you.”

Naruto averted his eyes and bit his lower lip. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and fidgeted with the water bottle in his hand. He lowered his eyes to the ground and looked at his own feet and his worn out sneakers. He took a deep breath.

“I-”

“Naruto!” Hinata called out and as if a spell bewitched Naruto it caused him to turn and look at her. “Lee’s asking for water. What’s taking so long?” There was a sense of urgency in her voice.

“I’m coming!” Naruto answered.

The spell was forcing him to speak and move. He didn’t say anything else to Sasuke. He moved around him, and jogged up to Hinata. One look at her face and he knew she had interrupted on purpose. He suddenly felt uncomfortable. His palms grew sweaty. His stomach twisted up into knots and it felt like he was going to vomit. He wanted to look back at Sasuke but he didn’t. He jogged alongside Hinata back to the campsite leaving Sasuke alone by the river.

*****

Darkness had fallen and it felt like he was sitting on pins and needles. He kept both hands on either side of him latching onto the bark of one of the logs around the fire. He glanced over his shoulder at the tent.

“Sasuke.” Suigetsu jested and Sasuke turned to stare at him. “Chill. If they want to stay in the tent let them. I don’t want to see any of their faces anyway. Especially that pig.”

There were four logs that made a square around the fireplace. Suigetsu sat on one and Sasuke sat on another. He listened to the sound of the cackling fire and the darker, warmer, white noise that was being emitted. The fire brought warmth and light and sound. A lighthouse beacon in the darkness. Something to hold onto during the night until morning came and they could finally leave this campsite.

Sasuke found himself tense and nervous, high strung, and unable to calm down. Naruto entered the tent with Choji and Lee and hadn’t come back out. He remained inside and shut off from the rest of them. Sasuke turned his attention and stared at Hinata. He was surprised to find her celeste eyes already watching him. He knew she was watching him for a long time. Her thick dark hair in a bob with blunt bangs. It was an ugly haircut that didn't suit her.

Hinata shared the same log as Ino. Catching Sasuke staring back she turned her attention back to the fire. Next to her Ino continued to lather her face with lotion. The other log was occupied by Sakura who was rummaging through her backpack. She pulled mushrooms out and held them in her hands up to the light of the fire.

“I found these mushrooms...do you think they’re edible?” She asked and presented the mushrooms to Sasuke. He leaned over and took a few. He kept one for himself and handed one to Suigetsu. Sakura handed some to Ino and Hinata. They all began to observe the fungi. It had a milk white stalk with a bell shaped cap. At the tip of the cap was honey brown and underneath the gills were white and soft.

“Naruto said he didn’t think they were edible…” Sakura continued when Suigetsu cut her off.

“And what does he know? He also thought this campsite was occupied and it isn’t! So stop saying his name!”

“We all thought this campsite was occupied.” Ino sibilated. “Why don’t you eat it Suigetsu and tell us if it’s edible or not?” She smirked.

Suigetsu smiled smugly. A smile evoking insolence. It gnawed at Ino as she stared back unimpressed. He held the mushroom up and popped it into his mouth and began chewing. Ino leaned back and watched almost expecting him to fall backwards in convulsions. When it didn’t happen she sighed and rolled her eyes.

“It tastes exactly what you’d expect.” Suigetsu answered. “Like the mushrooms you’d find at a salad bar. It isn’t poisoned it’s just a common mushroom.”

“Do mushrooms even have any nutritional value?” Sakura asked. She examined one of the mushrooms more closely before popping it into her mouth and chewing. It didn’t taste bad. It tasted of the earth. She swallowed. It felt good to have food sliding down her throat. She pulled out more.

“You’re seriously going to eat a random mushroom you found?” Ino challenged acting as if she didn’t eat half a tube of toothpaste yesterday. She had regained energy and vitality now that she had digested meat. Sakura shrugged apathetically.

“Food is food and as you can see there isn’t a grocery store or corner store I can go to purchase it.”

“Mushrooms have vitamins and minerals. Potassium and magnesium.” Hinata answered Sakura’s question. Her voice was louder than usual, but it was still difficult to hear her. Ino nodded her head. Hinata was hungry again. The meat had spoiled her and she felt the hunger pains coming back at full throttle. She was used to eating multiple coursed meals prepared by a renowned chef. Now she didn’t care what she had in front of her as long as it was edible and she could chew and swallow. She popped the mushroom into her mouth.

“You’re going to eat it too, Hinata?” Ino asked her eyes widening. “Ah what the heck.” Ino popped the mushroom into her mouth.

“You going to eat it, dude?” Suigetsu asked Sasuke. He looked up noticing everyone had eaten the mushroom. He shrugged and the power of peer pressure took hold and he too ate the mushroom. It was...unremarkable. Suigetsu was right it tasted exactly like a common mushroom. Sakura handed out the remaining mushrooms and they all began to eat them one by one until there was none left.

“It’s your turn, Sasuke.” Ino goaded. She had a mischievous smile.

“My turn for what?”

“Fuck, marry, kill.” Ino answered and tossed her hand in the air for emphasis. “We played it...last night? Or the night before?”

“Your doing?” Sasuke turned and asked Suigetsu and Suigetsu flashed a toothy smile.

“He doesn’t have to answer!” Sakura yelled her face flushing. She couldn’t believe Ino was bringing up the childish game.

“Yes he does!” Ino argued.

“I didn’t!”

“Well to be honest nobody really cared what you had to say.” Ino quipped and turned away. She was still giving Sakura the cold shoulder.

It caused Sakura’s jaw to drop. It looked like she wanted to say something but her voice failed her and her nerves got the best of her. It took her a moment. She fumbled and paused turning her attention to Hinata who was sitting comfortably next to Ino. Hinata turned and looked at Sakura a look of mortification on her face. She was sitting in the spot that Sakura should have been sitting. Acting all demure. It was disgusting. Ino didn’t even like Hinata and now she was cozying up to her as if they were best friends, and treating Sakura as if she was nothing more than a leper. It infuriated her.

“Then Hinata should have to play and answer!” Sakura retorted and pointed at Hinata.

“I already told you Hinata’s!” Suigetsu joined and tossed his platinum blonde hair back. “Hinata would fuck Lee, marry Naruto and kill Choji.”

“The only thing true about that is I would marry Naruto!” Hinata blurted out and before she realized what she had done her face had already bloomed all the crayola shades of red produced. Sasuke looked back at Hinata. She had pressed the palms of her hand on either side of her face and closed her eyes trying to process herself on what she had said.

“In other words...I was spot on.” Suigetsu chorused in a sing-song way. Although it sounded more like he was rubbing salt into open wounds.

“Your turn Sasuke.” Ino spun the conversation back to the original starting point. “To be fair I’ll tell you mine. I would kill Suigetsu. I would fuck you, and I would marry Naruto.”

“That’s not what you said!” Suigetsu accused. “You said you would kill Sakura!”

“I changed my mind.” Ino challenged and stared at Suigetsu.

“I wouldn’t do anything to any of you.” Sasuke scoffed. “Such a juvenile game. Grow up.” He rolled his eyes. He was beginning to feel relaxed. It was locker room talk. Lunchroom banter. It felt like he was back in school.

“Sure.” Ino insinuated and much like Suigetsu who boasted Hinata’s choices she too boasted Sasuke’s. “I already know yours do you want me to say it?”

Sasuke turned his attention to Ino. Her eyes reflected the fire. They burned and consumed and destroyed. The Ino in front of him was different than the Ino he knew in school. Before she looked vibrant and rosy-cheeked. Her skin smooth and flawless. Her lips plump and glossed. Her long silver blonde hair reached the small of her back and barely distracted from her widening hips.

Ino now was nothing but a shell of a person.

Her face had broken out and parts were infected. There were dark bags under her eyes and she looked gaunt. Starved. There was no color in her face. She looked like a washed out dishrag that had been left in the sink for too long and began to mold and smell. Her lips were chapped and cracked and bled. Eczema had broken out on her knuckles and back of her hands and the cold caused her skin to crack and form tiny cuts that bled. Her nailpolish was chipped and dirt and grim were under her nails. Her clothes were stained in blood, and dirt, and sweat.

Hinata in her boyish haircut looked more attractive than Ino. Yet. Ino was getting her confidence and personality back. She was deriving strength from somewhere within the universe. Sasuke raised his eyebrows amused of how Ino would interrupt things for him. He didn’t argue. He allowed Ino to speak.

“You would kill Choji, fuck Naruto, and marry Sakura.” Ino spoke unabashed and leaned back.

There was a five second pause as her words began to sink in. Hinata was the first to react. She became rigid and her skin which was beginning to return to normal flared up again. She covered her mouth stifling a gasp. Sakura turned her head and looked at Ino a myriad of emotions were brewing inside and she didn’t know how to respond.

Suigetsu was the only one who reacted in both disgust, anger, and resentment.

“What kind of crap is that?” Suigetsu spat. “You’re fucking sick, Ino!”

“You’re being awfully cruel to Sakura.” Ino defended with a telling-smirk. She knew what he meant and she wasn’t going to let him have his way. “Sakura would make a fitting bride for anyone! Even if she’s plain and boring.”

“Ino! What is your problem?” Sakura’s shrill voice broke the sound barrier.

“What?” Ino mocked innocence. “You’d get what you wanted. To be Sasuke’s wife! I don't understand why everyone except Sasuke is getting so worked up about it.”

“Is she right?” Hinata asked. She took those milky, blue, heavenly eyes to him. Even though her eyes were clear and bright they bore deep within Sasuke and threatened to break him. They were the eyes of an interrogator ready to waterboard him to get the truth. She was a Hyuga but he was an Uchiha. The Uchiha’s owned the city but they were financially backed by the Hyuga’s. Their families have been connected since the beginning and yet he couldn’t remember crossing paths with her until this trip. He heard the rumors of the Hyuga’s incest, and their importance on bloodline, and keeping everything within the family.

Sasuke didn’t skip a beat and smirked. “Is yours true, Hinata?” Hinata’s eyes widened and she didn’t say anything else.

“Alright...alright...alright.” Suigetsu spoke and raised a hand. “New game.”

“I think we’ve had enough of your games!” Sakura yelled. She sounded breathless as if she finished running the mile in gym class.

“Let’s play a game of truth or…” Suigetsu began when Sasuke interrupted.

“Why don’t we have everyone out here?” Sasuke asked. If they were going to play truth or dare he wanted Naruto to play.

“We don’t need anyone else out here...do we Hinata?” Suigetsu asked and turned his attention to Hinata.

She straightened up and looked at him. She heard Ino’s words telling her not to be afraid of him. Those were the rules of the game. Not to show fear. She curled her hands into fists in her lap and tried to show no fear. Even though her stomach curdled to the way he said her name. She shook her head. She didn’t want Naruto out here. She didn’t want him apart of this...any of this. She wanted him to remain in the tent. Suigetsu was dangerous and she didn’t want him near Naruto. The moment Suigetsu pressed the hatchet against Naruto’s neck she knew that he would really hurt him. He'd kill Naruto.

“No. Let them sleep.” Hinata agreed. “We can play without them.”

Sasuke stared at Hinata. She had been protecting Naruto this whole time. He narrowed his eyes. She was hiding something. He wondered if she knew where the camcorder was and if she did...would she tell him? He wanted Naruto out here, but he’d have to make do with Hinata. He turned and looked at Suigetsu. He wanted to play truth or dare? Fine. Sasuke would play and his sole focus was Hinata. He wanted to break her.

“Truth or dare.” Suigetsu repeated. “The rules are simple. You can either pick truth or dare. If you get truth...you have to answer truthfully or you’ll be punished. If you pick dare you have to do it or you’ll be tortured.”

“Tortured?” Ino asked with an eye roll. “If those are the rules we’ll all just pick truth.”

“So be it.” Suigetsu spoke his thin lips spreading to reveal his canines. “But if you lie you’ll be punished.”

“How will you know if we’re lying?” Sakura asked.

“We’ll know.”

“I want to go first.” Ino answered. Suigetsu shrugged. “Ladies first.” Ino straightened up and took her eyes to each one of them sitting around the fire. The rest of the world melted away into darkness. They were the only ones existing in the world. The rapture came and went and they were left to roam the world for an eternity in purgatory.

“This is stupid.” Sakura muttered under her breath. Ino settled her gaze onto Sakura, and when she felt Ino’s intense gaze Sakura turned and stared at her.

“Mio.” Sakura straightened up at the mentioning of a name. Ino smirked. Sakura’s mouth turned down, she bit her lower lip, and avoided Ino’s eyes. She felt her heartbeat quicken. She tried to recover and try to make light of the situation.

“What about her? That’s random.” She fidgeted with her hands.

“The beginning of the school year. True or false. It was you who convinced Mio to pen a confession to Sasuke.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Sakura spoke with a nervous laugh. “It was so long ago I barely remember.”

“True or false. It was you who convinced Mio to hand her letter of confession to Sasuke and it was you who laughed hysterically as Sasuke read the letter out loud. Right...Sakura?”

Sakura’s mouth made a perfect straight line. Her eyes stared into the heart of the campfire focusing on the inflamed wood that cracked and illuminated in yellows and oranges and reds. She didn’t answer.

“Oh...but it didn’t stop there did it? Don’t you remember what happened to Mio?” Ino continued and brought her attention to Sasuke. “She tried to kill herself. After her failed attempt she was transferred.” Sasuke stared back at Ino. He remembered reading the love letter on top of a chair in the cafeteria. He remembered Naruto jerking him down and pulling the letter from his hand. Mio was her name? He didn’t even remember what she looked like and probably wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a lineup.

“True or false?” Ino asked.

“I didn’t pick truth!” Sakura yelled. “I choose dare!”

“Strip.”

“W-what?”

“I dare you to strip. It’s not like you have the body of a girl anyway.”

“Fuck you!” Sakura snapped. She stood up her hands clenched into fists and stared infuriatingly down at Ino. She was given a choice. “It’s true...I did tell Mio to give her confession letter to Sasuke. I didn’t think she’d actually do it and I didn’t think she’d try and kill herself! That isn’t my fault!” Ino smiled and shrugged.

“Truth or dare, Ino!” Sakura yelled her whole body trembling.

“Truth.” Ino said smugly.

“How many times did your mom try and kill herself?”

“Sakura…” Hinata interrupted. She looked worried and concerned and looked from Ino to Sakura. It only caused Sakura to take her wrath out on Hinata. “Shut up you freak! If this is the game Ino wants to play then this is the game we’re going to play! Answer it Ino! How many times did your mother try and kill herself?”

“Twice.” Ino answered. She brought her eyes up and stared at Sakura. Challenging her. “Once after her mother died from cancer, and the second time a few years later when she stopped taking her medication.”

Sakura shook her head no.

“The first time was because her mother died...but the second time...it was because she didn’t want to be your mother any longer. Raising you was so horrible the only out she had was to kill herself!” Sakura sneered and twisted her shoulders and turned her nose up. Suigetsu snorted. “Isn’t that why you stayed with us that summer? Your mother was in the hospital and your dad had to work all those overtime hours to foot the bill.” Sakura continued. Ino’s eyes widened. "Nobody else was there to take you in!"

“It’s my turn again.” Ino announced brushing Sakura off and changing topics. Her voice sounded shaken. She averted her eyes away and settled on the next target. “Sasuke. Truth or dare.”

“Dare.”

“I dare you to go wake Naruto, Lee, and Choji up and bring them out here to join us.” Ino spoke and licked her chapped lips. “I want all of them out here!”

“We don’t need them!” Suigetsu yelled his face twisting up into disgust. Hinata nodded her head in agreement.

“Shut up, Suigetsu! You wanted to play this game. What are you waiting for, Sasuke? Hurry up and wake them up!” Ino spat and pointed in the direction of the tent. The tent was illuminated by a spotlight. She had brought the tent back into existence. The rest of the world remained pitch black. The ground pitch black. The sky pitch black. All around pitch black except for the tent and the campfire. Sasuke smiled. It was what he wanted from the beginning. He grabbed the flashlight, stood up, and left.

“You bitch.” Suigetsu cursed under his breath.

“We can stop playing...we don’t have to keep…” Hinata tried to be the voice of reason. She tried to tell them they didn’t have to keep playing they had the choice to stop. The game was dangerous and detrimental. She didn’t even know why she was participating in such a thing especially since Ino was forcing Naruto to participate. She gripped the straps of her backpack tighter.

“SHUT UP!” Sakura and Suigetsu shouted at the same time. There was no stopping. They had all been infected. The poison entered their mouths and was now being digested. Hinata remained silent and all their eyes locked to Sasuke's back.

Sasuke unzipped the tent and turned the flashlight on. He pointed the flashlight inside the tent. The light flashed on Choji he was laying on his back and snoring. He moved the light to the middle where Lee was sleeping. There was a pained expression on Lee’s face. His eyes were closed and he was shifting in his sleep. He then moved the light to Naruto who was curled up on his side facing Lee. He was using his backpack as a pillow and he too was sleeping. Sasuke crawled into the tent towards Naruto.

Naruto’s face was stoic. Exactly the same when he found him lifeless in the tent after he had fallen into the river. Sasuke brought his fingers out and brushed them against neck in the same spot Suigetsu held the hatchet’s blade to. He pressed down and could feel the beating artery. Naruto’s skin felt cold to the touch. Like a corpse.

He wondered what it would feel like to choke Naruto with his hands. He wondered how long he would have to suffocate him before he died. Would he be able to feel it? Naruto’s life slipping until he was...dead?

He raised his hand and pressed it over Naruto’s mouth. It caused him to jolt awake. His blue eyes widened and his pupils constricted. Sasuke only tightened his hold on Naruto’s mouth as Naruto rolled to his back. Naruto grabbed Sasuke’s hand and wretched it off him.

“What are you doing?” Naruto gasped and pushed himself up until he was inches away from Sasuke’s face. His voice caused both Lee and Choji to stir awake. Sasuke smirked.

“You need to come out.” Sasuke answered.

“Why?” Naruto asked defensively.

“All of you need to come out.” Sasuke continued and flashed the light to Lee’s face and then to Choji’s face. Both boys covered their eyes protectively as they were blinded by the light.

“Are we being rescued?” Lee asked and pushed himself upright. He sounded hopeful. Sasuke shook his head no. Lee’s disheartened expression etched on his features. His eyebrows furrowed and he looked down. Choji didn’t say anything.

“What’s going on?” Naruto asked.

“We’re all playing a game and we want you three to join.”

“No.” Naruto stated and answered for them all. “We don’t want to.” He didn’t like Sasuke’s expression. There was something...off about it and his voice sounded...different. He couldn’t describe it, but something had changed. It left him feeling uneasy.

“Come out all three of you. Now.” Sasuke continued.

“No! Now leave!” Naruto argued. He was afraid. He didn’t know why but fear gripped him. He could feel cold fingers wrapping themselves around his lungs. It made it difficult to breathe. Maybe Sasuke was right and they should have left the campsite.

“Why?” Lee asked.

“We’re playing a game and we want you to come out to play.”

“What game?” Lee continued.

“Truth or dare.”

Lee looked to Naruto and looked to Choji before turning back to Sasuke. “Why would we play with you?” He had been distrustful of them all since the beginning when they wanted to take all the supplies and leave them stranded, and nothing would change that.

“You’re not coming?” Sasuke asked looking specifically at Naruto. The one he really wanted to come out and play. Naruto shook his head. “No.”

“Okay.” Sasuke grabbed the flashlight and exited the tent. He didn’t know what else to do. He walked up to the fireplace.

“Well?” Ino asked. “Where are they?”

“They said they don’t want to play.”

“Fine. Let’s move on Sasuke it’s-” Suigetsu answered but was interrupted.

“No! The dare was for you to get all three of them out here to play!” Ino yelled. “If you can’t do that you have to be tortured!”

“Ino-” Suigetsu spoke.

“You can’t change the rules just because it’s Sasuke, Suigetsu!” Ino yelled and turned to look back at Sasuke. “Get them out here now or suffer the consequences! Like chopping one of your fingers off with that damn hatchet!”

Sasuke shifted his weight to one foot. His eyes trailed to the fireplace. He knew what he had to do to get them to leave the tent. He was going to burn it down. He dropped the flashlight and walked up to the pile of wood and brush that was collected to feed the fire. He grabbed a broken off branch that still had branches and leaves on it. He stuck it into the fire until the fire had begun to burn the branches and leaves. He stood up and brought the burning branch to the side of the tent.

Sakura, Ino, Hinata, and Suigetsu all watched. Their eyes widened. Neither said anything. They all began to feel a warmth in the pit of their stomach...a tingling that grew into excitement and they all sat at the edge of their seats. Their eyes lit up as if waking up on Christmas to see that Santa had come.

Hinata didn’t know what was happening. Her mind was moving...slow. She felt her heartbeat increase. She couldn’t just feel the blood coursing through her veins she could hear the blood in her heart as the deoxygenated blood entered the right side of her heart where it was pumped to her lungs. She could both feel and hear the oxygenated blood returning to the left side of her heart before it was being pumped to the rest of her body. She was preoccupied by this new revelation that she barely heard the screaming coming from the tent as it was lit on fire.

Suigetsu grew manic. His eyes lit up and a crooked smile formed on his crooked mouth. He was the crooked old man. He was deriving pleasure from the chaos that Sasuke had created. He watched as the tent caught fire and watched as the flames quickly engulfed the fabric. He was surprised to see just how quickly everything went up into flames. He was disappointed to see three shadowy bodies exiting the tent.

“ARE YOU CRAZY?!” Naruto screamed and shoved Sasuke back. “YOU COULD HAVE KILLED US!” Sasuke stumbled back and dropped the burning branch to the ground.

“You should have listened and come out to play.” Sasuke said calmly.

“I don’t want to play with you!” Naruto yelled and turned around to look at Choji and Lee gaging their safety.

