Chapter 13:



The knell of the bells at the Gion temple 
Echoes the impermanence of all things. 
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree 
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall. 
He who is proud is not so for long, 
Like a passing dream on a night in spring. 
He who is brave is finally destroyed, 
To be no more than dust before the wind.

-Heike Monogatari


The new moon rises with each stirring of dusk; large, iridescent, and serene, it almost kisses the top of the mountains as it approaches its zenith. Many agree that they have never seen it so close to the earth, but those who are wise - and consider themselves a dying breed - realize the significance of its intimidating aura. The festival-of-death was finally upon them, and not even a change in schedule could diminish the pregnant anticipation that smothered the air. In the summer days, it was almost stifling with its intensity for the stench of the sinners’ dying wails and decaying flesh choked those who felt ‘purified’ and free from their unfortunate fates. In this winter chill, however, where breaths created miniature fogs and bodies huddled together for warmth, the ambience was still the same.


The week of Gudan was upon them – too sudden, true – but it was still a time for the ‘lucky ones’ to prepare themselves for a yearly ritual they simply no longer questioned. They had longed learned that speaking of its barbaric nature was likely to result in a fate worse than death. The foolish ones who had protested in the early days...where were they now? Vanished without a trace and with nothing left to their names. Nowadays, most were avid students and followers of Lord Orochimaru’s doctrines; blindly led by the teachings of the white-skinned man with eyes that blazed like gold when passionate about his unorthodox beliefs. For those who still lived in doubt - those who still dared to question such acts of ‘mercy’ in the form of executions – they had to be content with remaining in the shadows for speaking of such things aloud was likely to have you betrayed by the one you least expected. You could trust no one; not even oneself.


It was without irony that the very week of the ‘festival’ was quite somber. When evening fell, it was not uncommon to see most of the streets devoid of human or vehicular traffic. The people seemed content to remain within the safe confines of their homes lighting candles at miniature shrines to engage in hour long prayers or indulging in various purification rites. For those who were not content to remain at home, they huddled in restaurants and bars; bodies hunched over tables while nursing cold or tepid beverages and discussing the upcoming events beneath their breaths. They could name one or two people they knew who were destined for the afterlife, and though there were mild feelings of pity and regret, it was safe to say that they considered themselves grateful to still be alive.


In just a few days, they would be forced to march into Byaku-Shinkyou, to sit within the man-made arena, and to pass judgment on their fellow human while cheering in their loudest voices. Were they really any different from the Romans who garnered joy and entertainment from watching hungry lions feast on wretched slaves during gladiator battles in ancient times? Hardly. At least they were spared the agony of watching the flesh being ripped off from the sinners of today. Lord Orochimaru was indeed a merciful and benevolent leader.


May Buddha have mercy on their poor, lost souls.




As the horse clip, clopped quietly down the narrow street, it was hard to reconcile that this was the same busy intersection which had been bustling with activity earlier in the day. It was only eight in the evening, and yet only a few people stood around or walked by briskly in their heavy coats or jackets, as one or two cars sped off in the distance.


Like a freakin’ ghost town…


The rider came to a stop before the inn – a townhouse tucked between a haberdashery and sword shop (though both seemed closed at this hour). A young boy – of about thirteen – stepped out of the shadows to assist the large figure off his horse, in turn receiving quite a generous tip for his services. He watched as his horse was taken toward the back of the building, before shaking himself from his dazed stupor and stepping into the inviting warmth of the inn.


Not surprising, it was hardly full tonight, but his large presence was enough to have the few heads in the room turning in his direction. They were just as quick to dismiss him, and not because of the hooded robe he was wearing that hid most of his features from view. They must have sensed he was not going to cause trouble as he gave a friendly smile to the old man (and owner of the establishment) who welcomed him with a polite bow.


“He is at the back room,” came the hushed whisper after pleasantries were exchanged. “Kaide will take you to him.”


“Thank you, Ichiro-san,” the big man replied. He smiled at the pretty girl in the pastel kimono, who blushed in return and led the way past the low tables and chairs, and toward the back of the main dining area. She pushed aside the door made of woven straw, ushering him down a narrow corridor barely lit with lanterns hanging from the wooden walls. Though she seemed to walk as if on air; her feet soundless within her socks, he was embarrassingly aware of how loud and almost clumsy his were, for the old floors creaked and groaned with every step he took. She finally came to a stop at the last room and with a final bow and smile to the man, she slipped away as quietly as she had arrived.


