Chapter 07:



The troubled waters 
are frozen fast. 
Under clear heaven 
moonlight and shadow 
ebb and flow.

  - Murasaki Shikibu


Voices drifted in and out of my consciousness like gentle tidal waves with its constant ebb and flow. They made little to no sense to me; those snatches of conversation, but at least they let me know that I was still alive…still breathing…still existing…barely…


“…looks half-dead…”

“…why bother? Just let him die…”

“…no one come in here, damn it…”

“…not a hotel! He’s one of us…!”

“…get out of here!”


I was burning with a fever that seemed to emanate from deep within my bones. It was like being dipped into a roaring furnace and, every now and then, wrenched back to reality with the sensation of something cool and soothing against my flesh. Those didn’t always work though, for the fever would return with a vengeance soon after. Tongue heavy, mouth dry…Hell really was a terrible place, and I was sure the Devil was having his way dancing all over me and laughing in delight at my suffering -


“…still running a fever…”

“…gave him the medication as I instructed?”

“…all of them…”

“Pfft. Don’t understand why you’re still bothering with him…”

“…can’t just let him die…”

“He’s just about dead anyway.”

“You’re a fucking doctor, aren’t you?”

“You watch how you speak to me, you bastard. I didn’t have to come down here, you know.”

“…my apologies…”

Sigh. “…these twice a day…apply these ones on the wounds…not guaranteeing it makes a difference…”


“…slows down his eventual death anyway…”

“Why do you have to be so damn negative? Some doctor you are…”

“This is the last time I wander into this cesspool of sin…!”


The voices kept rising; like a married couple, grasping at straws, with no solution in sight. Ah, arguing about somebody who’s dying, eh? Poor sap. It couldn’t possibly be me. I was still here…still alive…still breathing…still existing…barely…


“…take it easy…not a sack of potatoes…”

“…nearly two weeks…the guy’s gatta wake up some time…”

“…went through a lot more than you did…”

“So what? Why’s he getting special treatment?”


“See? Even you can’t answer that…!”

“Some people…are…”

“Whatever. I ain’t sharing my space with him…”

“Jesus! Have a fucking heart!”

“No way! What’s he got that I ain’t…”

“He is scheduled for Gudan.”



“…maybe he’s better off dying now…”

“Would be the best thing…”

“Don’t talk like that…”




That lone word sparked something deep within me; a feeling so intense it felt as if I had been slammed into a brick wall.


Gudan. Gudan. Gudan.


The monotonous chant by disembodied voices had me struggling to breathe. I felt trapped all of a sudden; felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest and wouldn’t allow me to take in the air I so desperately needed. I was in a claustrophobic cage with its walls closely in on me rapidly, when suddenly…from the darkness above…that face appeared; that bald-headed, greasy, smelly fat-ass who…who…





“Hold him down! Hold him down goddamnit!”

“What the fuck is wrong with him?!”

“I don’t know…just hold him steady!”

“What’s that…?!”

“A shot…Kabuto said to give it to him when he gets like this…”

“OW! Holy shit! My eye! Bastard kicked me in the eye!”

“Grab his legs too!”


My eyes were open, but I could not see. I was still in that damn cage, begging, pleading, desperate to be released. I felt the hands upon me – so many of them - and I cringed in revulsion and dread. To me they all felt like the slimy hands of that fat slob. They all smelled like him. They were all miniature versions of him. They were all going to do that thing again and again and again and again until…until…


“Fuck! My nooobse! He brode mah nobse!”

“Goddamnit, Naruto! Calm the fuck down!”

“Man, he’s so fucking strong!”

“Hold him down…I got it. I got it…here we go…!”


I barely felt the tiny prick of the needle being jabbed into my upper thigh, but the effect was immediate all the same. The sudden claustrophobic/panic attack was slowly being replaced by a languid stupor that had my lashes growing heavier with each passing second. I welcomed the fog that clouded my vision and my mind, and before long, I was pleasantly numb all over…numb but still alive…still breathing…still existing…barely…





“You’re late, little brother.”


I looked up with surprise; having to blink rapidly to be sure I wasn’t see things, but no…he was still here in the flesh with hardly a blemish on his body. He pulled out his gold lighter and cupping his fingers around the flame, lit the cigarette which had been dangling from the corner of his mouth.


Always so cool…even in death…


“Don’t just stand there like a goddamn idiot, Fox Boy. Come closer.”


This is a dream…


I assumed it was a dream, but if it was, it felt too damn real. I could feel the night air nipping at my skin, could smell the salt water from the sea marred only by the ships and boats anchored by the piers. The docks were busy tonight with new shipments coming in and fishermen hauling in their catches of the day. I rubbed my nose and sniffled before sitting beside him on an overturned wooden crate, and together we watched the night lights dance over the gentle waters in companionable silence.


Nothing but a dream…


“So…” He finally asked after what seemed like an eternity. “How’s that girlfriend of yours?”


I stole a glance at him with a horrified expression, wondering if he was fucking around with me. I expected to see him smirking, but his gaze was still trained on the ships in the distance; his visage not giving anything away. Was he being serious? Had he forgotten that he shot her in cold blood?! What kind of game was he trying to play here? Feeling my anger well up at the memory, I opened my mouth to remind him of exactly ‘how she was doing’, when my lips parted to form the words,


“She’s doing great. She’s still got the flu though, but she says she might be better this weekend. We’re going to see that new movie that just came out…it should cheer her up.”


Huh? What? What was I talking about? Sakura was dead! Dead! And yet here I was acting as if this was just another day in -


“She seems like a good girl,” Kojima agreed with a playful wink in my direction.