Naruto was the only one with his backpack. He had slipped it on when Sasuke left the tent. He couldn’t go back to sleep and Sasuke’s mannerism was so off putting he couldn’t sit still. He was just about to leave and confront Sasuke when the fire started. Choji was the first to leave. He screamed and barreled out of the tent like a cannonball. Choji was still screaming and he didn’t stop. Naruto stayed back and assisted Lee to his feet. He shoved Lee out of the tent before jumping out himself just as the tent collapsed.

Choji had fallen to his knees. He had finally stopped screaming and was wheezing. His eyes terrorized and he looked over his shoulder to see the tent go up in flames. It happened in the blink of an eye. The tent that had remained for a year had fallen into a flaming pile of metal and burning fabric in less than a minute. Choji’s and Lee’s backpacks were inside the tent and were now feeding the flame that was burning on the ground.

“You have no choice but to play.” Sasuke stated as he watched Naruto, Lee, and Choji. Naruto had a protective arm around Lee and was checking on his injured arm.

“You’ve lost it!” Naruto screamed.

“No. I’m just playing by the rules.” Sasuke said and flipped his palms up.

“What’s wrong with you?” Lee screamed. He looked from Sasuke to the rest of them around the fire. His eyes frantically searching their faces until he settled on Hinata. His eyes widened. “Hinata! What is going on?”

She blinked and looked up. “We’re playing truth or dare. Come and join us.” She seemed unperturbed. None of them grasped the reality that Sasuke had burned down a tent with them inside.

“Truth or dare?” Lee repeated. “Fine. Why the hell not! What do we have to lose?” Lee stumbled to the campfire. Naruto’s jaw dropped. Lee stopped next to Sakura and looked down. “Move! I’m not sitting next to you!” Sakura was too shocked to respond and looked up horrified.

“Sakura sit next to Suigetsu!” Ino demanded and pointed to the empty spot next to Suigetsu.

“F-fine!” Sakura answered. She stood up and sat down next to Suigetsu.

“CHOJI!” Lee yelled in Choji’s direction. “GET OVER HERE!” Lee was unhinged. He was covered in sweat and his eyes were clouded over. He was delirious with sick and fever. He was amped up. The adrenaline from the near-death experience still pumped him full of energy and confidence. He could barely sit still. He didn’t feel the pain in his arm. It had become numb and tingly as if that part of his body had began to shut down. Choji stumbled into a standing position. He pulled his pants that were sliding down up and waddled towards Lee. He tripped a few times before he finally sat down next to Lee and continued breathing heavily through his mouth.

“Lee! Choji!” Naruto called their names out in confusion. He wasn’t comprehending what had happened. His mind whirled and swirled and nothing made sense anymore. He felt dizzy and lightheaded. He could feel the heat of the tent the sleeping bags and the backpacks burning. Lee’s things were gone. Choji’s things were gone.

“Come play with us Naruto.” Sasuke spoke with a tilted head and a small smile on his lips.

Sakura clapped her hands and sang out. “Yeah! Come play with us Naruto!” Ino nodded her head and flashed two peace signs. “Get your butt over here and let’s play!”

“Naruto...are you joining us?” Hinata’s small voice filtered over. When he looked at her she gave him a little wave. They were acting as if they were playing a harmless game at a birthday party.

Naruto looked mortified. He shook his head no. He didn’t want any part of whatever was going on.

“If you don’t play. We’re going to have to chop one of Sasuke’s fingers off.” Ino explained and something told Naruto that it wasn’t hyperbolic speech. She stuck her pinky up and pointed at it with her other hand. Naruto looked at Sasuke who nodded his head. Those were the terms. Naruto watched as Sasuke walked back to the campfire and sat back down. There was a spot next to Sasuke on the log.

It felt as if invisible hands were pushing him from behind and forcing him closer and closer until he was about to sit down next to Sasuke. He would join them physically but he wasn't going to play.

“No!” Suigetsu said and stood up. “Sit next to Sakura.”

Naruto felt perplexed and confused. He watched as Suigetsu took the spot next to Sasuke and Naruto stumbled and sat next to Sakura.

“It’s my turn.” Sasuke said after everybody had joined the game. “Naruto.” Sasuke continued and turned his attention to Naruto. He was sitting on the other side of Sakura. “Truth or dare.”

“I said I’m not playing!” Naruto yelled.

“You have too!” Ino yelled. “Or we’re going to cut Sasuke’s finger off!”

“Do you even hear what you’re saying right now?”

“Those are the rules!” Ino continued to argue.

“Sakura?” Naruto asked and turned to look at Sakura sitting besides him. She shrugged and glanced at Sasuke a few times before licking her lips and explaining.

“Ino dared him to get you, Choji, and Lee to join the game. If he can’t he has to be tortured. If you don’t complete a dare you’re tortured and if you lie when picking truth you’re going to be punished. Those are the rules, Naruto.”

“Naruto. Truth or dare.” Sasuke repeated.

“I’m not playing this stupid game with these stupid rules!”

“Fine.” Ino continued and snapped her head to look at Suigetsu. “Suigetsu. Chop Sasuke’s pinky off. Lee. Choji. Hold Sasuke down.”

“With pleasure.” Lee answered and elbowed Choji.

Suigetsu grabbed hold of Sasuke’s left wrist and wretched it up in the air. He stood up and jerked Sasuke’s body until he was losing his balance and forced to his knees in front of the fire. Sasuke didn’t stop him. Suigetsu slammed Sasuke’s palm against the log and forced his fingers to spread out evenly. Lee and Choji appeared on either side of Sasuke and grabbed hold of him. Sasuke began to struggle. Suigetsu gripped the hatchet in his hand and raised it above his head his eyes focusing on Sasuke’s pinky finger.

“Naruto!” Sakura screamed. “Just pick! Truth or dare before they hurt Sasuke!”

“STOP IT! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Naruto shouted and stood up.

“It’s what he gets for you not playing!” Ino yelled from her spot across the fire. Suigetsu made movements to bring the blade down when Naruto screamed.

“Naruto please!” Sakura pleaded as tears formed. Lee’s and Choji’s eyes turned hysterical with madness.

“TRUTH!”

Suigetsu stopped a hair before reaching Sasuke’s pinky. Lee glared at Naruto. Choji looked disappointed and stared at Naruto as if he had chosen wrong. Sasuke shoved himself back and shouted.

“GET OFF ME!” Lee and Choji let go and stepped back. Suigetsu took the hatchet away Choji's disappointed expression mirroring on his face.

Sasuke straightened up and sat back down brushing the dirt off his knees and running a hand through his hair. He glared at Suigetsu who shrugged, and glared at Ino who rested her chin in her hands and her elbows in her lap and smiled sweetly back. Naruto remained standing. Sweat had formed at his temples. He couldn’t sit down. He didn't understand what he was witnessing. His heart was beating painfully and he felt like vomiting. They were really going to do it...Suigetsu was really going to chop Sasuke’s pinky off and Lee and Choji would have assisted.

“Where is the camcorder?” Sasuke asked.

“What?”

“The camcorder. Where is it...what happened to it?”

“Sasuke…” Naruto pleaded. “You don’t want to see what’s on it.”

Sasuke was confounded. Naruto had both admitted his involvement with the camcorder and took it a step further to acknowledge he knew what was on it. Sasuke’s heart thumped.

“Why not?” Sasuke asked. He shook his head. “No. Where is it? I want to see for myself!”

“It’s in Hinata’s backpack.” Naruto answered.

“You had it this whole time?” Sasuke asked and glared at Hinata. She nodded her head yes. She unzipped her backpack and revealed the silver camcorder. Sakura gasped. Ino looked interested at the validity of the camcorder. Lee and Choji who had missed the majority of the argument over the whereabouts of the camcorder looked confused. Suigetsu smirked. He had though Sasuke had lost it but seeing there was a camcorder he too became curious at what was on it.

“Give it to me!” Sasuke demanded.

“That wasn’t what you asked.” Ino interrupted. “You asked where the camcorder was and Naruto answered. “Naruto it’s your turn to ask someone.” Sasuke opened his mouth but was interrupted.

“Hinata. Truth or dare?” Naruto asked as he turned to face Hinata. He was going to ask her and he wanted her to pick dare. His whole face and body language told Hinata to pick dare. He wanted her to get rid of the camcorder by throwing it into the river.

“NO!” Sasuke shouted. He knew what she was going to say. He knew what Naruto was scheming. He didn’t want any of it to happen. He just wanted to see what was on the camcorder. He wanted all of them to see what was on the camcorder. He wanted them to know he wasn’t crazy and they shouldn't trust the gunshots!

“Truth.” Hinata answered.

“I dare-” Naruto trailed off after hearing her say truth. That wasn’t what was supposed to happen. She was supposed to pick dare. He looked at Hinata and she averted her eyes. She wasn’t looking at him. She was doing this on purpose. Naruto’s heart skipped. He was at a loss for words. He remained rooted. He didn't know what to do. He never wanted to be apart of this game.

“She picked truth.” Sasuke pointed out. Naruto didn’t understand anything. Everything felt upside down and backwards.

“Did you watch what was on the camcorder?” Naruto asked. Hinata shook her head slowly up and down. She was staring straight ahead. She was staring at absolutely nothing and yet staring at everything and everyone except Naruto. She spoke matter-of-factly. She gave a look of stoic resignation as she answered.

“I just remembered. I did. I watched it. I don’t know why I had forgotten until just now. When you were sleeping in the tent. I went to the bathroom and watched it.” Sasuke’s eyes illuminated over this revelation. "I watched it all."

“Sasuke. Truth or dare.” Hinata continued the game. Only everyone else was forgotten. The game was never about anyone else and Hinata knew that. The game was about Hinata and Sasuke and the camcorder.

“Dare.”

“Take the hatchet from Suigetsu and give it to me.” Hinata delivered Sasuke’s dare in a monotonous voice, and held her hand out. She remained statuses, unmoving, with her hand out.

Sasuke looked at Suigetsu who narrowed his eyes and begrudgingly held the hatchet out for Sasuke to take. Sasuke took it and walked it over to Hinata. He walked around the campfire in the opposite path from Naruto. She continued to hold the camcorder in one hand while the other remained palm up. He handed her the hatchet. She stood up and looked at him as she took it.

She knew what was going to follow and everything fell like dominoes. Sasuke opened his mouth and chose Hinata. Naruto watched powerless. He didn’t understand what Hinata was thinking or planning or the purpose of any of this. Hinata responded back and as things slowly unfurled. Hinata handed Sasuke the camcorder. Naruto stopped listening. He didn’t hear the words that were exchanged. Sasuke had turned the camcorder on. Everyone began crowding around Sasuke all curious to see what was on the camcorder. Everybody except Hinata because she already saw what was on it.

Hinata moved away. She held the hatchet in her hand. Naruto didn’t know what he was doing. His body moved on it’s own. Sasuke went to the most recent filmed video and pressed play. Naruto had tackled Sasuke to the ground. He was the bowling ball rolling down the lane and colliding into the pins. Everything exploded. The pins were being flung in all directions as the bowling ball reached the back. It wasn’t a strike. It was the 7-10 split. The only ones left standing were Choji and Hinata. Everyone else was affected. Some were knocked down. Some tripped and fell over. Sasuke was caught off guard and the impact caused him to lose both the camcorder and his breath. Naruto had fallen onto Sasuke. He attempted to reach for the camcorder that had flung up and over Sasuke’s head when something unexpected happened.

“HEY! ARE YOU THOSE MISSING KONOHA BRATS?”

It was a loud baritone voice that filtered through the darkness followed by a floodlight. The game was interrupted. The voice came in front of Naruto. The light was blinding and he straightened up. Sasuke groaned from underneath him. Naruto looked from Sasuke towards the voice and light. He brought one arm up to shield his eyes. He saw two sets of heavy hiking boots. His eyes moved up and he saw the markings of camouflage pants, and when he looked further up he saw both sets of hands holding identical flashlights that were shining on them, and hanging off their shoulders in identical slings were identical hunting rifles. Naruto tried to see their faces but both were masked in darkness.

“You better get up and get moving. A storm is coming.” The same voice bellowed. "If we don't leave now we're all going to get caught up in it and die."

Chapter Text

"I'm the Beast ... You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you?"― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

“WE’RE SAVED!”

Sakura was the first to respond as she struggled to right herself and stand up. She pushed away from Ino whom she fell on top of, and accidentally stepped on her hand as she stood up. It didn’t register as her only focus was being rescued. Ino whimpered as she pulled her hand back.

The unknown influence that bound them in one shared delusion shattered and they were freed. The two streams of light from the flashlights caused the pitch darkness to be lifted. Things shifted back into reality. They were no longer alone in the world. Other’s had existed. Other things had existed. The trees. The ground. The night sky. Existed. The crooked cheshire moon gleamed eerily back into existence. Green eyes opened and the moon began laughing with wild and uncontrollable emotion. There was still residue and it was left over in...

Hinata and Choji.

The 7-10 pins, were both staring up at the night sky and witnessed this phenomena. The moon laughing. They were hallucinating. Something between delusion and child fantasy. Hinata tightened the hold on the hatchet and brought her eyes down to the two adults who refused to lower their flashlights. She unconsciously looked at Choji and he was still staring up at the moon. She turned back to their rescuers. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach when she spotted the hunting rifles on their shoulders. She covered her eyes with her free hand, and squinted her eyes trying to catch sight of their faces, but she was unable to, all she saw were their outlines and a smirk. The exact smirk she saw her cousin Neji wear whenever they crossed paths and he purposely tripped her when nobody was watching. She braced herself incase they tried something similar. She didn’t want to trip. She didn’t want to fall.

“WE’RE FINALLY SAVED!” Sakura burst into uncontrollable crying and moved closer to her saviors. Everything she had endured and experienced brewed to the surface and burst out like hot air in a tea kettle. “We’re finally saved!” Tears and snot dripped down Sakura’s face as she continued to sob. She hit an invisible barrier and didn’t move any further. She remained a few feet from them.

Suigetsu was the next to scramble to his feet and he turned to look at their saviors. They held the flashlights exactly like police officers, above their heads, and pointed down. He knew because he remembered how the police continuously barged into his mother’s apartment, and would hold the flashlights in patronized superiority as they questioned her. The light was blue and blinding and illuminated all of them in harsh light. Suigetsu wanted to rejoice, but there was something about their behavior, and the way they held the flashlights that caused him to stop and question their intentions. He knew the darkness that lay in the hearts of men and he knew not all adults were good.

Ino pushed herself up. She felt lightheaded and her hand pulsated. She turned around and looked up at Sakura who continued crying. She watched as Sakura’s shoulders trembled. She wanted to scowl and yell at her for stepping on her and hurting her hand. Instead she found herself smiling. They were found. They were being rescued. She covered her mouth with her hand, stifling a cry, as her own eyes filled up with tears. That was all she wanted...was to go home.

“Are you search and rescue?” Suigetsu asked. He was forced to put a hand out and shield his eyes. When he blinked he saw orbs of light floating in his field of vision which made it difficult to see. He couldn’t see their mouths, couldn’t see their faces, their expressions.

“No. We’re hunters.” The other man answered. His voice was lighter and younger than the other.

“How do you know a storm is coming?”

“We just so happened to hear them calling for a storm on the radio, and so we are heading down the mountain.” Even the voice was condescending, and it felt like he was being treated like a kindergartener.

“You have a radio?” Suigetsu asked. It was the second time where he had felt hopeful. He didn’t allow himself to hold that feeling for long, but he did for a moment. He saw visions of calling for help over the radio and had visions of helicopters, and search and rescue swarming their location and whisking them off to safety. “Call them and say you found us! We want to go home!”

“Call them?” The younger man mocked. “Why would we do that?” He laughed. Suigetsu’s face filled with surprise, and his eyebrows furrowed. He felt his stomach twisting and knotting. He felt his heart rate increase and he took in more breaths of oxygen through his nostrils. He didn’t say anything in response.

“Aha! Look at your face! What he means is the batteries died. That’s what you get for buying store brand instead of name brand!” The older man laughed in jest. His laughter filtered across the campsite, but it didn’t stop the bile from dumping into Hinata’s stomach, and it did nothing to calm Suigetsu down.

Sasuke got his bearings. The wind was knocked out of him and his vision blurred in and out from hitting the back of his head against the ground. He heard their voices. It was the voices of male adults. He blinked and Naruto shifted into focus above him. He was still on top of him. His knees were on either side of Sasuke’s stomach and he was balancing on them. He was staring up like a deer caught in headlights. It was jarring. He wanted him off.

“Get off me!” Sasuke yelled and shoved Naruto to the side. He had forgotten why Naruto had tackled him in the first place.

The impact caused Naruto to snap out of it. He rolled off Sasuke and remained on all fours. He was frantically looking for the camcorder. Orbs of flashing light obstructed his vision and made it difficult to see. He spotted it, and just as he was about to reach for it, the camcorder was already being picked up. The camcorder continued to play the video.

“Don’t!” Naruto stuttered as he reached his hand out.

“Don’t what? Oh? What’s this?” the man snickered as he stared down at the screen.

His eyes widened and a wicked smile cut his face in two. He wasn’t of this earth. He was a hybrid. Half-serpent and half-mortal. Something banished from the Garden of Eden who filled men’s hearts with poison and wrath. Panic filled Naruto and his eyes widened. He reached his hand frantically out to take the camcorder. Instead the man shut the screen and turned the camcorder off. The smile vanished and he settled his cold stare on Naruto. It filled his heart with ice and he couldn’t breathe. It felt as if he was being suffocated by this man’s eyes.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the older man continued. His voice could peel paint. He continued staring into the depths of Naruto’s soul ready to steal it. “We have to leave or we’re going to be caught in the storm.”

He crouched down until he was at the same eye level as Naruto. The flashlight was lowered and it was the first time Naruto was able to see his entire face. His voice was deep and baritone. His voice was unnerving and sounded like a blown out bass. It caused Naruto to cringe. His voice didn’t match his face. It felt like his face was stolen from a corpse woman and sewn on. If he pushed his hair back and looked at the hairline Naruto knew he would find the stitches that kept the face in place. It was smooth, and round, and soft and hauntingly beautiful. His ink black hair spilled down until it reached his back. It wasn’t his face...it was stolen. Yellow piercing eyes narrowed into slits and bore deeper into Naruto’s. The air grew thinner. Naruto felt lightheaded. He heard screaming. Children screaming and sobbing. He heard the sound of a whip breaking the sound barrier.

“Get away from him!” Sasuke yelled.

He saw the hunting rifles. He saw who had produced the gunshots they had heard, and he didn’t want them anywhere near them. He felt the same thing Hinata felt. Bile dumped into his stomach. His eyes focused. Adrenaline was released. He felt it the moment he stepped foot into the campsite. There was something sinister that permeated throughout the woods and mountains. Something wicked happened and it birthed evil incarnate, and Sasuke felt like he was staring at the source. It felt overpowering and all Sasuke wanted to do was run away from them.

“This is why I don’t like messing with brats, Orochimaru.” The younger man said. He shifted his weight impatiently to one foot and crossed his arms across his chest.

“What did you expect me to do? Just leave them, Kabuto? You know I’m in the business of charity, especially when it comes to cute kids, you know I can’t resist.” Orochimaru reached out and patted Naruto on the cheek. “Especially cute kids with cute faces.” Naruto felt like he was looking into the eyes of death and he lost himself.

“Don’t touch him!” Sasuke grabbed Naruto’s bicep and jerked him back. Naruto dropped his eyes and laughed nervously. He lost the ability to speak and for a while simply ceased being.

“Who are you?!” Sasuke demanded and inadvertently tightened his hold on Naruto’s bicep. He didn’t trust them. Naruto moved his hand to Sasuke’s and tried to pry him off but his hold was too strong.

“Sasuke!” Ino barked. “Drop the attitude! They’re saving us!”

“Are they?”

Sasuke asked turning his attention to Ino and challenging her. Ino’s eyes widened. She was confused by the question. She looked back at the older men. She didn’t have a reason not to trust them. They were adults. She knew the rules of the world. Adults helped children, especially lost children. They were lost in the woods, and they appeared to know their way around. They were descending the mountain and leaving. She wanted to go with them. They had to go with them or they were going to die.

“Yes!” Ino defended.

Orochimaru straightened up and brushed his hair behind his shoulder. He examined the camcorder, and from the corner of his eyes he focused on Sasuke. “You’re the one on the video.” He held the camcorder up and the smirk made its home on his features once more. It was a ‘I-know-something-you-don’t-know’ smirk. Sasuke scowled and looked at the camcorder in his hands.

“Give it back!”

“Tut-tut. Such a naughty, ill-mannered, little brat.” Orochimaru spoke condescendingly. Sasuke watched as the man tucked the camcorder into the hiking pack of Kabuto. The other man looked to be in his twenties with silvery blonde hair pulled into a low ponytail, and round wire-framed glasses. There was a look of annoyance and contempt on his face as if speaking to them was the biggest inconvenience of his life.

“What’s this about a storm?” Suigetsu asked for clarification. He didn’t trust them, but he wanted to go home. He knew what Ino knew. They were their chance to escape and leave the mountains. He wanted to change topics. To focus on them leaving and going home. He wanted to know more about the mentioning of a storm approaching. He didn’t know what kind. Rain or snow?

“Ah. A snow storm will be hitting in a few hours. You know how the mountains are.” Orochimaru explained. He sounded like he was hiding a secret, and wasn’t revealing all of the information. It felt like he was cheating and hiding aces up his sleeves in a game of poker.

“You’ll really take us home?” Sakura asked. She had been listening to Suigetsu and Ino’s exchange. She had managed to get her crying under control. She was doing damage control by rubbing her eyes with her palms, and clearing the tears and snot from her face with the sleeve of her peacoat. She wanted to get herself together and regain control. She wanted to go home.

“Please!” Lee interrupted before either man could answer. “Please help us!” His voice was desperate and cracked revealing just how young he was. Barely in puberty. He was the skinniest and youngest looking out of the group. His eyes watered. He could feel a tear rolling down his face. He remained on the ground. He struggled into a sitting position and his legs formed the shape of a W behind him. He looked at Orochimaru and Kabuto as if they were the second coming. His eyes sparkled with admiration as he pleaded with them to help. “Please help us!”