He waited until she was completely out of sight before lowering the hood and knocking lightly.


“Enter,” came the barely audible response, but it was enough for him to slide open the shoji screen door and let himself into the small private room. It was just big enough to contain a futon, which was already prepared for its occupant. Two standing lanterns illuminated the room and the silent figure that was sitting by and staring out the window. Dressed in a dark blue yukata, with a leg outstretched and the other raised to his chest, the long-haired man gave the illusion of being relaxed and unconcerned, though the newcomer was smart enough to know that wasn’t the case. Beneath the slender build, raven ponytail, and unassuming profile was a man who could almost be considered dangerous.


“You look well...Asuma,” came the softly-spoken greeting, though the man still hadn’t turned his gaze away from the enormous moon that seemed to peek over the rooftops of the houses across the street.


“So do you,” Asuma grunted in response, while settling down across his companion and digging into his robes for his cigarettes. “I trust you had a good trip?”


“Yes. I had no trouble. The people have been kind.”


“Hn.” He finally found them and lit one gratefully; faintly alarmed to see that his hand was shaking a little. He tried to blame it on the cold weather.


“The mountains haven’t changed,” came the quiet observation after several long minutes of companionable silence.


“Those never change,” Asuma replied with a small smile. “Been a while, huh?”


A matching smile came to the other man’s lips. “It has...I haven’t been here since...” He shrugged lightly; allowing the yukata to slide off his left shoulder and revealing some more expanse of pale flesh. He made no attempt to put it back in place.


“The town has expanded a lot since then,” he mused thoughtfully. “I don’t recall half of the buildings I noticed while sightseeing earlier.”


“That’s because the sinners who got released settled down here; those who had no place else to go,” Asuma replied dryly. He flicked away some ash into a jade dragon-shaped ashtray. “More than half of the people here are loyal to him because of that. They truly believe he saved their lives. Hmph.”


He took a long drag of his cigarette and stared out the window as well, though he noticed the other man’s hand had formed a tight fist on his raised knee.


“He can’t wait to see you,” Asuma finally said quietly. “...though I wonder what he’s going to think when he does see it’”


The man’s lips quirked in a wan smile. “Then I guess I owe him a big apology, hmm?”


“It’s not going to be as easy as saying ‘sorry’, Mister. He’s going to have a lot of questions to ask you...that or he’ll kill you himself. Whichever comes first.


He chuckled and shrugged lightly. “Me being alive is an even bigger threat to Orochimaru and Sasuke’s life. We both know that...”


Asuma rubbed his forehead and gave a weary sigh. “Don’t I know it. It’s a miracle you’re still around to be honest.”




“How is he doing?” came the question barely coated with his concern.


Asuma gave a small but sad smile. “Take a wild guess. He’s gone into that mode again where he’s got to prepare himself for the ‘rituals’.” He quoted the air as he said this. “I hardly see him especially with this final week. He’s either cooped up in the temple with the priests or buried in his Great Book trying to seek justification for his actions.” He sighed again and banged his head lightly against the wall as if admonishing his failures. “Still...I have no doubt that this new format is weighing hard on his mind. He knows if he ends up with a stronger fighter...he might not make it, which is why I’ve taken precautions.”




Asuma gave a light wink. “If my instincts are right, I think he just might make it through the battle at the end.”


“You aren’t making any sense, Asuma.”


The big man sat up and leaned toward his companion in earnest. “There is this sinner called Uzumaki Naruto. He’s a great kid with lots of potential, and my hunch is that he makes it through the main fight to face Sasuke at the end. What I am banking on, is that Naruto will not have the heart to kill Sasuke. Hell, I don’t even think Naruto has the heart to kill anyone, but he realizes he’s got to do what needs to be done to survive.”


“And what makes you think he won’t kill Sasuke when the time comes?”


“Because he doesn’t know about it yet.”