“She is a good girl,” I insisted. “The best.”


And you took her away from me.


He chuckled and flicked some ash away; making sure they didn’t fall on his white suit. “Whatever you say, Fox Boy.”


“I hate when you call me that,” I mumbled.


Fully expecting him to laugh and ruffle my hair as he always did, I found myself squirming a little in discomfort when he only gave me a long and thoughtful look.


“…really have no idea, do you?” he finally muttered with a light shake of his head.


“Have no idea about what?”


Without warning, he reached out to cup my chin hard, turning my face this way and that as if examining something. I didn’t want to tell him that his grip was hurting me or that my neck felt like it was going to be ripped out soon, so I simply settled for swallowing tightly and hoping he wouldn’t crack any bone by accident.


“Where did you say you were born again?” came the random question.


What the hell was this all about?


“Shikoku,” I replied or tried to considering my neck was still being stretched.


Shikoku …” he mumbled, and then thankfully released me as if discarding something suddenly revolting.


I coughed and rubbed my aching neck, wondering if I was going to be abused anymore tonight, but he was back to watching the ships with that same cryptic expression on his visage. A sudden gust of wind had me pulling the flaps of my jacket tighter around me. I wanted to go back to my apartment, but I had a feeling Kojima wasn’t quite done with me yet.


“Ever wondered why I joined the syndicate, Naruto?” he eventually asked just as the loud blast of a ship’s horn echoed around us.


“…to make money?” I suggested hopefully. Why else would anyone want to join such a thing in the first place?


“Even better. I wanted the fame, fortune, and the women.”


“Ah.” Why else?


He took a final drag of his cigarette before crushing it beneath his polished leather shoe. “I got the money and women part at least…not so much fame.” He gave a bitter laugh and dug into his jacket for something…which would turn out to be his pistol; his treasured Beretta 92FS, which he had nicknamed ‘Sugar’.


“Know how many men Sugar has made love to, Naruto?”


I shook my head. Did I even want to know? It looked like the same gun he had used on Sakura, and this knowledge made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to vomit, but I held it in and tried to even my breathing.


“Even I’ve lost count,” he replied with a smirk. “Ya know…I figured that was the way it worked. The more you kill…the higher up you go…the more respect you got, but look at me…” He twirled the gun around a finger. “Joined when I was just out of high school…almost fifteen years later…whatta I got to show for it? I’m still a two-bit thug in their eyes.” He spat and laughed bitterly.


Couldn’t believe I was beginning to feel a little sorry for the guy. Maybe he should have tried another line of work.


“I killed my first man when I was ten years old,” he revealed with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Went into his bedroom…dug around in his dresser…found his Smith and Wesson and…pow!” He held out his arms with a finger on the trigger as if about to shoot at a passing fishing boat. “Walked into the bedroom where he was fucking my older sister and shot him between the eyes.”


Yikes. “Your sister’s boyfriend?”


“Nah…my old man.”


I felt even sicker to my stomach. Maybe not so much at the idea of him killing his father, but that his father had been sleeping around with his…older sister? How disgusting was that?


“Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, Naruto. Sometimes…”


He reached out for my hand and slapped the gun on my palm as if trying to give me a gift of some sort. He forced me to wrap my fingers around the handle, and to my chagrin made me point it squarely at his forehead. Immediately, my fingers began to slack off as panic seized me. Though I had killed him once, in this moment, I felt as if I had never actually used a gun before. The weapon felt heavy and clumsy within my grip, and the knowledge that a bullet could go off at any minute and lodge itself within his brain, made my eyes water.


“…sometimes,” Kojima whispered with a feverish intensity to match the expression in those black eyes. “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to survive, Naruto. Live by the gun...die by the gun.”


“I don’t…”


“All you have to do is pull the trigger, Fox Boy.”


“I can’t…” I begged in a pained whisper.


“Yes, you can. You have to, Naruto. It’s in your blood!”


No! I am not a killer! I cannot kill!


“I will teach you how to become a killer…like you were born to be.”


No! No! No! No!


I wanted this nightmare to stop. I wanted him to stop saying those words to me, and yet the more he spoke…


“…the blood of your ancestors…those who created us…made us what we are today…it will always be in you…”


…the more I felt it; that familiar calm that had come over me the moment I pulled the trigger in his apartment. It was that same icy, calculated motion that had made the gunshot to his heart hit with such pinpoint accuracy. Considering I had only had a day of lessons in that warehouse - and I only managed to make two decent shots out of all the bottles and cans he had laid out for me - it really was a miracle I killed him with a single bullet.


“Luck…” I moaned in misery. “That’s all it was…pure luck.”


But Kojima’s grin widened to reveal those perfect white teeth now stained with thick globs of blood which slowly began to dribble down his chin.


“Luck? I think not,” the new version of Kojima laughed in unbridled amusement. “You are, my dear Uzumaki Naruto, a natural born killer.”


It’s about time you embraced it…






My lashes flew open as I sat up with a loud gasp. I felt drenched; feverish yet cold as I struggled to make sense of my surroundings. The feeling of wetness came from my sweat dampening the plain gray yukata I was wearing, and the chill was from the open wooden windows beside and above me.


Wait…what? Am I back in…ouch!


My hands quickly moved to my left ribs to control the shot of pain that had raced up to my brain with the sudden movement. It was clear that my numbness was slowly easing away, and I was back to being plagued with aches and pains inflicted by my stay…there.