Lee knew he would catch more flies with honey than he would with shit. He knew Sasuke was going about it all wrong. He wanted Sasuke to shut up and not anger them.

“Of course!” Orochimaru answered with a forced smile. The corners of his mouth twitched and it looked unnatural.

“We’re not going with them!” Sasuke yelled and turned to look at them. Orochimaru’s smile widened. It bloomed in the chaos that had erupted from Sasuke’s confrontation. He reveled in it.

“Dude!” Suigetsu spoke impatiently. He grabbed the arm that held Naruto and jerked Sasuke. “Let go of Naruto and get your shit together you’re losing it!” Naruto remained on the ground with one arm up in the air like a ragdoll. He hadn’t moved or said anything except ‘Don’t’. Sasuke looked down, and as if he just noticed he had been holding onto Naruto’s arm and immediately let go.

“This is our chance!” Ino argued. “We have to go! Now!”

Ino spun around and ran to where she had left her backpack by the campfire. The camp fire was burning rapidly and as a result of being unattended had shrunk in size. It caused the campsite to become darker. Her eyes darted to the plastic bag of things that belonged to Sakumo. She grabbed the plastic bag and the box of matches and stuffed them into her backpack before swinging it over her back.

“Ino’s right!” Sakura agreed. “I want to go home!” Even her admiration for Sasuke wasn’t going to deter her desire to go home. She resented the way she treated her mother on the day they left, and all she wanted to do was run into her mother’s arms and apologize. She wanted to thank her mother for forcing her to change clothes from something skimpy and revealing to something warm that covered her limbs and saved her from freezing to death.

Lee struggled into a standing position and glared at Sasuke. His arm was pulled from the sling. He struggled to move it and it was stiff. He no longer felt any pain. He lost feeling in it. Both arms dropped to his side. He watched Ino and Sakura gather their backpacks and belongings. He didn’t have his backpack and he didn’t have his water bottle. Both were left in the tent when it was set ablaze. He looked at Choji who appeared to be in a stupor. There was something broken inside Choji, and the longer they remained in the woods the worse he became. He couldn’t remember the last time Choji spoke. He had remained mute. Lee brought his eyes up to the sky to try and see what transfixed Choji. He didn’t see anything special. Just the stars being covered up by thick clouds.

“Why wouldn’t we go?” Lee accused turning his attention back to Sasuke. He was livid. There was a fire of wrath burning inside him, and all he wanted to do was shut Sasuke up forever. “You burnt the tent down with us in it, Uchiha Sasuke! I can’t wait to go home and tell everyone what you did! You almost killed us! I won’t stop until everyone knows what you did! You psychopath!” His voice was louder than expected. Larger than his body, and it boomed around the campsite as if he was talking through a megaphone.

“What are you talking about?” Sasuke asked and turned to look at Lee.

He didn’t understand what Lee was accusing him of until he turned behind and looked at where the tent once stood erect. It was gone. It had been erased. Instead it was nothing more than a pile of melted plastic and warped metal that looked like spider legs. The blue tarp was no more. It had lost its color and burnt to a crisp. Lee was accusing him of setting the tent on fire? He was accusing him of doing that while they were inside?

“No I didn’t!” Sasuke argued and turned back to Lee.

He tried to remember who set the tent on fire because it wasn’t him. But it had happened again. Chunks of his memory were gone, spliced from his head, and it left long gaps of nothing in its place. He felt an electric current running down his spine and jolting him. It hurt. He felt goosebumps form on the outer layer of his skin, and the tiny hairs on his body became erect. He felt his blood pressure spike and his breathing became erratic. His chest hurt and his head began to throb. He didn’t understand what was happening to him and it felt like he was being rung out.

“Yes you did! Stay here and die then! But we’re going!” Lee spat.

“What is he talking about?” Sasuke asked desperately as he turned to Suigetsu.

Suigetsu shrugged and gave him a blank expression and a nonverbal. Like Sasuke’s mind his was equally opaque as if he was walking down the foggy streets of London. A dull, throbbing, pain formed behind his eyes. He didn’t know what had happened. Suigetsu looked down to see Naruto was slowly coming back to life and standing up. He entered the conversation. He appeared cognizant.

“Naruto we can’t go with them!” Sasuke rasped. His voice sounded strained and gravely. “We can’t trust them!” Naruto turned around and stared at him.

“Let’s go home, Sasuke.” Naruto stated softly. He brought an arm out and rested his hand gently on Sasuke’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “Everything is going to be okay. I won’t let anything happen to us.”

“But-but-” Sasuke stuttered. “It was them! I know it! If we go with them we’re going to--” His face flushed and reddened. He was unable to finish his thought. He felt hot as his blood pressure grew higher. He wanted to strip from his coat and clothes he was so overheated. The entries on the map flashed through his mind. He read them so many times he had committed them to memory. He didn’t need the map anymore because the words were burned on the insides of his eyelids.

The primal fear etched on Sasuke’s face seemed to hijack Naruto’s mind and without warning he wrapped his arms around him into a hug. It was a guise. Sasuke found himself gasping unsure of what was happening. Naruto turned his head and whispered into Sasuke’s ear.

“Leave him, Naruto! Let go of him!” Lee spat viciously. He had taken his spot next to Choji and had been glaring threateningly at Sasuke. “He tried to kill us! He tried to kill you! Stop touching him!” Lee shrieked.

Naruto turned and looked at Lee. He let go of Sasuke and pulled back. He didn’t know what to do to continue to remain neutral. He could hear Lee’s voice telling him he had reeked of Sasuke’s scent when they were both inside the tent. He heard Ino’s voice asking him what Naruto was going to do to ensure they all remained together. Ino stared back reassuringly. She had wanted them to remain together. Naruto brought his attention to Lee. The look of disgust on Lee’s face inside the tent was nothing to the look of disgust on his face now. There was something wild and unhinged about Lee. There was no filter and he wasn’t holding anything back.

Naruto’s sudden affectionate gesture seemed to wash over all of them and everyone had their own reactions, but as soon as it happened Naruto had already released Sasuke, and was now a few feet away from Sasuke his hands clutching the straps of his bag. Ino was the only one who took the gesture with a grain of salt, and Choji appeared absentminded. He hadn’t been cognizant in a while. He checked out days ago.

“Lee shut up!” Sakura yelled. “We’re all going home!”

“TELL ME TO SHUT UP ONE MORE-”

Naruto heard the cock of a gun and then an explosion. It was the sound of a gunshot. It was loud and rattled his eardrum. He heard the sounds of screams only this time the screams were external. It was Hinata’s screams. It was Ino’s screams. It was Sakura’s screams. The sound echoed in all directions until the mountains swallowed it up. He instinctively covered his ears with both hands and squeezed his eyes shut. They were the epicenter. He opened his eyes and dropped his arms. It was a warning shot. A reminder of who held all the power.

“Shut up all of you. You’re all so annoying!” Kabuto chastised. He held the hunting rifle in his hands. He was the one to fire the warning shot. “I don’t care if you come or not, but we’re leaving now! Stay here and rot for all I care! We’re not forcing you to do anything!”

Orochimaru chuckled and tilted his head to the side. His black hair spilled down as he looked at their individualized petrified faces. He drank them all in with those yellow slit eyes. He took his fill like a monster feeding. He licked his bottom lip slowly and without another word turned and began walking away. He held the flashlight out and appeared to be following an invisible path of breadcrumbs through the woods.

“Naruto…” Hinata’s small voice spoke. She had appeared besides him. The hatchet was still in her hand. It was at her side and the light of the fire reflected off the blade. “Let’s go home.” She wrapped her arm around his and pulled him. Naruto hadn’t budged. Lee and Choji had already fallen in step behind the men. Lee leading Choji. Their faces the color of powdered white. Sakura appeared and pressed Sasuke’s backpack up against his chest. Her eyes were filled with determination.

“Let’s go Sasuke! Please! Let’s just go home!” Sakura demanded and her eyes remained fixed on him. She was going to finish what Naruto started by ensuring Sasuke’s compliance.

Sasuke took the bag and looked down. His eyes focusing on the familiar material and color of his backpack. It was heavy with his things. Lee and Choji were without their backpacks. He glanced at their backs. He turned to Naruto who was watching him carefully. He heard Naruto’s words echoing inside his head. He felt those eyes that appeared black with warm blue undertones on him and they made him uncomfortable. His words made him...

There was a conflicted look in his eyes. It was a painful look mixed with confusion. Sasuke swallowed and put his backpack on. He avoided Naruto’s eyes and began walking down the invisible path.

Ino watched Sasuke and Sakura walk by. She had Sakumo’s flashlight in her hand and had flipped it on. Light shown on the grass-less, frozen, ground. Sakura immediately followed Sasuke and began walking side by side with him. Suigetsu grabbed his backpack and took the flashlight out and flipped it on. He looked Hinata up and down pausing when he noticed the hatchet in her hand. He turned and looked at Ino who gave him a fierce look almost challenging him to say something. He smirked before following after Sasuke and Sakura.

Naruto finally started moving and Hinata let go of his arm. They were all leaving together.

“I don’t trust them.”

Ino murmured as she lit the way. She had trusted them up until Kabuto pulled the trigger. He did it deliberately. He did it to show them the power differentiation. The hatchet may have trumped the shovel but the hunting rifle trumped the hatchet. There wasn’t just one rifle. There were two rifles, and they were in experienced hands, of hunters who walked easily through the mountains in the darkness. They didn’t have maps because they didn’t need maps. They just knew where to go and that was frightening. Ino had felt powerless and frightened, and all she wanted to do was go home. She held the straps of her backpack and nibbled the dead skin on her bottom lip. Her stomach began to fill with bile and she felt her senses heightened as she followed blindly unsure of where they were even going.

She walked on one side of Naruto and Hinata walked on the other. The trio kept to the rear of the caravan. Hinata tightened her grip on the hatchet. “Mhm.” Hinata agreed. She felt it the moment she heard their voices. It was the same voice the adults in the main house used when they were manipulating and extorting their lesser, powerless, family members. It was textbook brainwashing. She had believed the entries on the map, but it was too late. They all wanted to go home.

“They’re helping us.” Naruto answered bluntly. Hinata peeked at him. Even though he said that she didn’t think he believed his own words. She wanted to ask what he whispered into Sasuke’s ear but she reframed whatever it was seemed to appease Sasuke enough and convince him to come along.

“And if they’re not?” Ino asked. Always the pessimist, the realist. She needed to know what they would do if things turned for the worse.

“I...don’t...know.” He answered truthfully. “But it’s our only way out.”

Their only way out.
Their only way out.
Their only way out.

“Naruto.” Ino commented. “Mhm?”

“Sasuke almost hurt you. He set the tent on fire while you, Lee, and Choji were inside. He could have...he could have killed you.”

“Mhm.” Naruto answered almost as if he couldn't believe it himself.

“What are you going to do about it? Lee says he's going to tell everyone what happened when we get home.”

“I’m going to leave him alone. I told you we would all remain together and we are. I’m just going to leave him be.”

“Maybe that’s best.”

“It’s the only way.”

“Only way?” Ino asked her face quizzical. Hinata peeked at Naruto from the corner of her eye. She wanted to speak out and say they were all guilty because none of them stopped Sasuke. They all watched with baited breath on the edge of their seats as if they were watching a Broadway play during the climax.

“For me to survive.” Naruto admitted. He didn’t know how to say it but he felt if he didn’t avoid Sasuke and leave him be he was going to end up dead.

Ino stopped moving. She held a hand out and stopped Naruto from walking. Hinata stopped walking and turned around. Hinata looked at Ino. She could feel Ino’s intensity. Her eyes were filled with persistence. Her sea foam green eyes swirled and flecked with molten gold. Eyes that were always staring, watching, and observing. Eyes that her father said would make her a wonderful diplomat when she grew up. Naruto stopped walking and took his eyes from the ground up to greet Ino’s. He felt exposed. He felt like Ino had turned him inside out.

“Naruto. What’s on the camcorder?” Ino asked. Naruto’s eyes widened and he looked away. Hinata cleared her throat, and answered. “I...remember. I remember what was on it!” He looked anxiously at Hinata.

“Naruto.” Ino demanded, and he took a step back. “I’ll tell her if you don’t!” Hinata threatened. He halted, and everything came spilling out.

“Sasuke tried to kill me. He used a plastic bag and choked me. He filmed it. They’re other things but...I don’t want to talk about it, because I don't even know if it's true, or if it was just a hallucination. All that matters is we all go home, alive.” He didn’t know what possessed him but he blurted out the truth. He regretted it immediately, and should have just allowed Hinata to reveal what had happened so he could deny it. None of that happened and he felt empty and lost. He found those feelings filling his lungs, and threatening to drown him if he didn't purge them out.

He felt it on the base of his neck. It felt like an ice cube sliding down his spine. He shuddered and a wave of nausea washed over him. Ino brought the flashlight up to the sky and they all looked up as she observed. “It's snowing. It really is snowing. A storm is coming.” The temperature had plummeted, and Naruto felt himself shivering.

Snow had begun to fall and began to blanket the earth. The snow didn't melt upon landing on the ground. It stuck.

It was the same snow he felt the first night he and Sasuke stayed at the campsite. The first time he felt the snow was when he was pulled from the river. His teeth were chattering and his body was trembling. It started off as thick, fluffy, snowflakes that morphed over time into harden spheres. That night with Sasuke there was a storm. A snowstorm that blanketed the ground. Snow that crunched beneath their feet in the morning. Snow that had seemingly vanished when the rest of them arrived, along with their socks and shoes, erased from reality and made to believe it never happened. He held his palm out and he felt snowflakes melting one by one as they landed on his flesh. It was real.

It really was snowing. What the men said about a storm coming was true. They said it was going to storm, and they had better leave before they get caught in it, but they were already caught in it...because it was already snowing. They were going to be caught in the storm regardless. Naruto dropped his hand.

“Hold my hand so we don’t separate.” Ino spoke and held her hand out to Naruto. “And don’t let go!” He took it and held his hand out to Hinata.

*****

“I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!” Sakura screamed and stopped moving.

She didn’t know where they were going. She couldn’t see Lee and Choji anymore. She couldn’t see a foot in front of her. It was white blindness. The light from the flashlight was being absorbed by the snow and made it impossible to see. The snow was coming down harder. It looked as if the snow was coming from all directions. Up and down and from all sides. It felt like she was inside a snow globe after someone shook it. It covered the ground and covered the trees and branches and everything in between in white white white. She reached her hand out and felt someone grabbing onto her. She expected to see Sasuke but it was Suigetsu and her disappointment was evident on her facee.

“Keep moving!” Suigetsu yelled and jerked her forward. He didn’t know if they were going in the right direction. He just wanted to keep moving. He didn’t want to stop and be further behind.

“Where’s Sasuke?” Saskura screamed and looked frantically through the storm. “SASUKE!”

The snow pelted her face causing her to squint her eyes as she looked for Sasuke. Her fingers felt stiff and burned as if the flesh of her fingers had shriveled up to reveal bone. She was shivering yet her skin felt like it was on fire. Every inch of exposed skin screamed as if flames were licking her. She was soaked from head to toe. Every step she took sent sharp pains up and down her legs and she cried out. Her toes were throbbing, and her feet kept cramping up causing her to stumble. Her shoes were soaking wet and her wet soaks shafted and rubbed her heels raw.

“SASUKE!”

“I’m here!” Sasuke answered.

“Take my hand!” Sakura cried out and held her hand out. Sasuke grabbed it and appeared on the other side of her.

“Where are they?” Suigetsu asked. The wind picked up and it drowned him out. All they heard was the wind around them and all they saw was white snow.

“HELLO?!”

“Don’t fret child. I’m here.”

Orochimaru’s voice broke through. He appeared behind Sasuke. He was holding a large black umbrella that was open. It protected his face from the onslaught of snow. Next to him were Lee and Choji. Lee scowled at Sasuke. Lee’s hair had turned white from the snow which matched his white eyebrows. His face pinched into disgust and hatred. Choji’s cheeks were red and raw, and his eyes struggled to remain open as melted snow stung his eyes.

“We’re here!” Orochimaru continued. He laughed and twirled the umbrella around. Although he wore a smile there was nothing warm or pleasant about it. It sounded cruel.

“Where are we? Did we make it to the road?” Suigetsu yelled. He couldn’t see anything except Orochimaru’s outline. He wanted to make it to the road, and he wanted a car’s headlights to flash on them. He wanted to be found by a sane human and be removed from this sadistic monster.

“No. But we’ve come to a shelter we can use until the storm passes.”

“Shelter?” Sasuke asked. He was imagining a hunter’s cabin. He didn’t care where they went as long as they were out of the storm. He would go into a cave if it meant getting out of the storm.

“No...have we really come here?” Lee asked mortified. He had a sinking feeling. He remembered asking Naruto if it was listed on the map. He remembered telling Naruto the stories that even though were real and happened felt like an urban legend. Something to scare kids with into behaving. “Not there…?” He thought maybe they could reach it, and from there follow the road out of the mountains. He never thought about stepping foot into any of the buildings. His stomach sank as he thought back to the headlines and the massive news coverage that broadcast throughout the country.

It was the trial of the century. They all would have heard about it. The pictures of the four boys were plastered on every news outlet. The employees behind the sickening deaths, a sinister example of human wreckage, were still sitting on death row.

“Where?!” Suigetsu spat impatiently. He didn’t like the pronoun game.

“You might have heard of it. There used to be a camp here for wayward children.” Orochimaru explained as he moved easily through the storm. It almost appeared as if he was gliding across the ground. From the back he resembled a sinister Mary Poppins holding his black umbrella and floating. Sasuke swore he wasn’t touching the ground. He was floating as he continued to follow an invisible path only he was able to see.

“It’s a shame they shut it down." Orochimaru feigned sadness. "It helped out a lot of children learn respect, manners, and discipline. Shaped them into becoming productive members of society.” He sounded as if he was reading a brochure and tagline.

“Where?!”

“Camp Konohagakure.” Lee answered.

Sakura gasped and stopped moving. The headlines and news banners she read on the screen came to memory. She blinked and transported herself back into her living room. It was after school and she had turned the television on to watch reruns of her favorite television show. Angela Anaconda. Before she was able to change the channel she already heard the news casters, saw the images of the school, and read the banner. Her mother turned the television off thinking she was protecting her, but she still read that four bodies were discovered in the basement. Whatever damage her mother wanted to protect her from was already done.

At ten she had a concept of death and murder. There were four dead kids and teachers and staff committed these atrocities. It wasn’t a camp as much as it was a reform school, an alternative to prison. The sins of the school were brought to the attention of the authorities from a nameless whistleblower. She didn’t grasp it then. She didn’t understand the true horrors that went on. She knew there was a camp in the mountains where four boys were found dead. On the playground, school-yard chatter filled in the blanks, and imagined deaths were proposed it had become a game.

She remembered being on the playground in elementary school, and bullying the younger boys by telling them they were going to be shipped off to Camp Konohagakure for the summer if they didn’t listen to her. She remembered making one boy cry, and she got reprimanded, and called to the principal's office where the school counselor had to explain why what happened wasn’t a laughing mattering, and wasn’t anything to joke about. She understood death and murder and prison, but none of those things affected her life. It all felt like those things only happened on the news and in movies. She had been kept in a protective bubble by her parents, living in the nice parts of the city, attending a nice school, and living a nice life.

She knew what had happened to those boys, but that’s what they were, they were those boys. They weren’t her boys. She didn’t know them, she never knew them, played with them, ate lunch with them, and therefore, she didn’t really care. Which was why even after she got reprimanded she still teased and bullied other kids on the playground until the weeks passed and the lost boys of Camp Konohagakure went into obscurity for the next big sensation.

“I don’t care where we go! I just want to get out of this storm!” Suigetsu yelled and jerked Sakura back into moving.

“Keep moving!” Sasuke yelled at Sakura as he jerked her. She felt a strain in both her arm sockets from the pulling, and she began moving again. It wasn’t a big deal. It was an abandoned school that had been shut down the past four years. She’d go anywhere if it meant getting out of this storm. She was freezing and shivering. She was beginning to feel lightheaded and dizzy, overall ill, and if she didn’t get out of the cold soon she would faint.

They moved through the storm in one huddled mass a few more yards before they saw an outline of a building. It was a Victorian Gothic three story mansion. There was a plaque nailed into the ground. The sign was covered in snow and couldn’t be read. Sakura looked up. There were pointed arched windows, a steeply pitched roof, and gables topped with finials that jutted up towards the sky. It was burgundy and navy and onyx. It was large and as she looked up there was the illusion that the building was elongating and stretching. They stopped at the base of the steps that lead to the stone porch. Sakura could feel an invisible force drawing her closer to the building. It felt as if invisible hands were grabbing her by the arms and legs. The hands were small and childlike. The wind wiped around her and she swore she heard children laughing. She looked out into the darkness of the storm and imagined a group of boys playing dodgeball. She swallowed and shook those hallucinations away and told herself it was just the storm. They stumbled up the stairs and once they were under the safety of the roof their flashlights began working properly and light illuminated them.

Sakura turned to look at Orochimaru. She was about to ask him a question when she stopped. The way the light hit him contorted his features. His face appeared to slide downwards. The holes where his eye sockets should have been were over his cheekbones, his nose lost all cartilage was where his mouth should have been, and the loose skin and lips were hanging off his chin. The face continued to slide further and further down. He continued to hold the black umbrella and she saw dripping down from the inside of the umbrella was blood. It dripped down onto his sliding face, hit his hand, and dripped on the porch. She screamed. His entire face slid off and plopped on the porch. She backed up and screamed again horrified from what she was witnessing. She was about to fall down the stairs when Sasuke caught her.

“What is the matter?” Sasuke chided as he pulled her back from the edge of the stairs. Suigetsu looked from Orochimaru who was closing his umbrella back to Sakura. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Sakura looked back to Orochimaru and everything appeared back to normal. His eyes, nose, and mouth were back in its rightful place. His face pinned up and stationary. She shook her head. She didn’t know what was going on and blamed it on the cold and the hunger and the state she was in. She just wanted to wake up from this nightmare and go home.