Asuma took another drag of his cigarette before crushing it out completely. “I did not mention that Sasuke would be his final opponent. For a couple of weeks, I trained him – Naruto that is – and made him believe that he’d only have to fight with the other sinners, and if he was the last one standing...he’d be free. I did not mention that he’d have one more obstacle to overcome.”


A loud groan accompanied this announcement. “Why in God’s name didn’t you tell him? Don’t you think it would give him more of an incentive to want to win? Or do you think Sasuke has a chance against him?”


“Well...there is that,” Asuma replied with a rub of his chin. “But there is also the fact that those two have this...thing...this connection between them that makes it impossible for either of them to kill each other off.” He paused as he recalled Sasuke just about to finish off Naruto in the dojo and decided he had better not share that particular incident.


“Are they friends?” came the innocuous question that had Asuma nearly choking on himself with laughter.


“Friends? Hah. Hardly.”


“So your plan could backfire on you.”




“What if Sasuke ends up killing this Naruto? What then was your purpose in teaching him to defend himself without telling him the whole truth? Were you so willing to risk either man’s life just as an experiment?”


Asuma squeezed his eyes shut and counted inwardly to ten. “You see, this is why I hate talking to you. You always manage to make my good intentions look stupid.” He lifted his lashes to glare at his companion. “Call it nothing but the hunch of an old man looking for any form of redemption. I don’t know what’s going to happen any more than you do, but I can only hope that either of them realizes that it will be pointless to kill each other…”


“And Orochimaru?”


“What about him?”


The long-haired man gave a smile that could be considered cold. “Do you really think he’ll let either boy go if they decide to shake hands and call a truce? I heard Shimura Danzo, and a whole other hosts of delegates from the government, will be attending this event. I doubt Orochimaru will be pleased to see that no body counts – at least those that matter to him – would be tallied. He will stop at nothing to prove his power to those blood-thirsty fools.”


He grit his teeth and turned to look out the window; his hands still clenched fists on his knees. “For years we have tried to eliminate him; assassination attempts or sending spies to infiltrate Byaku-Shinkyou, and what do we get for our efforts? More deaths and unnecessary bloodshed. Shisui believes that there’s probably a spy among us; someone who tells him about our activities, which would be the only way to explain how he is always a step ahead of us.” He expelled a breath of frustration. “Though we have done our best to remain in the shadows all these years, the rumblings are beginning that we were the ones responsible for the police station bombings. I’m sure you realize by now who was really behind all this.”


Asuma nodded thoughtfully. It was a twisted and psychopathic way of running things, but then again, this was Shimura Danzo we were talking about here. Between him and Orochimaru, Asuma didn’t know who was the lesser of two evils. However, it was his companion’s earlier words, of those who had lost their lives in their effort to eradicate Orochimaru that hit him hard.


What a way to end a life…


Asuma could still remember Sasuke’s expression when he finally delivered the news about Ino’s death. It was not pretty. Was Death ever that way? The young woman had been disposed like trash…literally. Her mutilated body was found in a black trash bag which had been tossed into a compost pit on the outskirts of Kyoto. The morbid photographs taken by authorities were ones Asuma would have rather not shown Sasuke, but the young man had insisted on seeing them for himself; perhaps to clear any doubts he might have had and to verify that she simply no longer existed.


Asuma wasn’t sure if he had expected Sasuke to burst into tears or rant in rage, and in retrospect, any of those reactions would have been considered normal. However, all Sasuke had done was look at the photographs with those dark eyes that had been unreadable and painfully devoid of emotion. He especially spent long minutes staring at the horrifying picture of a body that was barely recognizable. Who knew what hell that poor woman had gone through all in her quest to protect him? There had been no tears…no wailing…no justifiable rage expressed by the young man. All he had done was tuck the photos within his kimono, thank Asuma for his hard work, before turning back to the pile of paperwork on his desk without another word.


“He is hurting,” Asuma muttered quietly to himself. “He’s got to be.”


“Who is?”


Asuma looked up and into features that bore similarities to the young man he had just about raised all these years in his stead. Besides the deeply etched lines on his companion’s face, it was not hard to see the resemblance. Only he would know how agonizing it was for this man to choose his way of life all in an effort to protect the one closest to him.