Swallowing the bitter taste that rose to my mouth, I moved gingerly on the thin mattress to survey my surroundings. For one thing, I was no longer underground – thank God – and I had to admit sucking in breaths of the cool night air was wonderful compared to dealing with the musty, dank stench of rocks and stones. I was in a small room – well more like a closet space. There was nothing in here besides the mattress, the tatami mats and my window…and of course the screen door leading to whatever was out there.


Where was I exactly? Was this another step in the Gudan process? Were you allowed to stay in this closet until then? I had been made to believe that I was doomed to remain below ground until my time was up. So why was I here?


Things just weren’t making any sense.


Debating between opening the door and peering out the window, I settled for looking out the window first…if I could move that is. My body was still in agony and the medication that someone had given me earlier had just about worn off. Biting my lower lip to control any sound I was likely to make, I rose to my knees – nearly fell with the intense wave of dizziness that overwhelmed me, paused, and counted to ten before trying again. I still had to steady myself against the wall, but with some effort, I finally managed to get high enough for my head to peek over the ledge warily.




There was another town house directly across me…and several others all shackled together to resemble a typical narrow street in town. In fact, you could very well assume it was a real town though it was in the dead of night and no one was walking around except for a black dog fast asleep on a bench. To the east were more of the houses, while the west had the view of the administrative buildings and the temple. Beyond that, I could see the haunting silhouettes of the mountains and a hard lump formed in my throat. I guess it finally hit me that I was going to die in this place; that even though I had my ‘freedom’, this would be the last time I’d ever get to see Nature’s beauty as it was meant to be.


I slumped back down to the floor in defeat and raised my knees to my chest to bury my face against them. Every ache and pain I experienced only did more to bring back the memories of my hours and days spent in that hell. Coupled with my weird dream of Kojima, I was beginning to feel mingled emotions of despair, helplessness, bitterness and that solid forming mass called hate – all over again.


I knew I had done some bad things in my life, but was it worth me being abused like that? Was it worth being violated in the worst way possible? I could almost laugh at the notion of considering myself lucky he hadn’t actually decided to go the extra step in his violation by actually sticking his dick inside me. Lucky? Yep. I sure was one lucky bastard.


/Luck? I think not, my dear Uzumaki Naruto./


I shuddered at the watery voice of Kojima filtering into my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. I did not understand what his words had meant. That I was a ‘natural born killer’? Was that supposed to be an insult? Or praise?


Then why did he smile when you shot him? Remember what he said to you? “I knew you had it in you.”


So did that make him right? Did Kojima know something that I didn’t?


I raised my hands in the dully lit room (thanks to the moon’s glow) and eyed my hands. These large, grimy, blood-stained hands. Were they really made for the gun? To kill others?


No…to protect others. Wasn’t that why I wanted to become an elite watchdog in the first place? Hadn’t their motto been to protect and serve? Wasn’t that all it was? To see the smiles on people’s faces as they thanked me for rescuing them? To be recognized by others and to be seen as someone worth admiring in society?




I really hadn’t expected to burst into such cynical laughter, but there it was before I could control myself. It bubbled up within me, and I couldn’t shut up. I pounded my fist on the mat and nearly doubled over with my bitter mirth.


So much for being an elite officer.


If elite officers were like the ones I had seen so far, in Byaku-Shinkyou, well…they could all take their goddamn badges and shove it up their asses. In fact, I think I will do that when I seek revenge on this place. Make them all bend over and shove their badges right up their anuses until it bled and they begged for mercy. For the Fat Slob, I’d stick it so far up his ass, he’d be kissing my fingers and then when it was that snobbish captain Sasukewhatever’s turn, I’d make him lick the very floor I walk on before –


The door to my closet space suddenly slid open to reveal a still slightly-sleepy but annoyed Shikamaru.


“Shsssh,” he hissed with a finger to his lips and a quick glance behind him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”


Somehow seeing him with his hair down – which made him look like a girl – got the laughter welling up again. I would have pointed that out to him, when the sudden sensation of his hand against my mouth…


(can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe! Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! Don’t fucking touch me!)


…erased the laughter immediately as I slapped it away with more venom than necessary. He must have seen something in my eyes because, instead of getting pissed off for what I did, he only held his hand to his chest and nodded softly as if in understanding.


“It’s okay, Naruto. I’m sorry, all right?” he muttered. “I won’t…won’t do that again, but you’ve got to keep your voice down. There are others here you know.”


Others? What others? As if reading my thoughts, he moved aside a little to reveal the room behind him.


Ah…those others.


There were about thirty futons in the large room and each was occupied by a man dressed in the now familiar drab yukatas. They were all fast asleep; some in some rather interesting positions – with legs and arms flailing all over the place, some snoring, some drooling, and one or two who seemed more content sleeping while sitting up. I couldn’t see an empty futon which must have belonged to Shikamaru, and the question must have been in my eyes because he shrugged lightly.


“I sleep by the door,” he explained with a gentle tap. “To keep an eye on you.”


“Why?” I raised a brow and tried to tone down my sarcasm. “So I wouldn’t run away? So they sic Mommy Shikamaru on me?”


“You ungrateful fucktard,” he cursed softly. “You know how much trouble you’ve put me through since we’ve been here?”


“So why did you bring me here if I was going to cause so much trouble, Mom? You should have left me back down there to die.”


I huffed and lay back down; turning away from him to pull the thin blanket over me. I knew I was being an asshole, but I honestly didn’t give a fuck right now. My bitterness was still acidic on my tongue.


“Maybe I should have left you to die,” Shikamaru agreed without preamble. “Maybe it would have been better.”


I grunted and said nothing; though I was holding my breath and waiting for him to leave me alone again. However, I didn’t hear the sound of the door closing and wondering if he had fallen asleep in position, I glanced over my shoulder to see him still kneeling there. He wasn’t looking at me though, but did have his arms crossed on his chest; his expression thoughtful as if admiring the tatami mats.