“Where are they?” Sakura asked. Her eyes darted from Lee, to Choji, to Suigetsu, to Sasuke. They were missing Naruto, Hinata, and Ino. They weren’t with them. She spun around and looked out into the whiteout. Sasuke let go of Sakura once he determined she was okay and wouldn’t fall down the stairs, and took notice. He looked around. He kept replaying Naruto’s words over and over. The other man was missing, the others weren’t here, he spun around and stared at Orochimaru.

“Hm. Maybe they’re lost.” Orochimaru said his voice was as lackluster and uncaring as an Oompa Loompa. He didn’t skip a beat. He moved away, twirling the now closed umbrella like a baton, and walked up to the large double doors. He pulled a key out and unlocked one side of the door and opened it. The door screeched like a witch being burned alive as it pushed into the darkness of the house.

“We can’t just leave them out there!” Sakura argued spinning around to look back at Orochimaru. Her heart was still beating fast from the hallucination, but she was now instilled with strength and anger over the safety and whereabouts of her friends.

“WHERE ARE THEY?” Sasuke screamed. He didn’t have the poise and refinement Sakura had. He was an Uchiha and used to getting his way.

“Kabuto went back to fetch them.” Orochimaru answered his lips curled as he peered down at Sasuke. “Why don’t you come inside and wait for them. We’ll start a fire. We’ll get you dried off. We’ll get you some food, and we’ll put you to bed.” As he spoke he looked at all of them. Sasuke. Sakura. Suigetsu. Lee. Choji. He smiled at them.

Orochimaru didn’t wait for a response and disappeared into the darkness of the building. Sakura hesitated and looked to Sasuke for guidance. He was glaring at Orochimaru and wasn’t moving. She barely registered what he said and was too concerned to answer or follow him inside.

“They’ll be fine.” Lee commented.

He made a blanket statement before he and Choji followed Orochimaru into the house. Lee wanted shelter from the storm. He wanted to peel the wet clothes off and he wanted to get warm. He wanted food and he wanted to curl up into bed and go to sleep. Both boys disappeared into the house. The door remained opened. Sakura looked back across the grounds. She was worried and it felt like she was on the verge of vomiting.

“Are they okay?” She asked. Sasuke shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Does it matter?” Suigetsu asked. “Maybe Ino should have picked the right group.”

“What did you say?” Sakura asked.

“She chose to remain with Naruto...if she gets trapped out there and freezes to death that’s her fault.” Suigetsu spoke. He began brushing the snow off his coat, shook the snow from his hair, and pounded his shoes on the porch.

“Why do you hate Naruto so much?” Sakura asked.

She wasn’t heartless. She didn’t want any of them to die yet...yet...yet she was beginning to think maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if Suigetsu disappeared. She remembered having mixed results when she found out Suigetsu was recruited on the trip and the more time she spent with him the more repulsed she became. Dark thoughts began to fill her head. She was thinking maybe it should have been Suigetsu who died instead of Kiba.

“He’s the worst kind of people. Everything about him is cheap and fake. He’s a chameleon. His personality changes whoever he is around. You don’t like him for him you like him because he reflects the qualities you have right back at you!” Suigetsu retorted.

“You’re wrong he isn’t like that at all!” Sakura defended. “You’re just jealous!”

She knew the qualities Naruto had, and she knew she didn’t possess those same qualities. So what exactly was he copying? She knew deep down she was selfish and spoiled and wanted for nothing. She was the type of person who convinced a girl to pen a confession letter, and then convinced her to hand the letter over. She was the type of girl who laughed along with her classmates when the letter was read out loud, and the type of girl who feigned ignorance when she found out she had attempted suicide.

She knew she was ugly.

But she was also the girl who stopped laughing when she saw the tears streaming down her face, and heard her pleading voice begging to make it stop. The only person to stop it was Naruto. It didn’t make her a better person. It made her cheap and fake. In that moment she had felt nothing more than trash, raw garbage that had been out in the sweltering heat in August.

Who was she?

She was the girl who was willing to leave Ino behind if it meant saving herself. She was the girl who was willing to leave Naruto behind to pick up the pieces as she left with the supplies. Naruto wouldn’t have left anyone behind, and Ino didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Sakura was completely wretched, and awful in every way imaginable. If they cut her chest open they’d see her heart was black and oily.

She hadn’t changed at all. She was still that bully on the playground.

“Of what?” Suigetsu scoffed. “Some orphan kid who is going to transfer schools at the end of the school year?”

“What?” Sasuke asked and turned his attention from the snowstorm to Suigetsu. Sasuke’s response infuriated him and he snapped.

“Damnit Sasuke! Why the fuck are you obsessed with him too? You’re supposed to be an Uchiha and you’re acting like you’re some love sick schoolgirl! It’s disgusting and creepy and pathetic--!”

“What do you mean Naruto will be transferring?” Sakura yelled.

She was still stuck on Suigetsu’s statement. Besides Ino...Naruto was her best friend. If she had a brother she’d envisioned that sibling to talk and walk and act exactly like Naruto. He was easy to talk to, and he was so laid back and friendly it brought her back to her senses. She didn’t know when she became protective over him nor when she began to care about him like she cared for Ino. She didn’t know when she stopped being so self-centered and self-absorbed whenever she was around Naruto. She did find herself slowly changing. She took the allowance she was saving up to buy a new laptop and bought Naruto a new school uniform because she wanted him to look his best during the academic decathlon competition.

...and he was going to transfer schools?

“You guys really don’t know?” Suigetsu scoffed. He looked from Sasuke to Sakura. “Of course not because he wouldn’t actually come out and tell you, probably because you’re not even his real friend, Sakura!” He focused his anger on Sakura before turning to Sasuke. “And Sasuke you acted like you never even liked him so why the fuck do you even care?”

“Spit it out! What are you talking about?” Sakura continued. Sasuke’s eyes widened at the accusations.

“The group home that orphan lives in is shutting down.” Suigetsu answered with a cruel smile. He laughed. “The funding was cut. Turns out nobody actually cares about orphans like they pretend to. It’s being shut down and turned into luxury apartments. It’s prime real estate. By the end of the year the home will be demolished and the orphan kids will be scattered.”

“You’re lying…” Sakura trailed off in disbelief.

She never actually went to the group home Naruto lived in. She couldn’t even conceptualize what a group home even looked like. All she saw was orphan conditions from Oliver Twist. She never went because Naruto never invited her. Would she have even gone if he did invite her? Prime real estate? She didn’t even know where the group home was located in the city. Naruto always presented clean and in laundered clothes. He always wore a smile and if he didn’t have money for lunch he had brought a packed lunch. The only thing different and noticeable about him was his frayed and faded uniform, and cheap sneakers. Did he know all this time he was going to transfer, and if he did, when was he going to tell her?

She wanted to shoot the messenger.

“My dad is the broker to that piece of shit group home. He told me, and honestly I celebrated when I found out. That piece of trash can finally transfer out and things will go back to the way it was! Especially you, Sasuke! You're an Uchiha and you better start acting like one!”

“You think I act like some love sick schoolgirl? You better get your eyes checked when we get home.” Sasuke hissed.

“Dude! I’m just trying to protect you unless you want to become some faggot!” Suigetsu sneered.

“Get the hell away from me before I bash your goddamn teeth in!” Sasuke was screaming by the end.

“Whatever. Talk to me when you’re off your period, dude.” Suigetsu responded. He threw his hands up and disappeared into the house with the flashlight. It was dark but the snow caused everything to be illuminated. She was able to see Sasuke’s outline. She saw that he was trembling. She didn't say anything to him and ignored him.

“NARUTO! INO! HINATA!” Sakura slammed her hand on the railing of the porch and screamed into the storm. “WE’RE OVER HERE!”

The only thing that answered was the howling wind followed by a single gunshot. Sasuke’s head snapped in the direction of the gunshot internal alarms sounded off. A scream formed in the back of her throat, but it was suffocated. Her eyes bulged and her blood ran cold. Her fingers gripped the wooden railing and she could feel wooden splinters pierce the flesh of her fingers as she screamed.

“NARUTO!”

*****

“If someone confessed to you...would you date them?” Ino queried.

She was wearing thick wool leggings beneath her plaid skirt. She was sitting backwards in her chair with one leg lifted up and resting on the chair, and the other kicked out on the floor. It wasn’t ladylike and if she wasn’t wearing leggings her underwear would have been showing. She was wearing an oversize jersey sweater where the sleeves covered the majority of her hands revealing just her fingertips that were neatly painted. She had just finished ripping up a valentine’s card into a million tiny pieces. She looked at the pile on the floor and sighed. It was just the two of them left in the classroom. The last bell rang over twenty minutes ago and school had come to an end.

Naruto remained on the computer finishing up his assignment, and Ino sat next to him in complete silence. She knew Naruto was going to stay late at school to finish the assignment. She pondered if he had access to a computer outside of school. She didn’t ask, because she already knew the answer. Instead she took solitude in the silence. When she was with Naruto she wasn’t forced to make small talk. There was nothing she hated more than small talk. She could just sit comfortably in silence, and she did, she sat comfortably in silence until she broke it with conversation.

“Mhm...maybe. I mean if they went through the trouble of liking me, and building up the confidence to ask me. I would go on a date with them.” Naruto answered his eyes still concentrating on the word document.

“What if a guy confessed to you?” Ino gripped the back of her chair and leaned back to stare at Naruto. He didn’t even flinch. There wasn’t any reaction. She might as well have asked him what his favorite pizza topping was.

“I don’t know. I never thought about it before.”

“Do you like anyone?”

“No.”

“Have you ever?”

“No. I would go on a date with them but I don’t think I could seriously be steady with someone.”

“Why?”

“I just don’t see the point. I’ve moved around so many times it just doesn’t make sense. I think it’s more important to make friends.”

“So you’ve never liked anyone like that? Ever? Even here at this school? I could probably name at least one girl who likes you!”

Naruto laughed and Ino tilted her head in curiosity. He stopped typing and looked at her. He raised his eyebrows and asked. “Do you like me?”

“OH NO! NO WAY!” Ino laughed loudly and shook her head as if it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. Naruto grinned. She wiped her eyes and looked at him. Oh. He was teasing her. She found it hard to calm down because nervousness made its home inside her. She felt antsy. She felt tongue-tied. She was unable to sort out the mess that was inside her brain.

“What do you think about two guys dating?” She asked. She picked up a strand of her blonde hair and began twirling it around her index finger.

“Doesn’t bother me. If they’re in love they’re in love.”

“What about two girls dating?”

“Doesn’t bother me. If they’re in love they’re in love.”

Naruto spoke nonchalantly and with a shrug of his shoulder. He returned to the computer and continued typing. The conversation didn’t bother him. He didn’t even bat an eye. Ino licked her lips. He was different.

“Do you think you could ever fall in love with someone?” Ino asked.

“Probably not.” Naruto answered. His voice was empty, devoid of emotion. His eyes turned blank and colorless. He blinked and returned to normal. It was so subtle Ino questioned herself if what she witnessed really happened. She was too preoccupied with herself to really pay attention. She was sorting through the alphabet soup in her brain trying to find the letters to form her sentences.

“Would you think less of them...if you found out one of your friends...one of your friends who was a girl, liked other girls? I mean like she didn’t like boys. She actually loved-loved girls. Would that be weird? Would you not like her anymore? If it happened.”

It was the first time that Naruto heard Ino fumbling over her words. She normally had a sharp tongue, and was quick-witted with her word enunciation and strong vocabulary so much he was mesmerized on some occasions. In a verbal argument nobody could beat Ino. He remembered telling Ino she should try out for the school play, or the debate team. She answered asking why she would do a silly thing like that? She wasn’t a theater geek or a debate team nerd, and Naruto laughed, because no sooner did she say that she signed up for the academic decathlon.

“Of course not.” Naruto answered honestly.

Ino was quiet for a moment. She bit her lower lip and dropped the strand of hair. Naruto knew what she was trying to say and didn't make a big deal about it. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t.”

Ino didn’t say anything else, and Naruto returned to his assignment. The only thing she heard was the tap-tapping of the keys. It was soothing and comforting. She didn’t know why but she felt like crying, not because she was sad, but because she was so relieved. She wanted to wrap her arms around Naruto and hug him she was so happy. She did none of this. She didn’t want to bother Naruto anymore as he finished his assignment. She brought both feet to the ground and rested her elbows on the back of the chair. She held her head up with her hands and couldn’t stop smiling. She held the back of the chair and leaned back to stare at Naruto once again.

“But honestly. If another guy asks me out I’m going to tell everyone I’m dating you, and if that happens you’re going to have to suck it up and pretend to date me. Just don’t fall in love with me because that would be awkward.”

Naruto covered his eyes with a hand and laughed shaking his head side to side. He clicked the print button. He had finished the assignment, and packed up and left. Ino grinned as they walked down the empty hallway side by side.

“I don’t think anyone would really want to seriously date me.” Ino confessed. “I have a messed up family dynamic, and I was a really...really...really disturbed kid.”

“You a disturbed kid? How?”

“I once kept a dead squirrel in a shoe box under my bed.” Ino said deadpan. It caused Naruto to halt and he snapped his head to look down at Ino. He searched her face expecting her to crack and say she was joking. He shook his head in disbelief processing what she said and he tried to grapple with it.

“You did what?” Naruto asked for clarification.

“I literally had no friends in elementary school. This was before Sakura started talking to me. It was before I got my weekly allergy shots and I would have awful, painful eczema outbreaks. Nobody wanted to be my friend. My mother forgot to pick me up from school one day and I remembered storming home I was so upset, and then I just found it on the side of the road. This dead squirrel. I don’t know what I was thinking...but I kept it under my bed for a week before the thing liquefied and my parents found out.”

“Oh jeez...what happened then?” Naruto asked stifling a laugh with his hand.

“They threw it out? It’s okay you can laugh it’s ridiculous. I don’t know. I started seeing this woman who would sing these weird songs to me about not collecting dead things. I don’t know. It was weird. I was weird. I still am.”

Naruto couldn’t contain it any longer. He doubled over laughing. Tears blurred his eyes and he reached out to stabilize himself by leaning a hand against the lockers. Ino crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. She didn’t believe she was spilling all her secrets to him. She was just about to lecture him on laughing for far to long when she heard a frightening sound. It was the sound of a gunshot. She screamed and fell to her knees, covering her ears. The sound caused her ears to ring as if both her eardrums had blown.

She opened her eyes and saw something red dripping down. When she looked up she saw blood covered Naruto’s neck. He was bleeding. He was shot. Naruto’s eyes rolled into the back of his skull and all she saw were the whites of his eyes as he collapsed forwards.

“NARUTO!” Ino screamed as he fell face first into the snow. Standing behind him was Hinata. Her eyes locked on Hinata. Her eyes filled with terror as she processed what she was seeing. Her mouth moved faster than her brain could catch up.

“HINATA WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Ino screamed as she looked behind Naruto to see Hinata was standing with the hunting rifle in her hands. The snow continued to fall down. The flashlight Ino held was dropped to the ground and shown brightly on Naruto. She looked back down to Naruto. He was laying face down in the snow. His backpack was missing. She didn’t understand what was going on. The wind howled and Ino began crawling towards Naruto.

“Wh...at?” Hinata asked. She blinked and looked down. She screamed and dropped the hunting rifle before falling backwards. She screamed when she saw Naruto laying motionlessly face down. She saw red staining his back and blood pouring from his neck and saturating the snow on the ground. She screamed but no noise was emitted. All Ino saw was Hinata sitting stoically and staring straight ahead.

“YOU SHOT HIM!” Ino screamed as she reached Naruto and saw that birdshot sprayed him from behind. She didn’t know where his backpack was, but it was missing, and Naruto’s back was wide open for the birdshot. Tears formed in her eyes and froze when it hit the cold air. She touched Naruto’s back near one of the holes that ripped through his jacket and saw that blood began to stain the fabric.

“Naruto?” Ino asked as she began shaking him. She brought her hand to the side of his neck where she felt warm blood pulsating out from a wound that grazed his flesh.

“No...no...no…” Hinata stuttered. She began shaking her head violently from side to side.

Hinata brought her hands and pressed them to her ears and continued shaking her head. Her eyes closed. Her brain was shutting down. The majority of the human language left her, and the only word she knew was ‘no’. It was the only word left and it was playing on repeat through a phonograph. It was the word she sliced her wrists with and wrote on the walls with. She continued to write 'no' in her own blood until the wounds healed up and she had to slice her wrists again. It was the word she typed repeatedly on a typewriter and filled thousands and thousands of sheets of paper with. It was the only word she clung to as her mind crumbled and broke.

*****

“HOLD THE LIGHT STILL!”

Kabuto screamed as he placed Naruto’s body onto one of the cots in the room. Naruto’s eyes were closed but he gasped and winced upon lying on the cot. Kabuto unzipped Naruto’s coat and pulled it off with great difficulty before flipping his body, roughly, onto his stomach. Ino looked down and saw the inside of Naruto’s jacket. The inside of the jacket was saturated in blood. Ino was trying to hold both flashlights still but she couldn’t stop trembling. Kabuto removed Naruto's long-sleeved shirt and undershirt. The light bounced sporadically and caused a dizzying strobe like effect in the room.

She didn’t know where they were. They entered the house through a storm cellar door. The place was a maze.

She remembered walking down a flight of stairs into the pitch back cellar, and then walking up two flights of stairs until they reached what Kabuto called...the infirmary. It looked as if she was transported back in time to the 1950’s when she entered the infirmary. No. What happened? She didn’t remember anything. She didn’t remember what had happened prior to Naruto getting shot. She didn’t remember how Hinata got the hunting rifle. She didn't know the day, the date, the time.

The last thing she remembered was asking Naruto to hold her hand so they wouldn’t be separated. She could still feel the warmth of his hand enclosed around hers.

She had to calm down. She was losing it. She took in her surroundings. She had to. She had to ground herself and the more she looked around the more she collected her bearings. She committed everything to memory. She didn’t want to forget anything and she didn’t want to blackout again. Black and white tiles covered the floor and went up halfway up the walls. There was peeled paint on the other half of the walls, and water stains on the ceiling. There were privacy curtains on wheels and cots lined the walls on one side, and the other was a large sink, counters, and cabinets with glass doors. On the counters there were large glass containers filled with cotton balls and tongue depressors. The cabinets were filled with bottles and supplies.

She moved one of the lights around the room and everywhere the light touched chased away the darkness. All she saw were shadows of wolf spiders scurrying away. All she saw were rats scurrying through holes in the cabinets. The light seemed to be drawn to something. There were privacy curtains around the last cot in the row and when she bounced the light against the fabric she swore she saw a familiar shadowy shape illuminated from behind. The shadowy figure of another body lying on the cot in the same pose her grandmother had while laying in her coffin.

Her attention was stolen by more important things that were happening within the room.

Hinata was sobbing uncontrollably in the doorway of the infirmary. She couldn’t bring herself to enter the room and was now distracting them. Kabuto turned to her. Ino brought the light and illuminated Kabuto and Hinata.

“You stupid girl! Do you know what you have done?” Kabuto hissed.

It was more frightening than when he was screaming. It struck terror in Ino’s heart. It was a threat. He shoved Hinata with both hands and when she fell backwards he slammed the door shut and locked her out. Ino didn’t protest. She narrowed her eyes at the door expecting Hinata to fling her body up against it and pound on the door to be let in, but she didn’t.

What happened? Hinata had shot Naruto.

Ino moved the light to Naruto. He was stirring awake and groaning. His hand moved up to his face which had a pained expression twisting his features into agony. Sweat formed on his face and dripped down. The wrinkles on his forehead deepened. His eyebrows furrowed so close together she thought they were going to form one large blonde uni brow. The only reason why he wasn’t experiencing the full extent of his injuries was because his body had shut down and forced him into unconsciousness in hopes of saving him. Naruto might not be aware but his body was.

“Do you want him to die?” Kabuto screamed at Ino and she shook her head no. “Then you better do exactly as I say. Do you understand? If you don’t. I’ll kill him right here! I swear I will! I’ll kill him and then I’ll kill you! Do you understand? ANSWER ME!”

“YES!”

“Yes, sir!”

“YES, SIR!”

She had a flashback. She was no longer standing in the infirmary she was standing in the master bathroom of her parent’s room. She was dressed in her pajamas, barefoot, and standing on the hexagon tiles. The ground felt cool against her feet. She saw her dad reaching into the tub and pulling the plug. She watched as the rust covered water began to drain. She saw the top of the strawberry blonde hair of her mother’s all matted and tangled. She watched as her father pulled her naked, motionless, mother from the tub and laid her on the floor. Her wrists were still bleeding and Ino watched the blood pour across the white hexagon tiles turning them from white to red. Her eyes moved to the wrinkly skin of her fingers. All white and pruned from the water.

“Ino!” Her father yelled as he looked up at her. Ino turned and looked at her father and remembered she was surprised to see him. He was supposed to be working a double and he wouldn’t be back until tonight. “Listen to me! We have to hurry or she’s going to die!” Ino didn’t move. She remembered grandmother and the squirrel. She knew what death entailed.

“You need to get the phone and dial 911!” Ino’s eyes rolled back to her mother. Her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving. Her mother was going to die. She watched as her father began to perform CPR. She was afraid. She was petrified and she couldn’t move. She was terrified and wanted to start crying.

“INO! DO YOU UNDERSTAND? IF YOU DON’T CALL 911 SHE’S GOING TO DIE!”

She nodded her head up and down. She didn’t want her mother to die. “GO GET THE PHONE! NOW!” Ino spun around and ran from the bathroom.

*****

Hinata’s tailbone slammed against the wooden floorboards.

The wood sagged beneath her weight. She couldn’t stop crying. She wanted to plead and beg him to let her stay, but when she looked at Kabuto’s face the light from the flashlight hit him just right, and she saw it morph into something inhumane. It was as if his human face melted. In its place bluish-white snake scales grew and began to shed exponentially as larger, sharper, scales took its place. The rapid growing and dying of scales petrified her, and on his forehead large horns seemed to protrude. His eyelids peeled back, and his eyelashes fell off leaving bulging round black orbs. It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right.

The door slammed and she was locked out. She looked down at her hands. Darkness obscured her vision but she still saw it. The hatchet that was in her hand was replaced with the hunting rifle. She tried to remember what happened and how they got to where they were.

She remembered being manipulated. She remembered hearing Kabuto’s voice. It hypnotized them all. The first thing that happened was Naruto had let go of their hands and they became separated in the storm.

She could feel it in her flesh. It felt as if fish hooks were piercing her flesh and attaching her to puppet strings. She could feel the hooks piercing through the center of her palms. She could feel her flesh being ripped open, holes forming through her cartilage, and muscles, and nerves, and bones. When she looked up she saw Kabuto commanding her. She could feel gaping holes on the back of her hand and in the center of her palm, in the folds of her arms and out the back of her elbow, and on both shoulder blades they entered through her front and exited through her back. The pain was unbearable and all she wanted to do was die so she didn’t feel this excruciating pain any longer. The hunting rifle felt heavy. She could still feel the heaviness of it as if she were holding a cement block. If she wasn’t tied up by fish wire on puppet strings she wouldn’t have been able to hold the rifle on her own.

Kabuto did this to her. She could hear his voice commanding her every move. She was hypnotized and completely powerless.

She didn’t understand what was happening. Time paused and the world stopped spinning. Even the snow stopped coming down and became suspended. She was the only one unaffected. She had pointed the rifle at Naruto’s back. His orange jacket was the perfect target. It made it too easy. She saw it brightly through the suspended snow. She had never fired a gun before and she was surprised to find just how easy it was. Point. Aim. Pull the trigger. Brace for the kickback.

He didn’t see her. He had been calling her name, and like the snow he was suspended and unmoving. Now he wasn’t moving, and he was no longer calling her name. They became separated. His back was to her. She always hated her name. She hated the way it sounded, but the way he said it made her believe it was the most beautiful name in the world. She wanted him to call out her name again, no, she wanted him to break free from this spell and move out of range. She wanted to scream and cry out to him but her whole face had turned to porcelain. Her bones and flesh and organs were slowly replaced with porcelain and cotton and glue. Her hair turned into synthetics and her eyes popped out and were replaced by glass doll eyes.

She centered the muzzle of the rifle behind his left shoulder where the heart was, and then she pulled the trigger. It was the last thing she did before her fingers turned to porcelain. It was child’s play. It was a cake walk. It was low hanging fruit. When the birdshot exploded the hunting rifle weighed no more than a teddy bear, and the world started moving again, and the snow started falling again, and Naruto came crashing down, and she lost her mind.

She blinked. She heard a creaking noise at the end of the corridor, and it caused her to focus on the present. Where she was now.

She couldn’t see anything at first except darkness, and when her eyes adjusted, she saw there was a circular window at the end of the corridor. It looked like a port window on a ship. It was in the same direction as the noise. It was the sound of something heavy. She couldn’t take her eyes off the window. The floorboards began to creak. She pressed her palms against the wood and felt vibrations. There was a sound as if somebody was hitting two rocks against each other. The outside snow was being reflected into the window and illuminated it. The light from the snow was suffocated in darkness the further the corridor stretched. That light didn’t go far and it didn’t reach Hinata who remained obscured at the other end of the corridor.

The noise continued. This time louder. This time closer.

Then the window vanished, and reappeared, and then vanished, and reappeared as if something was staggering as it thumped down the corridor.

The noise grew louder, and the vibrations grew heavier, and the creaking floorboards became closer. It was then when...she heard breathing. Heavy, wet, breathing through the mouth followed by a gurgling sound that sounded like it came from the back of the throat. It sounded as if someone, or something, was choking on its tongue. Hinata’s eyes grew as wide as they could get without popping out of her skull. Her nails dug into the wood of the floors and she straightened up her spine. It was getting closer. She could hear long toenails scraping against the creaking floorboards. The window continued to appear and disappear. She couldn’t turn away.

She wanted to scream but she was too afraid. She began to push her body backwards. She was careful to not make a noise. She pressed her shoes against the floor and slid back inch by inch. She didn’t know why but every fiber of her being warned her if she made a sound she was going to die. If she breathed she was going to die. If she blinked she was going to die. If she was found she was going to die. She kept pushing herself back until she couldn’t move anymore. Her spine hit something thick and hollow. A door.

The sound of the mouth breathing got louder, and the sound of the rocks bashing against each other got louder, and the toenails against the floorboards got louder. The vibrations became heavier until she through the whole corridor was going to collapse. She pulled her legs up to her chest and covered her mouth and nose with both hands.

Then, everything stopped. The noises stopped. The vibrations stopped. The breathing stopped.

She looked and saw the circular window at the end of the corridor. She was about to move when she heard something rolling across the floorboards, and she felt something hitting her side. She unlatched one of her hands from her mouth and brought it down to feel what had struck her. She felt something smooth and cold. It was a long circular shape that felt like metal. She picked it up and her fingers brushed up against a switch. She knew what it was. It was a flashlight. She heard the batteries moving as she brought the flashlight up.

She waited for a few more moments. The corridor was still. The only sound she heard was the snow pelleting against the glass window, the wind howling, and the rushing sound of blood between her ears. She pointed the flashlight in the direction of the circular window. Her thumb pressed against the switch. Her hand was trembling so much she thought she was going to drop the light. She used both hands to steady the flashlight. She was afraid. She didn’t know if she should turn the light on or remain in the darkness. She began taking shallow breaths. She felt melted snow rolling down the sides of her face, and down her spine. She took notice of her soaked hair, and soaked clothes, and soaked feet.

She decided to turn the flashlight on. She flipped the switch on and light illuminated the corridor. A cry formed in the back of her throat and came out muffled and gravelly. It was a scream she wanted to unleash but it was stunted and stolen remaining stuck in the back of her throat.

It was the humanoid from her nightmares. It was crouching, lopsided, three feet from her. The hunchback humanoid had a broken jaw that hung on it’s hinges. It’s long tongue flopped out the side of the mouth, and a pile of saliva rolled off the tip and formed a pool at its feet. It’s nose were two jagged slits cut in the middle of it’s bulging face with two green streams of snot leaking out. The flesh was blackened and covered in boils and scabs and lesions. It was naked with sagging breasts and darkened circular areolas. The stomach was distended and swollen, and something inside the stomach was moving beneath the flesh, counterclockwise. Something was poking out and all at once worms began eating the flesh until they had poked free and began falling out of it’s stomach. Worms and maggots fell out of the circular holes that began to cover the entire surface of the distended stomach.

The gurgling, wet, raspy breathing started back up. The moment the light hit the creature it lunged at Hinata, her voice was freed, and she let out a bloodcurdling scream.

*****

“WE HEARD A GUNSHOT!”

Sakura screamed as she ran through the front door and into the foyer. Sasuke ran in after her, and the moment his body passed through the threshold the door slammed shut behind him. Sasuke spun around and stared at the door. He scowled and began to look around the foyer. The sound was loud and caused a shiver to run down Sakura’s spine and she remained rooted in place. They were greeted with silence, and darkness, as their eyes adjusted to their surroundings. There was an orange glow that moved and bounced that came from a room off to their right. Sasuke was the first to move through the open door to the source of the orange light.

It appeared to be a large living room. The furniture inside was shabby and covered in a thick layer of dust and mold. On the other side of the room was a large ornate, fireplace made from carved marble with a roaring fire cackling inside. There were outlines of shadowy bodies sitting cross-legged in front of the fire. Sakura immediately noticed Lee, Choji, and Suigetsu.

“I HEARD A GUNSHOT!” Sakura screamed from the doorway. She saw the shadows shuffling and turning around. “Outside! I heard a gunshot!” Sakura continued to explain as she ran across the room to join the others. As she ran plumes of dust wafted up from the furniture and area rugs.

“You heard a gunshot?” Lee asked.

Lee was the only one besides Ino who didn’t have a hood to his coat. Lee had taken his coat off and had placed it out in front of him by the fire. His hair was completely soaked, and his long sleeved shirt had large wet stains that weighed down. His jeans were soaked and he had removed his sneakers and socks. He looked like an old doll that had been left outside in the rain and was now drying next to the socks by the fire.

“Something must have happened to them!” Sakura continued.

“Like what? One of them was shot?” Suigetsu sneered without bothering to turn around. “Guns are also used for protection. Remember? A wolf attacked Lee.” Lee squirmed uncomfortably at the memory.

Sakura looked around the room frantically. Sasuke remained standing in the doorway. He had refused to come any closer. She didn’t see Orochimaru just when she cried out asking where he was a door that was hidden in the corner and obscured by shadows opened.

“WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS OROCHIMARU?”

“I’m right here.” Orochimaru answered. He had stepped out from the shadows and into the light of the fire holding a lit oil lamp.

“I heard a gunshot!” Sakura cried out turning to face him. “Where are the others?”

“They are all inside.”

“Where?!”

“The infirmary.”

“What happened?” Sakura demanded.

“An accident happened.” Orochimaru answered. His voice was so deep in sent vibrations through Sakura’s chest.

“What, do you mean...” Sakura asked slowly as she watched Orochimaru approach her. “...an accident happened?”

“If you want to come to the infirmary. I’ll show you what I mean.” Orochimaru answered with a cruel smile. It was the smile of a man who had drowned a litter of kittens. She felt herself shrinking. He was menacing up close and her eyes moved to the outline of his face half-expecting it to slide off again. Sakura took notice of just how thin and small she was. He made her feel like she was no stronger than a newborn kitten. He was so close if he wanted he could stretch his hand out and choke her.

“Y-”

“Everything is okay, Sakura.” Ino’s voice washed over the room.

She had appeared from the door that Orochimaru entered. She entered the living room with Kabuto walking in behind her. Sakura didn’t know what overcame her. She pushed past Orochimaru and wrapped her arms around Ino. Her eyes filled with tears and she started crying. She tried to talk but all that came out were drowned out sobs.

“Where’s Naruto and Hinata?” Lee asked suspiciously. He was standing up. His eyes went from Ino to Kabuto to the darkened door behind them. Kabuto shut the door and it sounded like a clicking noise. It sounded like the door had automatically locked.

“They’re fine. They’re resting in the infirmary.” Ino explained as she pried herself from Sakura’s grasp.

“What happened out there? We heard a gunshot!” Sasuke demanded from the doorway. He hadn’t left and glared at Orochimaru and Kabuto. “Ino!”

“Gunshot? What gunshot?” Ino asked. She looked from Sakura to Sasuke. “We didn’t hear a gunshot.” Sasuke’s mouth went into a line of contempt and he glared at Ino. She was acting the same way Naruto was acting when he denied everything Sasuke had to say down to the same inflection and facial expression. Sakura didn’t allow Ino to move away so easily she continued to grab and hold onto her, even when Ino tried to push her away, she wouldn’t let go. Sakura wrapped her hands around Ino’s hand. Ino kept her attention on Sasuke avoiding Sakura’s crying, snotty face.

“When we got separated Naruto collapsed. So Kabuto carried him here. He has a fever, and is coming down with a cold. He’s resting in the infirmary, and Hinata is watching over him. She didn’t trust Kabuto near him so he was kicked out.” Ino explained she tried to dislodge Sakura by pulling her hand free but Sakura grew the strength of a bodybuilder and refused to let her hand go.

“I heard the gunshot!” Sasuke continued. “Sakura and I both did!”

“Says the one who swore they saw a dead dog.” Lee chided.

“I DID SEE A DEAD DOG!” Sasuke yelled.

“I wanna go home!” Sakura sobbed and tried to hug Ino, but she continued to put up a fight.

“The storm is expected to last three days.” Orochimaru explained with a cruel smile. He seemed to revel in the explosion of emotions all around him from rage to sadness to contempt.

“Three days?!” Sakura cried. The revelation that it was going to be longer before they would be able to go home seemed to flip her sanity switch and she began to deteriorate. She let go of Ino and collapsed to her knees. She had come so far and every time she thought she was in the homestretch she turned the corner and saw twenty more miles she had to trek.

“This house may be abandoned but there are still rooms and beds and a basement full of canned goods.”

“There’s food?” Suigetsu asked. He found himself salivating.

“Yes. Plenty.”

“Where is the camcorder.” Sasuke asked Kabuto. “Let me see it.”

Kabuto smirked and chuckled. “No can do. In order for me to carry the little brat I had to leave my backpack outside.” Kabuto glared at Orochimaru. “Believe me I would have rather had my backpack than drag that little brat back here.”

“You tell me you don’t like kids but then you go and rescue one? Willingly?” Orochimaru gushed sarcastically.

“None of us care about the damn camcorder!” Lee interrupted. “We’re hungry and tired and want to go home!”

“Do you want to help me carry up food?” Orochimaru asked with a tilt of his head. Lee shook his head yes. “Choji and I can help.” Nobody else offered and everyone else remained quiet. Sakura remained on her knees sobbing into her hands, Ino leaned up against the wall next to the fireplace, and Suigetsu remained sitting in front of the fire.

“Perfect. Follow me.”

Orochimaru left the room out the doorway that Sasuke continued to stand by. As he passed he flashed him an evil smile. Sasuke stared up at him. He knew that smile. It was the same smile his mother used when she was on the campaign trail. A smile that was hiding lies and blood. Sasuke looked away. Lee and Choji followed. Lee scowled at Sasuke as he walked by. Sasuke stared distrustfully back at Orochimaru. His eyes moved to Lee and Choji. He didn’t care about them. He didn’t even try to stop them from leaving. None of them tried to stop them from leaving. They had no allies among them. The only one who would have pitched a fit would have been Naruto and he was in the infirmary.

Sasuke folded his arms and leaned up against the door frame. He watched Lee and Choji’s back until they vanished into the darkness. He moved his eyes back to Kabuto who had pulled up a chair and straddled it. Kabuto looked exhausted. He narrowed his eyes. He watched him carefully before turning his attention to Ino. She began avoiding his gaze. She was hiding something. She walked away from Sakura. She brought a hand to her eyes and rubbed them. Sasuke wanted to press her further and ask questions, but he didn’t, he could still hear Naruto’s words echoing in his skull.

“How do you know so much about this place?” Sasuke asked. He pushed off the door frame and entered the living room. He walked closer and closer to Kabuto.

“We’re squatters. We’re here illegally. We’ve been coming here since it became abandoned. It makes the perfect hunting cabin.” Kabuto answered without looking up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket knife. He opened it up and the blade caught the reflection of the fire. Sasuke stopped moving and watched as Kabuto began to clean the dirt from his fingernails with the tip of the blade.

“Don’t you know what happened here?” Sasuke asked. He was several feet away from Kabuto.

“Nobody would know more than what happened here than you, right...Uchiha Sasuke?”

“What?”

“The Uchiha’s were the largest shareholders of this camp. They knew exactly what was going on here, and did nothing because it helped line their pockets. Those two employees who committed suicide here. They didn’t commit suicide they were murdered and the Uchiha’s were the ones who did it.”

"How do you know my name?"

"That little brat screamed your name when he accused you of attempted murder. Don't worry mommy and daddy will bail you out. You are an Uchiha after all."

It felt as if someone punched Sasuke in the gut. His vision blurred and he felt himself stumble to the side as his knees gave way. He wondered if there was nothing in this country his parents didn’t have their hands in. The Uchiha’s were one of the original founders, and one of the oldest political families in Konoha. His family members were politicians, lawyers, judges, police detectives, and some in lucrative business dealings. They could do anything they wanted too even commit murder.

“It had nothing to do with Sasuke or his family!” Sakura defended. She smeared her tears and snot with her coat sleeve. She looked fiercely at Kabuto.

“What’s with that tone? You’re going to make me regret saving that brat’s life!” Kabuto hissed as he focused his attention on Sakura.

“I want to see him. Where is the infirmary?” Sasuke demanded, recovering.

Suigetsu snorted and mumbled. “Jesus christ.”

Sasuke walked to the door in the corner of the room. The door Kabuto and Ino emerged from, and turned the handle. It was locked. He tried again thinking the door was stuck but it wasn’t and it remained locked from the other side. “Why is it locked?”

“It’s an old house and some of the doors lock automatically. There is nothing we can do about it.” Kabuto mocked.

“Tell me how to get to the infirmary!”

“Why?” Ino asked enraged. She had pushed herself off from the wall and was now glaring at Sasuke. "You tried to kill Naruto twice! Why don’t you just leave him alone and let him rest! That's what we should all be doing! Resting!”

“What are talking about?” Sasuke demanded and his eyes locked to Ino’s. He wanted to know what she knew, and he wanted to know why she was saying this. He tried to kill Naruto...twice? Suigetsu smirked and didn’t try to hide his smile at Ino's words.

“What’s she’s trying to say is...just think back to the words that little brat whispered to you, and if you don’t listen. Those words are going to come true.” Kabuto answered. He slid his cold eyes to stare at Sasuke. He knew exactly what Naruto said and Sasuke’s blood ran cold.

What were they planning? What did they want?

Sakura’s face twisted into confusion. She looked from Ino who had averted her eyes from Sasuke and was focusing on the ground to Sasuke whose face twisted up into recognition that Kabuto knew exactly what Naruto whispered to him back at the campsite. She looked to Suigetsu whose smirk left his face and he was staring from Sasuke to Kabuto in confusion, and finally to Kabuto who was sitting with a shit-eating grin. He began playing with the pocket knife in his hand threateningly. She turned back to Sasuke.

“What did Naruto say to you?” Sakura asked. It was the question she should have asked in the beginning.

The room fell quiet. She looked back to Ino who had been nervously biting the skin from her lower lip. She offered no answer but the expression on her face told Sakura she knew exactly what Naruto said. The sound of the fire crackled and snapped. The room filled with warmth from the fire, and she felt her body growing hotter, and soon she felt herself sweating so much she wanted to remove her jacket, but an unknown fear held her. She looked down at Lee’s jacket that had been laying in front of the fire to dry. She thought to Lee and Choji who had willingly left with Orochimaru to bring them up canned food from the basement.

Sasuke turned and looked at Kabuto as he answered. “He told me to listen to them or we were all going to die.”

There came the sound of a slow clap. It came from the doorway that led to the foyer. The clapping grew louder and more rapid. It became an unsettling sound. It became furious clapping that teetered on madness. The noise and actions twisted their stomachs and immediately threw them all into fight, flight, or freeze responses. They turned to the doorway to find Orochimaru standing there. His body was stiff, and erect, and the only thing moving were his hands that were outstretched, and perpendicular to the floor, clapping erratically. The clapping continued. His face was hardened and darkened. His forehead had deepened wrinkles. His eyes were slits of black. The clapping continued and the noise was so frightening it began to morph and expand. It sounded like screams muffled by mechanical machinery.

The clapping stopped. There was a long impregnable silence. They all watched as Orochimaru shouldered off the hunting rifle that was across his back and shifted it into his hands. He cocked it back and aimed it at Sasuke.

"Now that we've got that out of the way. Why don't you say we all play a game to pass the time?"

Chapter Text

“He wanted to explain how people were never quite what you thought they were.”― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Lee took inventory of his body.

He was just beginning to regain the feeling back in the tips of his fingers. He flexed his fingers until he was able to move his hands freely. It did nothing to lighten his mood, and he continued to stew in rage as if someone had placed him into a pressure cooker. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so viscerally angry. Not only did it feel like it was the very first time in his short life it felt as if he was always going to continue to feel this deep seated rage for the rest of his life.

He looked down. There were wet splotches all over his long-sleeved shirt that caused his shirt to stick to his skin. He peeled his shirt from his skin. His jeans were still wet and felt heavy and cumbrous. He felt wet and cold. It was as if he gained twenty pounds in twenty minutes. His adrenaline had subsided forcing him to feel the duress his body was under. The panic, the anxiety, the anger, the sore muscles and exhaustion. It left him feeling even more bitter and resentful. He found himself caught somewhere between screaming and breaking down.

His shoes squelched every time he descended the basement stairs. The stairs creaked and groaned. It was hard not to keep thinking about the wet clothes he was forced to wear. He wasn’t able to change clothes. His backpack had gone up in flames. The only other viable option was to strip and lay out his clothes next to his coat to dry out by the fire in the living room. That didn’t seem like an option because he didn’t want to sit naked and exposed as he waited for his clothes to dry. His face flushed thinking about it. He should have been able to change clothes. It wasn’t fair. He was so uncomfortable he wanted to cry. Sasuke’s face flashed through his mind.

“AGHHHH!” Lee let out an exasperated cry of frustration. Everything seemed to pile on and he thought he was going to collapse.

“You don’t seem to be having a good time.” Orochimaru answered unsympathetically.

Orochimaru was walking in front of them carrying the oil lantern and lighting their way. He slithered easily around the darkened house leading them as he led them through the forest. Even if he wasn’t carrying a light source he would still be able to find his way around. He could do it blindfolded, with his hands tied behind his back, and ankles tied together, slithering and sliding his body along the floor. He knew every inch of this house from the corners of the basement to the rafters of the attic. Every nook and cranny. Every hiding spot. Every skeleton. Every scream and horror. Every nightmare. He smirked. He knew it all.

Lee glared at Orochimaru’s back. He saw the hunting rifle bobbing back and forth that should have been enough to deter him, but he was losing all sense of humanity and decency.

“No, really? You don’t say?!” Lee answered sarcastically. His filter had been removed. “It’s almost like I was in a car accident, and stranded in the mountains the past couple days! I’m sorry I wasn’t having a good time!”

“Couple days? You’ve been missing for at least a week now.” Orochimaru answered turning around to stare gleefully at Lee.

“A week?!”

“You went missing April Fool’s Day, correct?” Orochimaru asked bobbing his head enthusiastically.

“Y-yeah…?” Lee answered impatiently remembering they had left April 1st, because the competition was set to begin the morning of April 2nd. The first round commencing at 9:00AM. They didn’t make it.