“You’ve been in here for almost three weeks,” Shikamaru finally said quietly.


Three…three weeks?!


“For three weeks, I’ve  had to do this shitty job of being your bodyguard,” he continued in that same quiet tone. “Three weeks of cleaning up after you, feeding you, bathing you, shaving you, tending to your wounds, making sure these guys…” He nodded to the sleeping men. “…didn’t kick you out because they thought you were getting special treatment, and generally trying to convince myself that maybe that nice guy I met that first night was still in there somewhere.” He finally looked up to meet my gaze; his eyes dark and inscrutable. “Guess not.”




“I’m not going to sit here and assume that what you went through wasn’t hell, Naruto. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you put all my hard work to waste.”


Huh? What’s he getting upset about? I’m the one who should be…!


“You think remaining in here and sulking is going to solve anything?” he hissed. Yep. He was definitely pissed about something, and I had the feeling it wasn’t just at me.


“You’re relatively well enough to walk around,” he continued. “But I’ve lied and bought you at least one more week of recovery time. That’s a whole month of being pampered by yours truly. If it wasn’t for Asuma telling me to do this, goodness knows I’d have other things to deal with.”


Who the hell is Asuma?


“Bottom line, when your week is up, you’re on kitchen duty – just about the only thing you can do until you’re at least ninety-percent or completely healed.”




“Yes. Scrubbing, cleaning, and serving…that sort of thing. It’s the easiest job I could lobby for you. That or you would have been working at the hills digging up rocks for another of Lord Orochimaru’s grand buildings.”




“So do us all a favor…no…do me a favor and get over it as best you can. It sucks, but life goes on. Your life goes on…at least until…you know. Either way, while you’re technically ‘out’, you might as well make the best of it. Get to know the layout of the place, make friends, know your enemies and all that shit. Who knows? If you kiss the asses of the right people, they might forget all about Gudan eventually.”


Yeah right, still…


“Fair enough,” I shrugged lightly. “Then I can come back and finish up a few things.”


He raised a brow, but didn’t seem all surprised at my clipped words. “You and a bunch of others,” he finally said with a small smirk. “If I had a yen for every time I’ve heard a sinner vow to wreck their revenge on this place…I’d be a fucking billionaire by now.” He snorted and slid the door shut before I could get another word in, though his muted voice filtered through.


“Get some sleep and don’t try to be too active or they’ll find out and kick you outta here earlier than you should. Got it?”


“Yes, sir.”


His low chuckle brought a weak smile to my face, but his words did give me food for thought as I snuggled back beneath my blanket to glare at the wall before me.


Get over it? Hardly likely. Know the layout of the place? Make a few friends? That was definitely a plan. If the others who had tried to destroy Byaku-Shinkyou hadn’t succeeded over the years, then it was time to change the pattern. I would be the one to make a difference, and if I was deciphering the meaning behind Shikamaru’s words, I had the feeling even he wanted me to succeed. I knew my time was limited, but I was determined to make the best of it.


I won’t let you down, I vowed as my lashes slowly began to get heavier with weariness. Don’t you worry, Shikamaru. One day…it will all come to an end.






“Now remember your hitting points as I showed you earlier. Men,” I struck the top of my assistant’s head with the shinai lightly.


Hidari-men,” I hit the left side of his head. “Migi-men.” I struck the right. “Tsuki.” I pointed at his neck. “Kote.” Struck his wrist. “Do.” Struck his ribs, both left and right before stepping back with the shinai balanced on my shoulder. I eyed the class of ten young boys – the oldest must have been at least thirteen – all sitting before me with rapt attention.


“Keep those points in mind while you spar, but bear in mind that you must not use tsuki too often. I will be watching carefully. If any of you miss a point, you will have me or the instructors to answer to. Hajime!


Osu!” they roared in unison before rising to their feet to face their opponents.


For the next half-hour, I performed the role of master instructor; either observing or stopping partners when I felt they were doing things the wrong way. There were two other adult instructors with me, so the burden was eased off my shoulders from having to keep an eye on all the teams at the same time.


“You must tighten your grip,” I explained as I stooped to my haunches to show the kid how it was done. He was pretty short, a reminder of how I was at his age and had to fight with the bigger kids. The uniform and protective mask seemed to swallow him whole, but there was a fire of determination in his eyes that I could appreciate. Something told me he was going to be a good fighter with a little more practice.


A shadow suddenly seemed to fall into the dojo, and a quick glance towards the opened doors refilled Asuma’s towering frame. He was out of uniform, but dressed in Western clothes instead of his usual kimono or yukata. He hovered at the doorway and waved at me; knowing he couldn’t step into the dojo in such an outfit. I nodded in understanding and motioned for him to give me five more minutes. He had been gone for the past week, for some assignment, and a part of me was glad to see him again.


Leaving instructions to my assistants, I excused myself and left the warm confines of the dojo and into the chilly afternoon. Winter was officially in full bloom, and the weather forecast had called for snow in the next few days. The once blooming sakura trees that surrounded the two main buildings for training, now looked skeletal and hungry, but there was still something poignant about its starkness.


I found Asuma sitting on a stone slab next to the second dojo lighting up a cigarette. He grinned and waved me over, while patting the spot next to him.


“You’re looking well,” I greeted as I admired the heavy black wool coat draped around his shoulders. “How was the trip?”


“Productive,” came his enigmatic reply as he smiled at me. “Miss me that much?”


My cheeks flared with color at the insinuation. “You wish.”