“Today is April 7th.” Orochimaru answered his eyes lighting up.

“We’ve been out there wandering around for seven days?” Lee spoke out loud. He wasn’t expecting an answer. It was his way of making sense of the world, and he was grasping at straws.

The math didn’t add up in his head. They should have been on day five. He went over the past few days with a fine tooth comb. The first afternoon they were in an accident. The first night he slept outside of the van. The second morning they found Kiba’s body. The second night they had quarreled about the flashlight. The third morning he had been attacked by a wolf. The third afternoon Naruto and Sasuke left to reach the blue tarp campsite and seek help. The third night help didn’t arrive and they went to sleep hoping help would come during the night. It didn’t. The fourth morning they still weren’t rescued. The fourth night they were forced to sleep another night in the woods, in the cold, starving. The fifth morning they left for the blue tarp campsite taking the path on the other side of the river. The fifth afternoon they were reunited with Naruto and Sasuke at the blue tarp campsite.

The fifth night they were found by Orochimaru and Kabuto who led them through a snowstorm and to Camp Konohagakure. It was the fifth night...it should have been the fifth night. So why wasn’t it the fifth night? He looked at Orochimaru expecting him to confess that he was lying. He didn’t. Lee looked away.

It had actually been seven days? What? He had lost two full days? He remembered Sasuke swearing he and Naruto had only been gone for one night. He remembered Suigetsu’s rage and Sasuke’s responses and Naruto’s excuses as he mediated. Even though Lee was running a fever he heard everything. He heard everything. Naruto and Sasuke weren’t able to account for the missing day. They had no recollection. It simply vanished from their memory, and now Lee had joined them his memory resembling swiss cheese.

They had lost two full days. How? Where? When?

Was it when they reached the blue tarp campsite? Did they somehow stumble into a time anomaly where time was distorted and manipulated? He shook his head trying to tread water in the stream of consciousness. He read too many sci fi books, and watched too many sci fi movies to know that was impossible. Time didn’t move that way, did it? He knew the difference between reality and fiction, right? He didn't know anymore. He went from a boil to a shimmer as anxieties weighed him down.

They reached the bottom of the stairs and Lee looked down to see cement beneath his feet. They were in the basement. Water pooled from his shoes. He turned around and saw that Choji had been following, silently, and joined him. He wore a vacant expression as he looked at Lee.

“Choji. We lost two days.” Lee commented. Choji stared at him blankly. Lee might as well speak in another language with how little Choji was comprehending. “We need to leave these damn mountains before we lose our damn minds!” Lee continued and turned back around. He didn’t want to lose his mind at fourteen. Choji shuffled behind him.

“Why is everything in the basement? Isn’t there a kitchen?” Lee asked sourly.

Orochimaru laughed mockingly but didn’t provide an answer. They walked around corner after corner, and moved in different directions. Left. Right. Right. Left. As if they were hungry mice moving through a maze trying to find a piece of cheese at the end. It was disorienting, and he didn’t know how to get back to the basement stairs.

“Do you want to see where they recovered the bodies?” Orochimaru asked. “We’re almost there. I can show you were the police found the bodies. I can give you the grand murder tour, walk you through their last moments!"

“What? No!”

"I can tell you who was the first to die! He was lucky. The first to die is always the luckiest...just imagine the amount of terror the last boy felt. Do you want me to tell you?"

"NO!"

“That’s a shame.” Orohimaru answered solemnly. They turned a corner and came to a room with rows and rows of shelves filled with dusty canned goods and preserves. “Hold this for a moment.”

Orochimaru stated as he handed Lee the oil lantern. Lee grabbed it and scowled unsure why he was giving this to him when he could have just set it on the shelf. Lee found Choji taking the cans at random from the shelves.

“We should have grabbed a bag to fill before we came down, huh?” Lee said as he set the oil lantern on one of the shelves, and grabbed a can at random. He brushed the dirt away. “Campbell’s Frank and Beans. Of course.” He rolled his eyes.

“Is there a can opener? Otherwise how are we going to open these? Throw them at the floor until they open?” Lee asked Orochimaru as he turned around. He didn’t see him. Anywhere. He vanished.

“Hey! Where did he go?” Lee asked as he took the oil lantern and moved around the shelves. “That bastard! Did he leave us?” Lee slammed the oil lantern back on one of the shelves. Already accepting the fact they were left behind. “Stop, Choji. Just stop for a second.” He held a hand out as Choji began to use his shirt to carry more cans. Lee reached for a glass jar that looked to be canned peaches. “Let’s eat some of this fruit first.” Lee slammed the top of the glass against one of the shelves to loosen up the lid before he twisted. It was difficult and he used every last muscle until he heard a popping sound, and the lid twisted off. He beamed.

“These are edible right?” Lee asked. Choji began putting the cans back on the shelf. He didn’t answer. Lee dumped the contents of the jar into his mouth. Slices of peaches slid into his mouth. He began chewing and the sweetness of the peaches and the sugary corn syrup drenched his mouth. The excess liquid rolled down the side of his mouth and dripped off his chin. He swallowed.

“These are delicious!” Lee announced and handed Choji another jar of peaches from the shelf. Choji took the jar, opened it, and began eating the peaches hungrily.

“Do you think he’s going to come back?” Lee asked. “Because I don’t think so. I think he’s going to just leave us down here. I’m not going to bring them any food! If the other’s want any food they can fetch it themselves. I’m not an errand boy!”

Lee sneezed and rubbed his sleeve against his nose. He felt his eyes watering from the dustiness and mustiness of the basement air. He rubbed his eyes before looking around. The shelves appeared to be in one large room. There were four walls and a doorless entryway. He looked around the outskirts of the room. Orochimaru really wasn’t anywhere in sight. The shelves were covered in layers and years of dirt and cobwebs. Lee sneezed again. His eyes began to grow more itchy and watery and he continued to rub his eyes until his vision blurred.

The spiderwebs were huge and encased some shelves in thick white webs that stuck to their clothes as they removed them. Lee made a face as he saw the cobwebs sticking to him. He reached for another jar of peaches when he saw a large brown spider the size of his hand scurrying away. He retracted his hand away and screamed. Choji snapped his head and stared at Lee.

“Dammit! This place is filled with spiders!” Lee defended as he looked helplessly at Choji. He curled up both hands and kept them protectively by his chest. He watched the brown spider scurry away into the shadows of the shelf. He felt goosebumps forming on his skin. “It’s not natural! Anything that has more than four legs should be destroyed! Why does something need so many legs? Let’s grab some cans and get outta here! I’ve had enough of this creepy basement!”

Lee avoided the shelf with the monstrous spider, and gathered up some cans and jars of fruit and pickled vegetables. He used his shirt, like Choji, as a makeshift bag before grabbing the oil lantern and leaving the room.

“Which way? Left or right?” Lee asked. He couldn’t remember the way they took. He looked to Choji who shrugged. “Choji. It’s okay, it's just you and me. You can speak you know.” Choji didn’t respond. Lee stared back waiting for a response he never got.

“Let’s just go right.” Lee said exhaustively, and began moving back through the maze of tunnels.

“All we need to do is wait here until this stupid storm passes and we can go home. I actually thought about possibly coming here when we reached the blue tarp before I realized none of us know how to read a map. I never thought we’d actually come here.”

Lee continued to talk out loud as he led the way. When they came back to the same room with the same shelves stocked with the same canned foods he stopped. “Are you kidding me?” He held the lantern in the room to check it was the same room, and sure enough he noticed the spots on the shelves they had disturbed and where the dust was cleaned and the cobwebs cleared.

“We’re back where we started?” Choji spoke. He looked into the room and then turned his head from left to right. “Yes! I see that!” Lee stated recklessly and stopped. “You’ve spoken!” Choji stared at Lee silently. Lee didn’t know why but he felt relief in Choji’s voice even if they had walked in a complete circle.

“Do you know the way out?” Lee asked hopeful that he really was paying attention. Choji shook his head no. Lee looked disheartened.

“Let’s go left then.” Lee continued. He turned left and began walking. He glanced over his shoulder to see Choji was shuffling behind him. “I didn’t mean to snap at you, Choji.” Lee apologized. He turned and looked out in front of him. “It’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it's Sasuke’s! To think I actually looked up to him, and to think I was actually happy that Naruto was behind Sasuke and Suigetsu joining. I’m disgusted with myself. I'm so stupid!”

Lee turned around the corner and came to a large wooden, white, door with upside down crosses painted in black paint. He looked at the door and furrowed his eyes in confusion. There was no where else to go. He juggled holding his shirt and oil lantern in one hand. He reached out and turned the door handle. He didn’t remember entering any doors. It was better than having to retrace their steps yet again. It was locked.

“Jeez! It’s locked!” Lee expelled and pivoted to stare at Choji. He shifted the cloth of his shirt to his left hand, and the lantern remained in his right hand. “Let’s go back this is a dead end!” Just when he was about to move away there came a sound from the other side of the door. It was the sound of a girl screaming. It was a familiar noise. It sounded like…

“Hinata?” Lee murmured as he spun around. The screaming stopped. “HINATA?” Lee yelled against the white wood with the upside down painted crosses. “HINATA?” Lee was yelling for clarification. He needed her to respond to let him know she heard him.

NO YOU’RE DEAD! YOU’RE DEAD! I SAW IT! YOU DIED!

Her voice sounded as if she was right behind the door. She was screaming again. A large thump came against the door from the other side, and it sounded as if fists were banging against the wood. Lee saw the wood shaking and splintering as if it was being hit with a wrecking ball. Just as the splintering wood formed it began to heal itself and become smooth and one piece. The noises were loud and the door continued to shake and thump against the lock as the pounding continued. Her screams caused adrenaline to be released into his veins and bile to pump into his stomach. The pounding grew louder and it sounded as if a sledgehammer was being used. The same pattern happened just as the wood splintered it began to heal.

Hinata continued to scream. It was a bloodcurdling scream. She was being tortured. It rattled through his eardrum. The screaming continued to echo and the pounding continued to increase. It looked as if the door was going to fly off its hinges, but it didn’t. It remained locked. It remained closed. It remained intact. He was filled with fear and confusion. Hinata was supposed to be with Naruto in the infirmary. So why did he hear her down here in the basement? Why was she locked in a room in the basement? Who put her behind this door? What was causing her to scream? He began to panic. Everything began shifting together and alarms began to sound. He had to save her and he had to save her now.

The pounding on the door ceased. The screaming stopped. Everything became still and deafeningly quiet.

“Help me open this door!” Lee cried out as he felt his face pale and the blood drained from his body. He regained control of his body and he began to move.

He dropped the cans and jars he was carrying. The cans hit the ground and rolled around. The glass jars exploded upon hitting the concrete. Shards of glass, liquid, fruit and pickled vegetables splattered all over. He needed to save Hinata, nothing else mattered. Something was happening to her on the other side of the door. His heart rate increased and his sight, vision, and sense of smell heightened. He put the oil lantern on the ground. He grabbed the door handle with a shaky hand, and placed his shoulder up against the door. He was going to have to force it open if he wanted to save Hinata.

Lee looked to see Choji remaining rooted in his spot and staring at him in confusion. There was something unrecognizable on Choji’s face, but Lee didn’t have time to figure it out. He needed to save Hinata.

“CHOJI! HURRY UP! HELP ME!”

Choji let go of the cans and jars he was holding. In a similar fashion the jars shattered and the cans rolled around. Choji followed Lee’s lead and placed his shoulder against the door. On the count of three they began to slam their bodies up against the door. On the third time Lee heard a clicking noise, and the white door with the painted upside down crosses opened as if someone opened the door from the other side. They both lost their balance and fell over and into the pitch black room. It took a moment for Lee to gather himself up, and when he did he was hit with an overwhelming, acrid, noxious smell of feces and urine. It filled his throat and nose and he found himself gagging.

He was standing in the locked blue porta potty. It felt like a sauna. Sweat had formed on his temples and forehead. He gagged and was forced to breathe. He had been holding his breath for as long as he could. He grossly underestimated just how much he had to urinate. He was forced to breathe before he was done urinating into the blue hole. He could hear his urine hitting the overwhelming heap of human excrement and the smell nearly caused him to faint. He looked into the top corner and saw a thick cobweb with two large black spiders looking back. One was spinning a captured fly into a web and the other turned towards Lee as if it was ready to leap off the web towards him. He wanted to scream. An internal alarm went off. He stuffed himself into his boxers and buttoned his pants. He stumbled out of the blue porta potty coughing and gagging, and dry heaving, forcing clean air into his lungs between fits.

“Dude are you okay?” Kiba asked as he watched Lee cough and gag. He stifled a laugh at Lee’s dramatics.

“Those things are toxic and should be illegal!” Lee answered as he pointed at the blue porta potty. He was clean, dry, and in laundered clothes. It was the Fall Harvest Festival. The city park had been transformed into a county fair mixed with a farmers market with carnival rides, games, food trucks, and vendors selling wares and crafts. There was the smell of pumpkin, cider, apples, and cotton candy in the air. The warm colors of autumn saturated the color palette. There was a cacophony of chatter, children’s delightful cheers from the midway, and corny carnival music being pumped into the air through loudspeakers placed strategically around the park.

“Zip your fly up you’re hanging out!” Naruto commented discreetly in Lee’s ear. Kiba wasn’t able to contain his laughter anymore and howled.

“What?!” Lee choked and he looked down. His face turned the color of mortification red and he thought about submitting it to Crayola. His face was inflamed and itched. He stuffed himself back into his pants, zipped and buttoned up.

“The only downside of going to an outdoor festival is having to use the porta potty.” Kiba explained to Naruto before asking. “Do you still have to go?” Naruto looked from the row of noxious porta potties to Lee. He shook his head no, and held his hand up and shook it.

“Nah. I’m good. I have a steel bladder.”

“That’s it! I’m cutting myself off. No more beverages for the rest of the night!” Lee continued. He inhaled through his nostrils and exhaled through his mouth. He could still taste the smell of the porta potty on his tongue, and in the back of his throat and a shiver went through his body. He wrinkled his nose up into disgust and began walking away as he fanned his tongue with his hand.

“Let’s go. I’m going to blow chunks if we stay here any longer!” Lee complained. He began moving towards the midway which was beginning to light up. The sun was setting and as it set the skyline was set on fire. It was an uncharacteristically warm autumn day where they only needed to wear a long sleeved shirt. Naruto was nervously playing with the zipper on his sweatshirt as he followed.

“You really never been to a fair before?” Lee asked Naruto.

“No. Nothing like this before.” Naruto admitted. His eyes began darting around to everything happening all around him. Lee’s eyes lit up with Naruto’s answer. He was gaining excitement from just watching Naruto’s reaction. He was beginning to feel giddy as if experiencing the fair for the first time through Naruto. He was happy to have Naruto with him and Kiba.

“Is Hinata coming?” Kiba asked. He positioned his hands behind his head and scanned the crowd.

“She said she would when I invited her.” Naruto answered and looked through the crowd training his eyes to spot her.

“Ah you invited buzzkill?” Lee protested and rolled his eyes.

“Come on she’s cool!” Naruto defended. “She’s actually pretty fearless! I almost fainted in science class when we had to dissect a frog, and she just did it without batting an eye! Guts.” Naruto nodded his head.

“You almost fainted in science class?” Lee asked and quirked an eyebrow over hearing this for the first time. He couldn’t picture Naruto losing his cool, over anything, let alone over a dead frog.

“Dissecting dead things just isn’t for me! Plus frogs are one of my favorite animals look even my wallet has frogs on it!” Naruto defended. He held out his wallet which had tiny green frogs stitched into the fake leather. “I can’t go dissecting frogs it’s like asking me to dissect my brethren!”

“How old are you again, and you have a childish thing like that?” Lee laughed.

“You wanna talk about age, dude? Don’t you still have Star Wars’ sheets on your car shaped bed?” Kiba teased.

“Alright-alright. Lesson learned, and for your information it’s Star Trek sheets not Star Wars, and I now have a twin sized bed.” Lee spoke and stuck his tongue out. “I just don’t want anything to get in the way of our night! I’ve been waiting all year for this night! And you know why! This year we’re finally going to do it!” Lee jumped up and down pumping his hands in the air. His thoughts turned back to Hinata.

He began to get acquainted with Hinata through Naruto who began inviting her to sit with them during lunch, and although Lee was friendly, he felt nervous whenever she was around. He didn’t know what she was thinking or how she was really feeling. She wore a mask. Her face a blank canvas. The only emotion she showed was embarrassment. Every time Hinata turned red it made him uncomfortable and guilty as if he shouldn’t be watching. She remained so quiet it was almost like she wasn’t even there. The only times she spoke was if she was asked a direct question. When he thought about it he knew he was nervous because she wasn’t just a girl she was a Hyuga. Her social status, although nonexistent in school, were millions of miles away from where he and his family were on the economic ladder.

“She won’t. Hinata’s cool. I’ve known her since middle school. We should keep an eye out for her. She’s so quiet she might blend in the crowd and get lost.” Kiba answered. Lee shrugged and began moving towards the ticket booth. He was worried that something was going to get in the way of them completing Lugosi’s Haunted House. He turned and stared at Naruto. Seeing him and Lee became excited again.

“So, you’ve never rode the tilt-a-whirl?” Lee asked Naruto. He shook his head. “The mega drop?” Naruto’s eyes widened. “The what?” “The mega drop!” Lee repeated. He pointed to a square red tower high in the sky. There were patrons strapped in seats with chest harnesses securing them. Rows of seats on all four sides of the tower. The tower stretched over one-hundred feet in the air, and just as Naruto eyes locked on the seats that were at the top, it dropped, and all he could hear were the squeals and cries of the participants as they fell ninety-feet before stopping and slowing down. Naruto's eyes widened.

“No.” Naruto laughed. “The sea dragon?” Lee asked and pointed towards a pirate ship that seemed to swing back and forth like a pendulum to people who squealed in delight. “No! I haven’t rode any carnival rides!”

“Do you get motion sick easily?” Lee asked.

“I don’t think so…” Naruto answered although thinking about it he was unsure.

The only ride he recalled was the kiddie carousel that was small and only had three horses to choose from. Naruto looked through the carnival rides until he found it. The life-size two-story carousel. There were rows of horses of all colors on the second story and a mix of horses and carriages on the first story. There were vignettes on the top of the carousel of horrific paintings. There was a painting of Saturn the God in human form devouring one of his infant sons, eating his chest, and flesh, and bone as the infant screamed in agony. There was another depicting the massacre of innocents. A chaotic scene of pure onslaught of naked men slaughtering all first born sons. Ripping the infants from their mother’s arms and bashing their skulls against the ground, stepping and crushing their skulls with their feet, and slicing their throats with sharpened swords. There was a painting of medusa’s slain head with bulging eyes, bleeding out from the neck, as angry snakes hissed all around her.

He heard the sound of a toddler crying. He looked at the carousel and saw a blonde toddler holding fiercely onto the saddle of the horse and crying hysterically. The toddler was looking frantically around. There wasn't any parent or sibling nearby. He didn't know why he was alone. He continued to watch the toddler until the carousel turned and he was lost. Naruto held his breath and waited. By the time the carousel completed it’s rotation the blonde, crying, toddler was nowhere to be seen. He continued hearing the crying toddler grower louder inside his head.

“Dude. Wait! Before we do any of the rides we need to conquer Lugosi’s Haunted House first!” Kiba contributed. He wrapped an arm around Naruto’s neck and snapped him out of it. He felt his heart explode and he jumped. He paled and looked anxiously at Kiba. Both Kiba and Lee were engrossed in conversation that they didn’t notice him. He found his chest aching as his heart thumped painfully. He could still hear the toddler’s screams in the back of his skull and then they were drowned out.

“Don’t tell me you’re still scared, and want to do it while it’s still light out!” Lee accused.

“Scared? I’m not scared! I figure we do it now before a line starts!” Kiba defended. Lee looked him up and down. Kiba was wearing a band t-shirt with a hand holding a red heart shaped grenade on the front, and a long-sleeved white shirt underneath. He had a wardrobe full of band t-shirts. “It isn’t just any haunted house! It’s also a maze and really difficult to accomplish!” He continued to explain to Naruto.

“Is it just a regular maze or a mirror maze? I did a mirror maze before and I wasn’t good at it at all!” Naruto said with a laugh. He seemed to have recovered, and pushed the crying toddler from his mind. “I think I ran into a mirror 2-3 times before I gave up!”

“It’s a two story maze! You start off on the second floor and have to reach the exit on the first floor. The majority of people get trapped by going down the wrong path and have to be bailed out by the workers. It’s been an attraction over the past few years and we haven’t been able to beat it yet.” Lee explained filling in the backstory and lore.

“This year! We’re going to do it. We’re finally going to solve it.” Kiba beamed and clenched his hand into a fist.

“HINATA!” Lee shouted and began waving his hands in the air. He spotted her in the crowd. She looked both frightened and out of place sticking out like a sore thumb.

Hinata stumbled into view. She moved through a family of ten and walked up to them her eyes caste down. She rarely looked anyone in the eyes. She fidgeted with her purse that hung off her shoulder. She was wearing a navy dress with a white cardigan, nude stockings, and pink ballet flats. She had a rose gold barrette in her hair and matching rose gold bracelet. Even though she was thirteen there was an aura around her that seemed to age her. He knew her family were considered old fashioned, regal, old money. Her family came from a long line of blue bloods that traced back to the founding of the country. There was so much old money in her family it was probably their money that the federal reserve based the worth of it’s currency on.

Seeing her fidget and look out of place began to pull at Lee’s heart strings. He never saw anyone, besides Naruto, willingly talk to Hinata in school. She was so quiet she was often overlooked. If she didn’t have friends she was probably never invited out to these kinds of activities. He didn’t recall ever seeing her at the Harvest Festival before. He felt guilty for making a big deal about Naruto inviting her. Even though she looked nervous, and out of place, he saw the corners of her mouth tugging as if she wanted to smile, but caught herself and wouldn’t allow it. He felt his stomach flipping and flopping.