He laughed and reached into the pocket of his brown suit. “I got you an early Christmas present. Tadaaa!”


I eyed the black box on his palm, before raising a brow in bemusement. “What is it?”


“Well, you won’t find out if you keep staring at it,” he teased and moved it closer to me. “Go on. Open it. It won’t bite.”


Shaking my head at his insufferable attitude, I reached for the gift to open it (somewhat) impatiently. I could tell he was watching me with amusement, and as I shuffled through the white tissue, I finally made out the small good luck charm within. It was a silver…well…cat with an inscription and prayer engraved behind it.


“As soon as I saw it,” Asuma drawled. “I thought to myself, now that is going to be right up Sasuke-chan’s alley.”


“…do you have a death wish?” I growled. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry or to kill him for this. It wasn’t as if the cat was attractive. This one looked hideous with its leery grin and bugged out eyes.


“You don’t like it?” came the bemused question tinged with what seemed like genuine dismay. I looked up to meet Asuma’s gaze; wondering if he was kidding, but the man did look like he was disappointed. “Aww, and the old geezer I bought it from said it was definitely going to keep all the bad things away from you.”


I struggled not to roll my eyes, but tucked the charm within my kimono all the same. “Thanks. It was very thoughtful.”


“Say that with any more sarcasm, and I just might start believing you actually mean what you say.”


“Shut up already.”


He snickered and leaned back against the stone wall. “I’m guessing I won’t be getting any Christmas present from you this year, huh?”


I mimicked his position; my hands clasped on my stomach as I watched several officers march by while doing their afternoon drill. “What do you want?”


“Stupid. You don’t ask people what they want for Christmas. You surprise them.”


“Didn’t I do that one time?”


Asuma snorted. “Yes…you were ten or so…and fetched me a dead lizard.”


“It was still alive when I caught it.”


“So just you holding it made it die? Good God, man. You really are the God of Death.”


I jabbed an elbow in his ribs, trying to stifle a smile as he pretended to be really in pain by doubling over and moaning as loud as he could. We got a few curious glances from some passing purified sinners, and I had to nudge him again to get him to shut up. All the same, it did bring back memories of past Christmases spent in this place...which was pretty much non-existent.


Within Byaku-Shinkyou, the holiday was not observed because Orochimaru did not believe in it. Simple as that. You would not find Christmas trees or lights within the grounds, but that didn’t stop the folks in town from observing it without his permission. Perhaps, thanks to Orochimaru, I had really put no stock in the holiday itself. To me, it was simply just another cold day. It was only Asuma who did his best to remind me of it with his odd gifts every year. Last time it had been a pair of baby blue bunny slippers; something still gathering dust in my closet. I had just about died in embarrassment when he presented it with Haku in the room, though my glare had dared my manservant to burst into laughter. I mean for God’s sakes, those things lit up when you walked! How juvenile was that?


“How’s he holding up?” came the sudden question that had me jerking back to the present.


“How’s who holding up?”




“Oh.” I kicked out a leg absently. “He’s much better now. I allowed him to pay his final respects to Zabuza…”


“How magnanimous of you.”


“I told you, it wasn’t as if I planned it,” I hissed angrily. “How was I supposed to know those fools would over do it?”


“Torture usually does that, Sasuke,” Asuma replied dryly. His gaze was trained on the skeletal branches above us; as tendrils of his cigarette smoke danced into the wind. “Whenever you sentence anyone down there…what the fuck do you expect?”


“Well, those responsible have been dealt with,” I interrupted with a huff. “New guidelines are in place, so…so…”


“That makes it all better,” Asuma finished with a wry grin.


“Fuck you,” I growled and rose to my feet. I didn’t have to deal with this shit.


I could hear him calling me, but I was still too pissed at his suggestion that ‘my ways’ were not in accordance to what has always been done in the past. Was it my fault that the torturers were getting too happy with their jobs and didn’t understand what moderation meant? Good grief! I was only doing my goddamn job! Why did everyone have to be on my -?





The collision would have been comical, if I was in that kind of mood, because the loud clatter of things falling around us finally had me opening my eyes to stare at what the hell I had run into.


At first I was confused as to why I was seeing steel pots, pans, and plastic plates (in different colors) at my feet – after all the kitchens were at the other end of the compound – but even more dumbfounded when I realized who it was across me. The blond hair might not have been enough - considering there were a few other blond people around the grounds – but it was that undeniable scarring on his face and the cold blue eyes that forced his name back to my consciousness.


Uzumaki Naruto.


For a second, he too looked stricken, before something hard and impenetrable came over him. I watched his lips part as if to say something before they thinned into a downward frown as if tasting something sour.


“You two okay?” came the question that had us both looking up to Asuma. His arms were folded on his chest, and he looked absolutely amused about something. Recalling his last words to me, his present attitude, and now me sitting on the ground with a dirty kimono and pots and pans around me thanks to someone not watching where they were going…I was officially irritated.


“Do you find it hard to walk, Uzumaki Naruto?” I grated coldly as I stood up; ignoring Asuma’s offered hand, and dusting off the seat of my clothing. “And besides, why are you here? The kitchens are the other way, you heathen.”


“My apologies,” came the quiet reply, which I did not believe to be sincere for a second. Maybe it was because of that look I had seen earlier; that expression that had revealed a side of him that could be dangerous in more ways than one. “It’s my first day working in the kitchen, and they told me to take this back there…guess I lost my way.”


He tried to look sheepish; scratching the back of his head and giving a smile that felt forced. “I’ll just pick these up and get out of your way…sir.” I had a feeling the ‘sir’ was an afterthought.