“Hi Hinata! I’m glad you were able to make it!” Naruto beamed. The color had returned to his cheeks and the energy was restored.

“Thanks...for inviting me.” Hinata answered and kept her eyes down.

“No, thanks for taking the lead and dissecting the frog! I’m entirely indebted to you!” Naruto continued and flashed her both a smile and two peace signs.

“Hinata you are officially more fearless than Naruto. He told us he almost fainted!” Kiba quipped and pushed him lightly on the shoulder.

“Hey!” Naruto said his face flushing. “I didn’t really faint!”

“You almost did.” Hinata answered, and her lips spread into a smile.

“Okay...I almost did!” Naruto admitted and laughed. Lee watched Hinata’s soft features brighten. He was memorized by the smile she gave Naruto. The nervousness seemed to etch away the longer she was around Naruto and Lee found himself relaxing. Hinata was a good edition to their group.

“To the ticket booth!” Lee exclaimed and pointed towards the candy striped hut that had a line of twenty.

“Um…” Hinata spoke and moved her hands to her purse. She was so quiet Lee barely heard her and only turned when Naruto acknowledged her. “I have...these for everyone.” Hinata continued and pulled from her purse four red bracelets.

“Whoa!” Lee exclaimed as he recognized the bracelets. “Where did you get these?”

“They were given to my family for helping sponsor the festival.” Hinata answered. “Nobody wanted to use them so I thought we could use them.” She held them out for them to take.

“You are my new best friend!” Lee said with a big smile. He grabbed one of the bracelets and began putting it on. Kiba took one and immediately thanked Hinata. Naruto hesitated and asked. “What is it?” He looked at Hinata. She blinked and looked down and didn't answer.

“It’s an all-day ride pass!” Lee answered and held his wrist up. “With this you can go on as many rides as you want, as many times as you want, and can even get access to Lugosi’s Haunted House!”

“That seems expensive…” Naruto hesitated. “I only want to go on a few rides.”

“It’s okay.” Hinata answered as she watched Naruto pull back. Her voice started out as a whisper and grew louder as she explained. “They were donated to us, and if we don’t use them they'll just go to waste. We always get a lot of bracelets donated to us every year, and we never use them.”

“The Hyuga’s are a big sponsor of the fair.” Kiba continued as he put his bracelet on. He nodded his head in the direction of a banner that had the Hyuga’s name printed across. Naruto looked at the banner and back to Hinata who smiled sheepishly back.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Is this your first time coming too, Hinata? It’s Naruto’s first time too!” Kiba spoke loudly more so for Naruto’s benefit. Naruto looked at Hinata whose face, neck, and ears flushed a bright red, and she turned away without answering. It clicked and Naruto grabbed the bracelet and put it on.

“Thank you, Hinata! I’m glad you’re here with us!” Naruto answered. Hinata nodded her head up and down, but wasn’t able to say anything else. Her face continued to beat bright red. “So what should we do first?” Naruto asked.

“Lugosi’s Haunted House!” Kiba answered.

“Dude.” Lee said. “Let’s wait! We got all night!”

“That’s fine let’s do the Haunted House. If we don’t get it the first time we can do it again.” Naruto tried to compromise.

Lugosi’s Haunted House!” Kiba corrected.

“No-no-no-no! You don’t get it, you can’t do it more than once. You’re only allowed to do it once per year!” Lee explained seriously as he bobbed his head for emphasis. “Eh?” Naruto wasn’t following.

“It’s an unwritten rule.” Kiba explained. “If you complete it the first time your name gets added to the list, and as it stands there’s only a handful of names on the list. But you gotta complete it on the first time, that year. It can’t be a second or third time it’s not playing fair and your name won’t go on the list!”

“Ah. I see. One of those playground rules.” Naruto commented. Lee and Kiba nodded their heads. “What happens if your name is on the list?”

“Gloating rights forever!” Lee answered with a large toothy-smile and his hands on his hips. His eyes sparkled and lit up as if fireworks were exploding internally. “They also change the maze. So every year it’s different. Even if you memorized last year’s it’s impossible because they already changed it. Believe me, the first time it launched I memorized the layout and the next year they went and changed it up completely!”

“Okay! This sounds exciting!” Naruto exclaimed. He was beginning to feel Lee’s excitement, and he internalized it as his own.

“What about you Hinata?” Lee asked and she turned to him. “Are you excited, or are you scared like Kiba?”

“I’m not scared!” Kiba murmured from behind.

“Scared? No. I’m excited too.” Hinata answered quietly. A fierce determination appeared in her eyes the closer they got to Lugosi’s Haunted House.

When they reached the exhibit Naruto saw that it was a massive two story structure. The whole outline of the building was lit up with orange and blue circular bulbs, and there was a neon sign that flashed Lugosi’s Haunted House across the rooftop. There were wax mannequins lined up outside on the ground made to look like they were melting. Standing on the second story and fastened to the rooftop were swamp monsters, werewolves, vampires, frankensteins, mummies, and godzillas. It was very gaudy with electric greens and yellows and oranges and purples. Paying homage to the monster films of the 1950’s.

“Is this supposed to be scary?” Naruto asked and laughed. “The dead frog was scarier!” He teased and flashed a smile.

“You don’t know!” Lee defended. He grabbed Kiba’s arm and continued. “He doesn’t know!”

“No. He doesn’t know. Look at the boy who doesn’t know! He’s going to eat his words.” Kiba answered. “He couldn’t even dissect a frog, and he thinks Lugosi’s Haunted House isn’t scary. He'll probably wet his pants.”

“I can hear you…” Naruto answered with a nervous laugh. He shrugged and looked to Hinata whispering. “It isn’t scary at all.” Hinata shook her head in agreement and looked at the exhibit. Kiba and Lee shook their heads in unison.

“These kids are in for a ride.” Lee spoke out loud as he reached the stairs that led to the second story. Kiba nodded his head in agreement. Naruto laughed and followed them up the stairs that creaked and groaned under their weight. He looked down watching the wire holes of the stairs as he grabbed the railing to steady himself. It didn't look stable. His stomach dropped.

“Four admissions!” Lee stated to the attendant dressed in an obnoxious red uniform. He pointed to the red bracelet on their wrists.

“Rule’s changed.” The attendant spoke. He was a gawky teenager appearing to be several years older with a severe overbite, small jaw, and a large nose. He had coke-bottle glasses and sparse red hair. His eyes were too close together and his eyebrows were too far apart. He was tall and thin with long spindly arms covered in fuzzy red hair, and fingers with chewed off nails. He stared at them individually before resting his eyes on Hinata. “It’s two at a time now.”

“What?” Lee and Kiba exclaimed at once. The attendant inhaled snot from his nose and swallowed loudly. He nodded his head and began picking his ear with his pinky. When he pulled it out he looked at the brown earwax smeared on the tip of his pinky, and wiped it on his shirt before bringing his pinky to the other ear. Hinata’s eyes widened and she turned green watching him.

“Rules changed. Two at a time. Better hurry up and decide a line is forming behind ya.” The attendant stated.

Naruto and Hinata turned to see lots of kids and teenagers began making a beeline towards Lugosi’s Haunted House and began ascending the stairs gleefully.

“Okay. That’s fine. We’ll just go two at a time.” Lee answered quickly. He felt his palms growing sweaty and he looked from Kiba, to Naruto, to Hinata. “Who's going with who?”

“Rock paper scissors?” Kiba asked. They stared at him puzzled. “Come on! Rock paper scissors! Shoot!” Kiba continued as the kids formed a line behind them putting pressure on them to hurry.

On muscle memory they all pumped their hands in the air three times before revealing their choices. Lee and Hinata both had scissors. Naruto had paper, and Kiba had rock.

“Lee and Hinata are partners. They both chose scissors.” Kiba pointed out and explained.

Naruto shrugged. “That’s fine. Kiba and I will be partners.”

“Eh?” Lee exclaimed and looked at Hinata. Her face flushed a blood red and she turned away.

“Go. First pair go in!” the attendant announced nasally. There were crooked doors lined up across the second story. A. B. C. He pointed to the bright yellow door with a bloody C painted on the front. Red paint rolled down and pooled at the base of the door.

“We'll go first. Let’s go, Kiba!” Naruto volunteered and he and Kiba disappeared behind the door. Lee turned to Hinata.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Lee asked.

“Mhm!”

“Next pair! Door A!” the attendant’s nasally voice interrupted, and he pointed a jagged finger to the vibrant purple door where the letter A appeared to be spray painted in black.

Lee swallowed. He was the first to enter through the door. He wondered if success was based on which door you started on. Every year there was always three doors. A. B. C. He had been coming for three years. He had door B two years in a row, and he was trying door A for the first time. He knew that they changed the layout but he was feeling hopeful. There was a stark contrast from the brightly lit outside to the pitch dark inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He saw ultraviolet light in pinpricks along the walls.

“Are you afraid of the dark?” Lee asked Hinata. He didn’t know why he felt the need to take the lead, but he did. He moved ahead of Hinata as he moved down the narrow hallway. The hallway continued to narrow until they were forced to duck their heads as the walls and ceiling shrank.

“No.” Hinata answered. He glanced at her and saw that her white cardigan was glowing as if it was made out of radioactive material. She was a portable walking light source.

“Does anything scare you?” Lee asked. He felt nervous with Hinata. He didn’t know how to make small talk. He wasn’t like Naruto who could strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and become instant friends. He felt self-conscious and tongue-tied.

Hinata followed a few steps behind Lee. She was hunched over and bent her head. Her neck and back began to strain as the walls and ceilings shrank. Her eyes were focused on the floor where she saw the outline of her feet. She kept her eyes down afraid she would trip. What was she afraid of? Hinata’s mind flashed back to her eight grade year and to the kids in her class who grabbed hold of her, unbuttoned her pants and forced them down. She remembered her father’s vicious words blaming her for allowing such a thing to happen and bringing embarrassment to the family. She remembered the bullying, and the words, and the sneers behind her back. She could hear her cousin Neji’s cruel laughter, and his cold eyes watching her and picking her apart.

What was she afraid of?

She thought she was afraid of death, but after meeting death locked in her bathroom she found out she wasn’t afraid at all. Living was far more scarier, and when she awoke on the hospital gurney as they forced a tube down her throat and induced vomiting it was verified. Living was far harder and scarier than death and dying.

“I...don’t know.” Hinata answered hesitantly. It wasn’t as if she could explain all of this to Lee. All of her real fears. “The normal things that happen to girls on the news. What about you?”

The horrendous things she saw on the news. Assault. Kidnapping. Rape. She never experienced any of those things firsthand but witnessed it from other girls falling victim on the news, and in the media, on TV shows, and in the movies. It stuck in her head that being a girl these things would eventually happen to her. It was just a matter of when and where. Being a girl was frightening, but being a Hyuga was even more terrifying.

They were forced to their hands and knees and if they wanted to continue the route they had to crawl. Hinata felt uncomfortable as she crawled after Lee but when he stopped and she bumped into him from behind she quickly apologized and bowed her head.

“Sp-sp-spiders…” Lee spoke his voice shaking. Lee looked down and saw thousands and thousands of spiders crawling and festering. “I don’t like spiders. I don’t like anything that has more than four legs!” There was panic in his voice. Hinata looked down and saw different sized toy spiders strewn about. It was comical how fake they looked.

“They’re not real. They’re fake.” Hinata picked one up. “They’re rubber. Just keep going, they're not going to hate you.”

“Easy for you to say! Spiders love dark places! This place is probably crawling with them!” Lee cried out as he closed his eyes and began crawling with vigor, almost steam plowing his way until they reached the end, and they were able to stand up. Hinata increased her speed and crawled after Lee.

“So spiders don’t scare you. What about snakes?” Lee asked. He kept moving he wanted to be as far away from those spiders as possible.

“We have snakes in the gardens at home. They’re not scary.”

“Yes they are! They don’t have any legs! I don’t know which is worse a creature with many legs or no legs! You don’t know what they’re thinking or where they’re going to move too!” Lee ranted.

Hinata began giggling as she stood up and brushed herself off. Lee stared at her from the corner of his eye. It was the first time he heard her laugh so freely. Maybe it was the darkness of the house that she felt comfortable. They had come to their first decision. Left or Right. Lee held his hands out and turned to Hinata.

“Which should we choose?”

“Left will probably lead around the outskirts of the house, and right would probably lead into the middle of the house.” Hinata hypothesized. “Maybe right? We’ll have a better shot at finding the exit out the front.”

Lee nodded his head she made a good argument. “Right it is! Onward!”

“I heard Naruto convinced you to join the academic decathlon.” Lee continued making conversation. They had entered a large room filled with cobwebs and along the walls were human sized coffins upright and vertical. A mixtape of creepy noises played on speakers. There wasn’t an obvious exit. The only option was to begin opening up the coffins. His stomach sank.

“Mhm. He said you need nine participants to compete, and Mrs. Yuhi was in charge.” Hinata answered. "I like Mrs. Yuhi."

“Mhm. She's cool. What subjects are you going to pick?”

“Art and Science.”

“You’re not going to pick music? I thought you’d pick music for sure!” Lee continued to speak without thinking. The Hyuga’s were known for their musical talents and finesse with string instruments. Lee remembered hearing about a Hyuga playing a solo harp concert last year. The event sold out within thirty minutes that tickets were on sale.

“No. I’m not picking music.” Hinata stiffened and stated plainly. She was given a choice and she wanted to choose for herself what to study and Renaissance Art and Anatomy where two of her favorite topics.

“AGH!” Lee screamed when he opened up one of the coffins and a large spider on a spring jumped out at him. He stumbled and fell backwards. Hinata started laughing. “It’s not funny!” Lee chastised as he crab-walked away from the bouncing spider. As if being controlled by some mechanical timer the coffin door closed on the spider. A large red X lit up on the wall. Hinata turned and looked up. There were two black X’s next to the vibrant red X and she realized they only had three chances. Before she was able to tell Lee he had stood up and opened up another coffin door. This time a witch’s head popped up followed by audio of a witch’s cackle filled the room.

“AGH!!!” Lee cried out unexpected and jumped back. Hinata laughed harder. Another red X lit up. They had one more chance to pick the correct coffin or they would fail.

“You think it’s funny? You pick a coffin then! Go on!” Lee spoke with a bruised ego and humiliation. He was expecting Hinata to become frightened and scream and yelp over things that went bump in the night, and here he was trembling. Hinata walked up to one of the unopened coffins and opened it up. She closed her eyes expecting something to pop out instead inside there was a hidden entrance. Lee slapped his hand to his forehead and spoke dramatically. Hinata smiled and straightened up. She glanced at the red X’s vibrating on the wall one last time before disappearing down the tunnel.

“Of course you’d find it the first try! The world hates me!” He followed Hinata through the coffin, and upon stepping through a motion detector the coffin closed behind him. He jumped on instinct and glanced over his shoulder before turning back around. He focused on Hianta’s glowing cardigan.

“I don’t know how he did it.” Lee spoke. Hinata glanced over her shoulder at him. “The next thing I know I signed up for the academic decathlon. I’ll be focused on economics and math!” Lee explained.

“He has that effect on people.” Hinata agreed and turned her head forward.

“You’re not afraid of the dark, you’re not afraid of spiders, or things that pop outta coffins! What are you afraid of?” Lee asked. They reached a maze of mirrors. Lee walked into a mirror and let out an 'oof'. Hinata giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. There were bright fluorescent lights beaming down from all angels and the light reflected off the mirrors, and made it difficult to see actively through the bright lights.

“I’m afraid of being ignored and forgotten.” Hinata answered truthfully as she watched Lee rub his pink nose. Lee stopped and looked at her. He swallowed and nodded his head in agreement.

“You won’t be ignored or forgotten. Not with Kiba and me, and especially not with Naruto.”

He saw it again. Hinata smiled and her eyes sparkled and glittered with diamonds and gold. Her cheeks turned pink before blooming into beet red. She pressed the back of her hands against her cheeks for a moment before bringing her left hand out and pressing it against the mirror.

“I know a trick to these. If you place your left hand up against the mirror and keep moving without lifting it you’ll eventually find your way out.” Hinata explained. She began moving and as she did she dragged her left hand against the smooth glass.

“Oh wow! Really?” Lee exclaimed and mimicked Hinata by placing his left hand on the mirror. He followed behind her. He had to squint his eyes at some parts because the light was so overpowering it blinded him. He kept his left hand on the mirror and continued moving. “How do you know this?”

“I read it in a book about debunking magic tricks and illusions.” Hinata answered.

“You read about that kind of stuff?” Lee asked his face lighting up in curiosity.

“Mhm. Do you know the relevance of Lugosi?”

“No?”

“It’s named after Bella Lugosi. He was the actor who played Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula.”

“Really? Tell me more!” Lee exclaimed. The rest of the maze was easily solved by Hinata with Lee following starstruck. When they reached the end and they pushed through the door a rush of fresh air filled his lungs. It was exhilarating. He remembered turning his head smiling and laughing catching Hinata’s smile.

“WE DID IT!” Lee yelled into the setting sun. He pumped his fists into the air. “Whoohoo!” He spun around. He caught sight of Naruto and Kiba several feet away. Kiba had grabbed hold of Naruto’s arm, and Lee swore he heard Kiba saying ‘I won’t tell anyone!’ Naruto wretched his arm from Kiba and disappeared into the crowd. Lee’s eyes went to Kiba who ran a hand through his hair, he hesitated as if debating with himself on what he was going to do, before following Naruto into the crowd. The two vanished.

“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU'VE COMPLETED MY MAZE!” An elderly man wearing vampire teeth, a popped collar, and black cape said gleefully. He stepped in front of Lee blocking his sight and spreading his arms out. He had a pencil thin mustache and a monocle. Lee forgot about Naruto and Kiba and turned to Hinata. He wrapped an arm around her neck and pulled her close and screamed her name. "Now why don't you sign your names into my book!" He held a large leather bound book and a quill. Lee was the first to take the quill and sign his name before handing the quill over to...

“HINATA!”

Lee’s voice echoed in the empty room. His eyes adjusted to the dark room. A plume of dust mushroomed around him as he scrambled into a standing position. He began hyperventilating. The room had nine identical sets of wooden desks and nine identical wooden chairs. They were lined up horizontally. He searched the room frantically. He didn’t see Hinata anywhere. She wasn’t here. She wasn't here?

“HINATA!” Lee screamed and he spun around to see Choji standing in the doorway and holding the oil lantern. “Where is she?!” Lee yelled.

“Who?”

“Hinata!”

“Hinata?”

“Hinata! She was screaming!”

“I...I didn’t hear anything.” Choji answered shakily.

Choji paled. Something hard formed in the back of his throat that he was unable to swallow. His clothes felt damp and heavy and every time he walked his jeans, which seemed to have shrank from the wetness, chafed against the skin of his thighs rubbing them raw. There was a sense of dread he felt when he was standing outside the wooden door with the upside down crosses. A sense of urgency that he needed to turn and run. Those feelings of dread morphed, and it felt as if he was on the precipice of a calamity, and any moment the floor was going to peel away, and he was going to fall into the pits of hell. It left him shaken and ill. He stared horrified at Lee as he kept saying Hinata's name.

“What...what did you say? You didn’t hear her screaming?” Lee asked incredulously and began second guessing everything that had happened up to this point.

“You screamed out Hinata’s name and I didn’t hear anything. I just followed what you were doing. I didn’t hear any screaming, and I didn’t hear Hinata.” Choji answered truthfully while trembling.

“What the hell is going on?” Lee screamed and covered his face with his hands. He yelled expletives into his palm over and over again.

Choji inched into the room bringing his hand out so the light could shine. There wasn't another door so know where for ‘Hinata’ to escape through. There was an invisible force that beckoned Choji to enter and explore the room. Whatever evil was locked behind the door felt like it had escaped the moment the door was opened. It no longer felt dangerous. It just felt empty. He immediately noticed what the room looked like and it caused a cold sweat. He looked nervously from the desks. There were still open notebooks, and open textbooks, and pencils, and erasers, and bags on the desk. There was a portable chalkboard in front of the desks. He couldn’t tell what was written on the board. There was a thick layer of dust and grime on everything, and whatever was written was done so in harsh and jagged lettering, as if the writer was angry and fuming. There were large stains on the floor and when he looked up he saw similar stains on the ceiling.

“What is this?” Choji asked. “Why are there desks down here?” Choji continued to inch himself around the room. The light chased shadows away. A mouse froze when it was caught in the light and when Choji moved the mouse scurried away. “A classroom? There were kids here?” They kept children in this room.

Lee lowered his hands and looked around the room. It was a classroom with nine desks, and nine chairs all positioned in front of a chalkboard. Not only was the room dark, but it was damp. It was cold and at least ten degrees cooler than the rest of the building. There was mold growing in the corners. The floor was cement the walls were concrete and the ceiling was stained. He shivered and walked up to one of the desks and looked down. Carved into the wood was the initials K.U. Lee brushed his fingers over the initials and smeared some of the dust. There was a whirring noise and a gust of air caused the door to slam shut. The oil lantern that Choji had blown out and they were submerged in darkness.

When Lee blinked everything in the room changed.

It was lit with a bare bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. The light was attached to an extension cord that plugged into an outlet on the wall. The light caused elongated shadows across the room, and bathed everything in a sickening jaundice yellow. The dust and grime had lifted and everything came back to life. Sitting in the chairs were boys of varying ages. They were all dressed in identical navy and gold uniforms with plaid shorts, knee high socks, and black loafers. They were all bent over and writing furiously into their workbooks. Lee couldn’t see any of their faces. It was as if someone erased them. All he saw were their ears and hair. The only noise heard was the scribbling of pencil lead against paper.

The room filled with the tick-ticking sound of an egg timer. Lee looked and saw the noise was coming from the front of the room where a timer was placed on the chalkboard counting down from five minutes.