He rose to his feet, only to bend again to pick up the pots and pans – some of which had rolled away and he had to jog a little to pick them up. However, I would have been a fool not to notice his movements were a little strained. The bandages were no longer around his feet, but I could tell he was still getting used to actually walking with his heels now, and though the sleeves of the yukata were long, there was no mistaking the bruises around his wrists and the fading ones on his cheek and temple. Just how long had he been in the East Block?


As he straightened up, it was impossible to miss the low gasp of pain he emitted; a hand going to his left ribs as if to control the pain. He seemed to pause as if to catch his breath, and when he was sure he wasn’t going to fall (or faint), dumped the last plate into the large plastic container with something muttered beneath his breath.


I really wasn’t aware I had been studying him for this long until he caught my gaze again. I felt my cheeks suddenly flaring with color at the notion that I had been caught doing such a thing in the first place. It was infuriating that I was allowing myself to get sucked into his antics, and a part of me wanted to suddenly kick the container to spill the contents out again; just so he could suffer a little more.


However, instead of resorting to such cheap, childish tactics, I grit my teeth and spun on my heels to get away from the scene before I caved in to that side of me again. I could hear Asuma saying something to Naruto, and though I was curious to know what was being exchanged, it didn’t take long for his footsteps to follow me as I made my way towards the dojo.


“Nice kid,” he began amiably. “He said to apologize to you again for bumping into you.”


I snorted in derision. “Yeah right. You saw the way he looked at me. He wanted to kill me.”


“Nah. How is that possible? I mean…sure anyone would want to hug you tightly for calling them a heathen.”


I slammed a palm against the wall of the dojo as I came to a stop. Turning to face him, I spoke as succinctly as possible. “I am not a fool, Asuma. You cannot tell me that he conveniently lost his way toward the dojo, can you? It cannot be his first day either! I released him almost a month ago!”


“…and he’s been spending that month recovering,” Asuma stated quietly. “Do you have any idea what they did to him down there, Sasuke?”


What? What is this? What the hell is this feeling? Why is he looking at me like that? With those eyes that seem to be mixed with pity and anger? And why is my heart suddenly beating so fast? Why is he trying to make me feel guilt over something good that I did? Wasn’t my decree of freedom adequate enough? What else did he want from me?


And yet as flashes and glimpses of Uzumaki Naruto’s wounds and bruises came back to me; that dull pang hit again – much stronger this time. I didn’t understand it. I had sentenced many others before him to their fates, so why was this situation so different from the others?


Because you saw what was within him, didn’t you? Your ‘eyes’ saw the inherent good within the sinner, and now…maybe you’ve managed to wipe that goodness with your self-righteous notion of justice. The light in his eyes now…what does that tell you, Sasuke?


“But hey…don’t mind me,” Asuma was saying with a stretch of his arms above his head and a loud yawn. “I mean…he should be licking your boots for his ‘freedom’, eh? At least he’s alive and well…unlike the other one who didn’t quite make it.”




But Asuma was already turning on his heels with a wave of his hand over his head in farewell. “See you around, young master, oh…and I wouldn’t dismiss that lucky charm thing so quickly. Might want to give it a proper looksee when you’ve got the time. See ya.”


“What do you mea…?”


But I was talking to the wind as Asuma was already out of sight. I dug into my kimono for the charm; wincing inwardly at the leering cat before turning it around again to read the inscription. What in the world could be so fascinating about the obvious generic blessing of ‘May this protect you from all harm’?


Protect me from all harm…


/Beware the enemies that lurk in the dark/


What did it all mean? How were the two related? Did Asuma know about the attack? I was yet to tell him about the events of that day, and Kurobachi’s updates had been less than satisfactory. According to him, yes there had been an influx of Chinese visitors to the town, but most were traders and only a handful were possible suspects. They claimed not to know anything about any mafia involvement, and Kurobachi had no other option but to release them. All the same, he promised he would still keep an eye out for anything ‘worth reporting.’


“Sasuke-sensei! Sasuke-sensei!”


I looked up with a start at the sound of my name. It was one of my older students from the dojo; a reminder that I had been teaching before this whole mess started.


“Are you coming back to the dojo?” the kid asked with a bemused frown. I nodded and began to climb up the steps. However, just as I reached out to pet the boy’s head gently, I noticed two uniformed officers – from Orochimaru’s private court – approaching the building.


Great. Another summoning no doubt.


“Sasuke-sama?” one of them called out with a polite bow. “Lord Orochimaru would like to see you immediately.”


I nodded in understanding. “Tell him I’ll see him as soon as my classes are finished.”


“He insists you stop whatever you are doing, sir. It is urgent,” the second officer stated with an expression that let me know he didn’t really care much for me and would drag my ass to Orochimaru’s if necessary. The prick.


“I said I will see him as soon as my classes are finished,” I repeated slowly, just in case they hadn’t heard me. “Now if you will excuse me. I have students to attend to.”


I spun on my heels and made my way into the dojo; immediately barking out instructions to the students who had been slacking off.


Whatever the hell Orochimaru wanted to see me for could wait at least another half-hour. Besides, if I knew that pervert’s schedule, it was probably to watch him get dressed again or to engage in some asinine conversation about ‘how my day went’.


Totally and completely pointless.






You know what? I really was having a perfectly good day until that shit  just had to happen.


I slammed the container with more force than necessary on the table, hence igniting my new boss’s ire as he stomped out of the storage room to begin his nagging.


“Where the hell were you?!” he bellowed. “You were supposed to bring those damn things over an hour again, Uzumaki!”


“Sorry, sorry,” I bowed and gave a sheepish laugh. “I really was lost. I thought Umeshi said go left, and I ended up going around and around in circles. Sorry.”


I bowed again and waited for him to slap my head or something, but all he did was give a grunt before turning away with an order for me to “start unloading the damn things because we had dinner to make!”


“Yes, sir!” I yelled with a mock salute. He glared at me, but turned his focus back to his cooks who were peeling about a million potatoes at one side of the enormous kitchen. It was chaos in here – organized chaos that is – but heaven compared to what I’ve experienced in this shit hole so far. The simmering and delicious smells of fried and grilled fish, sliced beef, stir-fried vegetables, sauces, soups and stews assailed my senses and just about made me drool.


As for my boss, for all the hard time I gave him, he really was a nice guy. He looked like he could be a grandpa – with his frizzy white hair and wrinkled visage – and he liked to wear his white chef uniform and floppy hat like one of those French chefs you see in the magazines or movies. He was a small guy – about two inches shorter than me – but damn…was he the best and fastest cook I had ever seen. He could whip up a plate of udon in five minutes flat and have it tasting like something from God Himself. Sure most of the better food was served to the officers, but every now and then, he’d allow me to have a ‘sample’ especially if I had done a good job that day.


And I did love this job, surprising I know. Believe me, I’ve done some really shitty jobs in the past (nothing beats cleaning up feces while working, part time, for a plumbing company) so the concept of washing pans and plates, or scrubbing floors, sweeping the dining room, polishing the furniture, or running other errands, was pretty much child’s play to me. Since I wasn’t a fully purified sinner, I couldn’t make any money, but I didn’t mind. Where would I use the money anyway considering I was set for death, right?


I did appreciate the ‘pay’ of eating good food for the first time in nearly two months. In this first week alone, I must have eaten more than I ever had in all that time combined. Shikamaru had said I lost a lot of weight, so I made it up by sneaking bits and pieces of food whenever the cooks or Chef wasn’t looking. And also to thank him for not giving up on me, and being such a good ‘Mom’, I’d sometimes steal a little something extra (tucking it into my yukata), which we’d later share in my closet space when the others were fast asleep. To be honest, we sinners didn’t exactly get to eat the best food either. We usually had the watered down versions of the awesome meals the officers received, and were only allowed to eat when they done. We had a separate dining hall, and as you can well imagine, it wasn’t as nice or fancy as the officers’. You’d have to line up and march to the counter where the servers would dump your pan of food onto your tray before ordering you to move on even if you wanted to complain about your portion being too small. They just didn’t give a shit.


Anyway, did I forget to mention how humongous the kitchen was? I worked in one or two restaurants during my travels, but none of them were this big or modernized. There must have been at least ten electric stoves and grilles with something being cooked on it at any given time. At least there were twenty purified sinners at work; half of whom were assistant chefs – under the watchful eye of Chef Grandpa – and the rest like me – the grunt workers. It could be pretty tiring as I literally worked from morning to night – seven days a week.


I had to be up at five in the morning, sweep out the dining hall and polish up the furniture, then set the tables for all the officers who would be having breakfast. I wasn’t allowed to actually serve them yet, considering I was still ‘unpurified’ or whatever, but I did have to accept all the dirty dishes as they came through the conveyor belt and begin washing like I had never washed before (in other words - fast). Even before the officers were done with breakfast, lunch was already being worked on. Which meant that by the time I was done with the dishwashing, it was time to head back into the dining hall to set up for lunch. This cycle would repeat itself until the last meal was eaten around ten at night. I wasn’t officially allowed to leave until midnight, and by then I was so exhausted (and aching all over) but satisfied enough to sleep until the bell would shatter my dreamless nights at five in the morning.


So far, I had taken Shikamaru’s words to heart. After my extra week of ‘rest’, in which I did my best to play possum and act up my pain and suffering to the fullest; finally getting an opportunity to step outside without being shackled was fucking awesome. Many of my new roommates (well, more like housemates) didn’t really like me at first, but eventually they began to come around, especially when I’d regale them with (embellished) stories about my escapades and how I was destined for Death Row because of my crimes. One of them admitted that they usually didn’t hang around ‘unpurified’ sinners, but the fact that I was set for Gudan gave them a whole new respect for me. They believed I didn’t fear death.


I didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise.


On the positive side, my wounds were healing rapidly, but the bruises were still reminders, every now and then, especially the physical aches after straining myself for too long. I still couldn’t bend down often, so Chef allowed me to run more errands instead of doing other back breaking work.


It was during one such errand that I decided to make a little detour.


I was already familiar with the layout of the kitchens, dining hall and town homes for the sinners, and at night, I was able to sketch out a blueprint of it’s haphazard design with a piece of paper and pencil I bummed from a fellow housemate. From what I could tell so far, the kitchen was interconnected with the two dinning halls, making a rough H-shape. There was also another building (like a broken piece of the H) adjacent to these four, which was the exclusive banquet hall. It was where Lord Orochimaru would host his big events whenever he had guests in town. About a mile down, was the laundry/dry cleaning service where sinners were given the duty of washing every officer’s uniform and other material necessary for Byaku-Shinkyou. It was a pretty busy section and even at the end of the day, you’d always see the smoke rising from the building; a sign of more clothes being washed or pressed into the wee hours of the morning.


However, I was yet to familiarize myself with the other side of the compound, which was mainly made up of the administrative offices, the temple, and dojos. So what better excuse than to pretend as if I was lost?