Lee looked down and saw a young boy with a mop of auburn hair mixed with yellows and oranges. He was the only one who wasn’t writing. He was holding the metal compass with his hand and sawing the pointed edge into the wood. He had finished writing the letter K. He blew the dust off the desk before beginning on the second initial. Lee noticed how thin and pale the boy was.

“Stop it! You’re going to get us in trouble!” The boy sitting next to him whispered venomously.

This boy was older and had dirty-blonde hair and piercing green eyes. He was the first face Lee was able to see. Those eyes didn’t fit his face. They looked as if they belonged to someone else, someone older and wiser. He looked no more than thirteen, but felt as if he was already half a century old. The auburn haired boy didn’t look up and didn’t stop. He continued to carve his initials into the wood ignoring the other boy. The dirty-blonde hair boy looked anxiously towards the door before reaching over and grabbing the other boy’s wrist.

“I said stop it!”

“Let go of me.” The auburn haired boy threatened without looking up.

There was a coldness in his voice and it sent a chill down Lee’s spine. Lee looked around the room. Everyone else was concentrating on their workbooks and completing the assignment. The boy was the youngest in the room. He was still hunched over and his face was obscured in locks of auburn hair. Lee noticed that his uniform was sloppily put together. Buttons were in the wrong holes, his tie was loose and knotted poorly, his cardigan was wrinkled, and there were rips and rust-color stains on his plaid shorts.

“No! Stop you’re going to get us into----” The boy argued and before he could finish the timer went off. The other seven boys slammed their pencils down, straightened their spines, folded their hands, and looked fearfully at the timer. They were robotic. The door flew open and a faceless man appeared holding a long metal ruler. His attention raked over all nine boys.

“Shukaku! Kurama! Stand up this instance!” the faceless man screamed. Lee felt the whole room fill with fear and terror. The tension was so thick he could cut it with a butter knife. Heads dropped and focused on their workbooks. The children weren’t breathing they were holding their breaths. The dirty-blonde haired boy released the other and stood up. He was trembling. The auburn haired boy dropped the compass and slid his textbook over his completed initials before dragging himself into a standing position. His movements were purposefully slow and drawn out, and Lee heard an exaggerated sigh of protest escaping his lips.

“You two must have completed the assignment perfectly to be horse-playing!” the faceless man screamed. His voice reverberated off the walls. “Kurama look at me when I’m talking to you!”

The auburn haired boy looked slowly up as the faceless man rounded on him. The faceless man wore a three piece suite. He picked up his workbook and looked down. The dark shadow of the faceless man cast over the boy, and Lee was unable to see his face.

“Ah. Perfect like always Kurama your private lessons have improved your ability. If only the rest of these mules could be as perfect as you then maybe I could move all of you out of the basement. Remember! If you want to leave the basement you must force them to do better, Kurama!”

The faceless man dotted and he brought a hand to caress the boy’s cheek. Lee was petrified. The faceless man was dangerous. The energy he gave off was sadistic. The words he spoke caused his stomach to churn and he wanted to run away. He wanted to call the police. He wanted to call for help.

“He carved his initials into his desk!” the blonde-haired boy tattled. His face was red and angry.

He moved the textbook and pointed to the K.U carved in the corner of the desk. The faceless man brought the sharp edge of the metal ruler down, as if he was swinging a sledgehammer, and it struck the auburn haired boy against his face. The impact caused the boy to stumble and fall over. The ruler caught him just above the eye splitting the skin open on his eyebrow and causing blood to pour down. The faceless man swung his steel-toed shoe back before kicking the boy in the rib cage as if he was completing a field kick.

“DO NOT DEFACE SCHOOL PROPERTY YOU ANIMAL!”

The faceless man screamed before spinning around and punching the dirty-blonde haired boy in the stomach. It caused saliva to spill from his mouth as he curled over gasping for breath. The faceless man grabbed a fist full of dirty-blonde hair and slammed his face down against the auburn haired boy’s desk.

“DO NOT SPEAK UNLESS SPOKEN TOO!”

Lee watched horrified as the dirty-blonde collapsed to his knees and a stream of blood ran down from his nose. The faceless man turned around and went to the chalkboard. He flipped it over and began writing furiously with a piece of white chalk.

“IF YOU DO NOT BEHAVE YOU WILL ALL ROT DOWN HERE LIKE THE ANIMALS YOU ARE!” The faceless man slammed his hand against the chalkboard. He pivoted and walked towards the door. Something overcame Lee and he turned his head slowly from the faceless man.

“Matatobi! Follow me!” The faceless man sneered. “It’s time for your private lesson!”

There was a boy with electric blue hair. His uniform was prim and proper and everything about him was in place. Lee couldn’t see his face. He still couldn’t see their faces. The boy stood up slowly and carefully bowed at the hip. He closed his workbook and textbook before walking out the door. Lee brought his eyes down to see the auburn-haired boy. He had propped himself up on his elbows and he was smirking. Blood poured from the cut above his left eye but it was the first time he saw his face and what he saw shocked him. There was a manic expression on his face, and Lee’s blood ran cold as he felt the room spinning.

“As for the rest of you why don’t you all just sit and think about what it means to have manners and what it means to be boys and not animals!” the door slammed shut.

The smirk on his face widened and Lee saw those familiar blue eyes look up until they met Lee’s gaze. He was staring right at Lee and smirking as if he had known he was there this whole time. Lee’s breath caught in the back of his throat, because the boy was looking right at him. He saw Lee. There was a clicking noise from the deadbolt and a few seconds later the light had turned off and it plunged the room into darkness. Everything and everyone around Lee vanished into darkness. He recognized that face. It burned on the insides of his eyelids.

“Lee?” Choji called again. He had grabbed a hold of Lee’s arm and shook him. “Lee are you okay?” Lee blinked and he was back to the present. A coldness washed over him. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor. The dirt and grime were back. The darkness was back but the oil lantern was burning. “Lee?” Choji gasped and crouched down.

“Choji...that desk…” Lee gasped. He sounded breathless. He pointed to the desk with the initials. Choji followed Lee’s finger. “I need you to tell me if there is a name anywhere...I need to know whose desk that is!” Lee sounded hysterical. Choji glanced at Lee before straightening up and moving to the desk in question. Choji set the oil lamp on the desk and picked up the workbook. He moved through pages and pages of mathematical equations until he came to the front of the workbook. He held the name up to the light where a name was written in permanent marker.

“Kurama...it says…” Choji trailed off as he read the name over and over to be sure.

“Kurama who?” Lee demanded although he already knew the answer. He just needed confirmation.

“Kurama Uzumaki.”

*****

Suigetsu was holding the walkie-talkie radio. He tried turning it on, it didn’t work. He tried taking the batteries out, rearranging them and putting them back in. It didn’t work. He even tried shaking it, but nothing worked. After Orochimaru was done clapping he handed them the walkie-talkie. They needed to find three AA batteries. Afterwards, Orochimaru stated he was going to sleep for the night, and if they wanted to go home earlier they needed to find batteries and call for help themselves. Orochimaru and Kabuto left the living room. Left them alone, and didn't come back. They were swallowed up by the shadows.

“We need to find three batteries.” Suigetsu verified and held the walkie-talkie for everyone to see. “Let’s go look!”

“Where’s Lee and Choji?” Ino asked.

“Who cares where the string bean and fat pig are!” Suigetsu snapped.

“They went to get us food!” Ino argued.

“If you care so much about them go find them yourself!”

“Fine!” Ino answered and began walking away.

“Ino wait! Just stay with us and let's search for the batteries!” Sakura begged as she grabbed Ino’s hand.

“Lee and Choji have been gone this whole time! Find the batteries and we can go home? Bullshit. I don’t trust either of them. What if they did something to them? Like locking them up somewhere?” Ino countered. She spun around so fast to stare at Sakura her blonde hair whirled around her.

“We need to find the batteries! I want to go home!” Sakura argued.

“I’m going to go and find Lee and Choji!” Ino announced.

“They don’t even like you!” Sakura countered.

“What if they’re hurt or in danger?”

“Good. Leave them. They’re dead weight.” Suigetsu answered. Ino glared at Suigetsu and turned her icy stare to Sakura.

“Let go of me!” Ino yelled and pulled her arm from Sakura. “I can’t stand being around any of you!” Sakura let go of Ino and watched her leave.

“I JUST WANT TO GO HOME!” Sakura screamed after her. She spun around to see Sasuke and Suigetsu. They both looked up at her. “We need to make a truce. We search for the batteries together! We need to call for help so we can get out of here and away from those creeps!”

Sasuke stared at Sakura and then turned and stared at Suigetsu. He had been feeling unbalanced and unstable since he entered the house. Suigetsu’s words he spoke on the porch still strung. He knew Ino was right. He wouldn't trust Orochimaru or Kabuto. He didn't trust them from the beginning so everything they said he knew were lies. There probably wasn’t any batteries in the house, and it would be nothing more than a wild goose chase. He shook his head.

“I don’t want to be anywhere near you.” Sasuke answered as he continued to stare at Suigetsu. Holding a grudge.

“Seriously dude?” Suigetsu answered. “I was just making an observation!”

Sasuke rolled his eyes and followed Ino out of the room without saying anything else.

“Sasuke!” Sakura called out but he was already gone.

“Truce?” Suigetsu asked with a cunning smile turning to Sakura. The way the fire hit his face almost made him look charismatic. He held the walkie-talkie out to Sakura. “Come on it’s just you and me, babe. I’ll even let you hold onto it.”

Sakura swallowed. All she wanted to do was go home. She didn’t know if Orochimaru was telling the truth or not, but even if there was hope that there were batteries in the house she’d grab onto it, because the alternative was succumbing to madness and she refused. She reached out and took the walkie-talkie from Suigetsu’s hand.

“I still don’t like you and I don’t think I’ll ever like you! But I just want to go home!”

“Where do you want to start first?” Suigetsu asked. “I don’t see any fire alarms in this room.”

“There. I want to go through that door.” Sakura answered and pointed to the door in the corner of the room. The door that Kabuto and Ino walked through. The door she knew was locked. Suigetsu's smile grew and he nodded his head up and down.

“Alright, alright. We’ll start there.”

 

*****

“Ino wait up!” Sasuke called out as he ran down the darkened corridor towards a beacon of light. Ino held the flashlight out and turned around to see him. “I’m coming with you.” Her eyebrows raised surprised to both hear and see him.

“You’re one of the people I don’t want to be around!” Ino answered coldly recovering from the initial shock. She stared at him pensively, waiting for him to leave.

“Listen! I don’t know what happened back there...it felt as if I wasn’t in control of my body, and it felt like I was outside of myself, and watching myself! That wasn’t me I swear!” Sasuke explained. He wanted Ino to believe him. He needed her to believe him. He wanted anyone to believe him.

Ino bit her lip. Her memory of the incident was becoming foggier and foggier. The more she thought about them playing truth or dare around the campfire the murkier and murkier her memory became. All she could see were the oranges and reds and yellows of the fire. She could smell the burning fabric and tarp. She rubbed her nose. She didn’t say anything, and turned back around. She didn’t think she was fit to comment. All she knew was what Naruto told her. She continued searching for the door to the basement.

“What did you mean earlier when you said I tried to kill Naruto...twice?” Sasuke asked as he followed after Ino. He already committed to going with her.

“It’s just something Naruto told me when we left the campsite.” Ino answered vaguely.

“What did he tell you? Because I saved him!” Sasuke defended. “He was going to die if I didn’t do it!”

Ino’s eyebrows widened. She didn’t know what he was talking about. She didn’t say anything because she wanted Sasuke to explain more. He didn’t so she began opening up doors.

“What’s the deal with you and Naruto anyways?” Ino asked curiously. She wanted to ask him about the rumors she's heard back in school. She closed the first door, and opened up the second door to see another closet.

“Wait!”

Sasuke said when Ino was about to close the second door. She stopped. Sasuke grabbed the flashlight that was still in her hand and guided the light down until it focused on the inside of the closet door.

“Those are scratch marks.”

They both stared at the marks engraved in the wood. Ino stared at the claw marks. They weren’t caused by an animal. It was caused by a human, a child. The marks were in the shape of a hand going down the door. She wondered how long a child was locked inside before they resulted in scratching the inside of the door. She could envision it. A child sitting on the floor with their forehead pressed against the door and dragging their nails down the wood until their nails cracked and bled. A chill went down her spine and the temperature of the house dropped. She shivered.

“There is something evil inside this house.” Ino whispered and she stepped back from the closet, afraid if she stood there any longer a child’s hand was going to reach out and grab her.

Sasuke let go of the flashlight and nodded his head. They heard a creaking noise coming from above. Ino stopped moving. Next to them was a spiral staircase that went up a level before splitting off in opposite directions ascending to the second floor. The creaking noise went from one end of the ceiling to the other. Both Ino and Sasuke followed the noise with their eyes. It sounded as if someone was running above her. Sasuke closed the closet door. The floorboards creaked once more and then silence. Sasuke glanced at Ino who starred back. They were still and quiet for a moment, and when nothing jumped out at them, they continued searching.

Ino swept the flashlight across the walls until it stopped at a door hidden in shadows tucked underneath the spiral staircase. She opened it and flashed the light down a set of steps leading down into darkness. They had found the basement door. Ino began descending without hesitation.

“What do you mean what’s up with us?” Sasuke asked as he followed Ino resuming their previous conversation. He noticed the creaking staircase that groaned and sunk with their weight. The boards were loose and some shifted and threatened to collapse forcing them to hold onto the railing.

“Do you like him?” Ino asked.

“What? No!” Sasuke answered disgustedly.

She spun around upon reaching the bottom of the stairs and flashed the light in Sasuke’s face. She became annoyed over his response, and became protective as she lashed out. “Then let’s stop talking about him, and talk about something else!” She wanted Sasuke to be honest. There was nobody else there, it was just her. Sasuke looked away.

She lowered the light and swept it over the basement. Her jaw tightened, and she felt her blood pressure rise. She wanted to go home. She wanted to find Lee and Choji. She wanted them to go to the infirmary, and wait out the storm until it was clear enough that they could take the pathway through the woods and to the main road. She didn’t want to be near Sakura, or Suigetsu, or Sasuke, or Hinata. She didn't want to be near Orochimaru or Kabuto. She wanted to lock herself inside the infirmary and keep everyone else out.

Sasuke’s eyes had to readjust from being blinded from the light to the darkness of the basement. He rubbed his eyes and walked the rest of the way down the stairs. His heart thumped in his throat and his stomach flipped. He gripped the straps of his backpack tightly and let go. He didn’t know why but he wanted to see and speak to Naruto.

“I don’t know. Whenever he’s around I feel...off.” Sasuke continued. He wasn’t ready to stop talking about him.

“Like he’s your kryptonite?” Ino blurted out before she had time to think.

“What?”

“That’s what everyone says. Even Suigetsu picked up on it. Whenever Naruto is around you he’s like your kryptonite, and you scamper off. It’s amusing to watch.”

“Yeah…I guess.” Sasuke admitted. “But...I want him to keep coming around.”

“It’s okay to admit you like him as a person. He’s a likable person.” Ino answered. “He’s a better person than most, and definitely a better person than you!”

“I...I know.”

“It doesn’t matter now anyways because he wants nothing to do with you.”

“What do you mean?”

Ino and Sasuke were blindly navigating the tunnels of the basement. There were multiple tunnels and multiple directions it was dizzying. Sasuke reached out and grabbed Ino’s forearm preventing her from walking. He didn't want to have this conversation while they walked.

“He told me. He wants nothing to do with you. Not after you tried killing him twice.” Ino clarified.

“I didn’t try to kill him!” Sasuke yelled.

“You choked him!” Ino yelled back.

“That’s what he said?”

“Yes!”

“Why would he say that?!”

“Because it’s true!”

“You believe him?”

“Yes!”

“That’s bullshit! With what proof?”

“He says it’s all on the camcorder, and Hinata confirmed she saw it when she watched it!”

Their voices echoed down the tunnels. They were shouting at each other and their voices reverberated back. It was loud and deafening and sounded as if multiple people were arguing. Their words seemed to bounce off the walls, ceiling, and floor. Sasuke remembered being at the campfire. They were all sitting around the fire on logs. He remembered Hinata revealing she had the camcorder and pulled it from her backpack. He could hear her voice, tranced and hypnotic, as she admitted to watching it with a flat affect. She watched it, and Naruto acted like he knew what was on the camcorder. He started trembling. It wasn’t that he couldn’t remember, it was that chunks of his memory were gone. It felt like there was a parasite in his brain slowly eating its way through.

“I...I don’t remember any of it!” Sasuke confessed. “I don’t! I don’t know what’s going on with me you have to believe me! If I did I didn't mean to do it!”

"What if you did mean it though?" Ino challenged.

Sasuke let go of Ino and backed up. When his spine hit the wall he slid down. He couldn’t move. He didn’t feel right in his body. It felt as if he was in the body of someone else shifting through their memories. He couldn’t feel himself, he didn't feel right, and it felt as if the edges of his body were blurring and blending into the rest of the world. He covered his face with his hands and brought his legs up.

“Sasuke?” Ino asked her voice low.

“I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” Sasuke repeated before letting out a guttural scream. It bordered on hysterical and primal. He didn’t know what he could trust anymore, and what he couldn't trust anymore. He could feel the threads of his sanity coming undone. He wanted to give up. He didn’t want to continue anymore. He wanted to come undone and jump off the boat rowing down the stream and drown in a sea of unconsciousness.

“Sasuke…” Ino croaked. She was afraid. She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t move. She wanted to comfort him, but she didn’t have control of her movements. “Sasuke it’s okay...it’s okay you’re not going crazy!” Her voice came out quiet and strained. She didn’t know why it was becoming difficult to speak.

There was a loud banging noise at the end of the tunnel. It sounded as if somebody was slamming two rocks against each other.

“Sasuke please…” Ino spoke louder. She turned her head in the direction of the sound. She wanted to shine the flashlight in it's direction but she couldn’t. The noise grew louder, grew closer, and she could feel a shift in the air. They weren’t alone in the tunnels and intuition told her it wasn’t Lee or Choji. It was something nonhuman. It was something mammoth. It was something menacing and it filled the tunnels as it inched its way closer.

“Sasuke it’s okay just...please...shut up something is coming!”

Her eyes watered from not blinking and she felt an aching pain in her temples. The noise became deafening. She tried covering her ears with her hands to protect herself. It overpowered her and caused her eardrums to rupture. She could feel the blood trickling down from her ears. There was an overwhelming pressure as if something exploded and sent shock wave after shock wave from the epicenter. It was so powerful she was knocked backwards and broke the fall with her tailbone, before being pushed back by another shock wave. She slammed her head on the cement floor. The flashlight fell from her hands and rolled down the tunnel and the last thing she saw before losing consciousness was her mother.

 

*****

Hinata was hyperventilating. She was breathing in and out of her mouth with quick bursts. Her vision became fuzzy and blurry. She was hiding in a room under a bunk bed. She couldn’t hear the humanoid anymore. The noises stopped. Hinata held the flashlight. She was too afraid to turn it off because the darkness was more frightening. Her hands were trembling. Sweat rolled down her face. The room was a dorm style with two sets of bunk beds. There was a coating of dust on everything and clumps of dust bunnies. She lay flat on her stomach with her right side pressed up against the wall. Her eyes continued to bulge as she stared at the door.

She didn’t know how much time had passed. She was beginning to calm down. Her vision was beginning to sharpen and become clear. Just when she was about to slide out from under the bunk bed she heard the floorboards creaking. Something was walking down the corridor. She could feel the vibrations in the floorboards. Her eyes moved back to the door and before she could turn the flashlight off the door handle jiggled and turned. The door flew open and slammed against the wall. It caused her to drop the flashlight and freeze. She held her breath.

The flashlight rolled and pointed away and towards the intruder. She saw a pair of legs wearing converse shoes and baggy jeans. What caught her attention was the jeans. They were saturated in blood. It was fresh and gleamed in the light. She could smell the iron of red blood cells. The person moved closer and stopped in front of the bunk bed. She watched horrified as the person kneeled down. She saw the fabric of the knees were torn and she saw bloodied bandages wrapping around the kneecaps. She saw hands pressing against the floorboards and saw the sleeves of a gray parka.

She watched transfixed as the figure dropped lower and she saw the face. She opened her mouth to scream but nothing came out. Her eyes became pinpricks and she pushed herself back hitting the wall behind her. The light illuminated Kiba’s face. She saw his large chocolate brown eyes, the small freckles that outlined the bridge of his nose. His shaggy brown hair that spiked in every direction. His fur lined hood fell over his head and he pushed it back. He was the color of death with sunken eyes. Half his face was bruised and swollen.

“I heard you screaming...are you okay?” Kiba asked as he reached in and grabbed Hinata’s wrist. She thought it was an apparition, a hallucination until she felt his fingers wrapping around her wrist. An overwhelming feeling washed over her and she burst out crying.

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” Hinata screamed as tears ran down her face. She tried to pull her hand from his grip but she couldn’t. He was pulling her out from under the bed. She screamed again and jerked herself back.

“Hinata! It’s me! It’s Kiba! Stop it!” Kiba spoke soothingly.

“NO YOU’RE DEAD! YOU’RE DEAD! I SAW IT! YOU DIED!”

Hinata was losing the game of tug-of-war. She felt the energy drain from her. She was too overcome with shock to continue to fight. Kiba now had two hands on her arm and was pulling her. In one final pull she was forced from under the bunk bed. She didn’t know what demon had taken on Kiba’s likeness but she knew it wasn’t Kiba, because Kiba had died, she saw his body with its frozen expression of terror and anguish. She saw his body hanging rigid and lifeless upside down inside the van that had been smashed up into an accordion. She closed her eyes and screamed.

“Hinata! It’s me! It’s Kiba...see? I’m not dead! I’m alive! We're all alive.” Kiba's voice spoke.

She continued pushing herself away from the creature, she kicked and punched and managed to free herself when she heard laughing. It was a raucous laughter filled with malicious intent, and when she opened her eyes she found herself alone in the room. The door creaked open and she heard someone calling out to her from the doorway.

"Hinata? Are you okay?"