I wandered around aimlessly for a while, all the time making sure I was moving in the direction of the temple. Whenever I would walk past the guards or watchdogs, I’d dutifully lower my gaze and try to look as contrite as possible; or maybe to blend into the scenery and not be bothered. Luckily, no one stopped or questioned me about anything, which was good. I wondered if I could get to hang out with Shikamaru for a couple of minutes. He said he would be working on landscaping today, but as I passed the gardens (which were beautiful by the way), I couldn’t make out his familiar figure among the other sinners on duty. Guess he was done for the day.


When I got close to the temple, I was not disappointed with the breath-taking architecture. I almost felt bad that I would have to destroy it someday, but some things just had to be done. I was more than tempted to walk into the building, but wondered if I wouldn’t go up in flames because I was such a ‘sinner’. Either way, it really was nice to be outside like this; far from the depths of darkness, the sweaty kitchens, and out into a section of Byaku-Shinkyou that told a completely different story.


This was the section the visitors saw; the perfect tranquil setting for such a historical place. I could almost picture the tourists, oohing and aahing over everything as they took their pictures and posed in front of the important landmarks.


Oh, if you could only see the underbelly of hatred and despair. Maybe you wouldn’t think of Byaku-Shinkyou so highly then.


The mountains were much closer this way as well, and it was while I was drifting off into fantasy land about hiking up one of them someday, did my day take a very sour turn.


It wasn’t so much the collision/bump in as much as it was the expression on that bastard’s face. He had the gall to look as if it was my fault he hadn’t been looking where he was going. Okay, so yes, I was technically at fault too because I was staring off, but still, he was the one stomping around the corner like a goddamn elephant whose meat had been taken away from him, and then…WHAM!


Talk about getting the wind knocked out of your sails.


I really had been ready to start apologizing right off the bat, but then he had to open his mouth to talk, and as expected, nothing but that self-righteous attitude oozed out of him. If it wasn’t for that big guy showing up, who knows what I would have done? I might have had a chance at taking him out there and then.


One down…so many more to go…


Besides…why the fuck was he staring at me like that?! Guess he couldn’t believe I was still alive, huh? Well look hard and long, oh Captain. I plan on sticking around and making your life a living hell if I can manage it -


“Don’t mind him,” the big guy was saying after Mr. High and Mighty had stomped off again. I looked at him and immediately felt an ease I had not experienced with anyone in a watchdog uniform before. In fact, his face looked damn familiar now that I thought about it.


Oh right…he was the guy who was announcing the crimes when jerk-ass was doing his sentencing.


He looked different in his suit and coat though. Much bigger and even more intimidating, but he appeared to be a nice enough guy, and the way he smoked reminded me of Kojima. I didn’t know if that was good or bad.


“He’s actually got a heart beneath all that…surliness,” the big man continued with a smile. “Asuma’s the name.” He actually held out his hand to me, and for a stupid second, I thought he wanted me to give him something, before I realized I was supposed to shake it.


I didn’t want to touch him. I was still jittery about that to be honest, but I couldn’t leave him hanging either. Swallowing tightly, I reached out to give the hand a firm pump before releasing it quickly and resisting the urge to wipe it down my clothes.


“Uzumaki Naruto,” I began.


“I know who you are,” Asuma interrupted with a wink that had me raising a brow in confusion. “Something tells me I’ll be seeing a whole lot more of you, young man.” He tipped an imaginary hat in farewell. “See you around and give my regards to Shikamaru.”


“Oh…” But the man was already trotting after Mr. High and Mighty, leaving me bewildered as to the conversation we just had.


Seeing me around more? Guess so, since I technically now worked in the kitchens. I shrugged and decided to put it out of my thoughts, but I was still in a bad mood. My perfectly good day had been ruined.


“What’s gone up your crotch now?” came the query from my fellow dish-washer as he bit into a carrot and crunched loudly. His name was Chouji Akimichi, and he’s been working in the kitchens since he was incarcerated almost five years ago. His plump figure and waist-length red hair made him stand out amongst the other workers (well besides one of the assistant chefs), but he was a pretty cool guy to hang out with especially during the rare lull periods we had. He could tell the best stories, and had taken to me the moment I walked in here unlike some of the others. He didn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in his body, and I could appreciate that.


“I was taking a walk and had to meet up with the devil,” I grumbled as I began stacking the pots in their places. “God must really hate me.”


He guffawed and scratched at his chest; revealing that black tattoo everyone seemed to have. Shikamaru had finally told me what they meant. It was a ‘seal’ given to all purified sinners; a sign to show that they had renounced their ways and were now productive and ‘healed’ members of society. The seal could be placed on any part of their bodies, and while Chouji’s was on his upper right breast, Shikamaru had his on his left shoulder.


(and Fat Slob had his on…)


I shuddered and shook my head to get rid of that image. I had to move on, as Shikamaru had told me. I couldn’t keep going back there, but try as I might, it didn’t deter from the fact that there were others still underground…right at this very minute…suffering through the most ungodly punishment ever dealt to another human being.


And it’s all his doing, I thought bitterly as the image of that pale visage and dark eyes, filled my mind. Everyday, he hands out his judgment. How many more since then? Forty? Fifty? A hundred more since then? I was unaware of the plastic plate being squeezed between my hands until the loud snap, as it broke in two, had me looking at it with comical bemusement.


“There goes your paycheck,” Chouji teased.


I chuckled weakly and tossed the useless dish into the garbage can. “Yeah…they can take it out of my fucking corpse if they want.”


Chouji’s laughter was a soothing balm to my thudding headache, and as I continued to arrange the pots and pans in their places, I allowed that tiny (growing) dark side of me to continue its many fantasies of how wonderful and rewarding it would be to have the first captain at my utter and complete mercy. have just a little taste of his own medicine...




Chapter 08

Naruto Home



























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