“Your baby brother,” Asuma finally replied with a sad smile. “Hardly a baby now, but…”


“I know,” came the quiet reply. The anger that had filled those dark eyes were now fading to regret. “I know, Asuma, but there is something I must confess…”


“What’s that?”


The long-haired man gave a smile and weak chuckle. “A part of me did not want to come back here. I did not want to have to face him after all this time. It made me realize just how much of a coward I really am -”


“No, you aren’t. You had to do what you had -”


“Spare me your kind words, Asuma, as much as I appreciate them. I made him believe I was dead, and a part of me wonders what good my showing up now will do to him. I expect resentment, and though a foolhardy part of me envisions a loving reunion, I know it will not happen. I am, honestly, more than content to continue watching and protecting him from the shadows, the best way I know how.”


“Well, it’s too late to turn back now,” Asuma replied with a nod and small smile of understanding. “I have done your job for the past fourteen years, so do me one big favor…”


“What’s that?”


“Whatever you plan to tell him, it had better be good and worthwhile, Itachi, because I think he is going to need you now…more than ever before.”


He rose to his feet and placed a firm hand on the other’s shoulder to squeeze it gently in reassurance. “What’s the worst that could happen, eh? Let’s just hope that my scenario goes as planned.”


“And if it doesn’t?” came the quiet whisper. “What if it all fails, Asuma?”


The older man gave a wan smile and peered at the moon with an inward sigh. “Then I have no other choice but to take responsibility for my actions, my friend. That is a burden I am willing to bear until my last breath.”





Shimura Danzo was a practical man; ambitious – yes, practical – most definitely. For though he exuded such admirable traits to the public eye (including being a charismatic and compelling public speaker), there was one other side of him that many failed to notice.


His patience.


He had not gotten to his position as a high-ranking government official through transparent under-handed methods like most of his fellow comrades or opponents. Whereas some of their sleazy trails (prostitution, money-laundering, embezzlement, etc.) lingered after them like putrid stenches, Danzo always made sure his dealings with the underworld remained that way; unseen and untraceable by the gullible public. To them, he was nothing more than an old man who had seen and dealt with his share of hardships under dictators of past government administrations. He had been a blue-collar worker; rising from the ranks as a once decorated war hero to becoming a prominent voice of the people and an honorable representative in the DIET. His ‘sudden’ decision to quit his seat in parliament and dedicate his life to protecting the citizens of Japan, had been seen as nothing more than a selfless service to the nation. He would be working for less pay (supposedly), but with his military background, it was only fitting that he’d want to work with the foremost police force which had always been under the rule of the Uchiha clan from its conception.


Byaku-Shinkyou was considered the pride of Japan; an institution whose history has been so steeped in tradition, that anything less than excellence was frowned upon. It was why many had considered the Uchiha a bunch of snobbish, high-class elites; those who tended to look down on others because they did not fit their status quo. Danzo could still remember meeting the aging Uchiha Madara as a young man, and the embarrassing way he had been treated by the clan’s oldest patriarch. He had not been considered worthy by the great military leader; seen as nothing more than a brown-noser and called out on it in front of other high-ranking Uchiha members. He could still remember the young Fugaku – the one who would eventually lead Byaku-Shinkyou – being in the room at the time. He was sure Fugaku had taken Madara’s words to heart, for when Danzo returned years later to show his allegiance to the Uchiha, he had a feeling Fugaku had been keeping him at arm’s length.


There was a coldness in their dealings; a polite tolerance if you will, and it had grated on Danzo’s nerves to no end. No plan or idea he came up with was of any use to the new Uchiha patriarch, and his ire was tenfold when he realized that Orochimaru – from seemingly nowhere – had somehow ended up becoming Fugaku’s second-in-command.


Orochimaru – a war hero himself – had been recognized for his contributions to the war, but disappeared for a few years from the public eye. No one knew where he was (or even if he was still in the country) and perhaps things would have been fine as they were (and Danzo felt he was slowly getting through to Fugaku) when he reappeared to the public’s consciousness during a visit to the DIET with Fugaku. To say the country was shocked to see him after being away for so long, would have been a massive understatement. Everyone seemed to want a piece of the brilliant soldier, who would later admit that he had spent those ten years studying with Holy Priests and learned scholars of arts, medicine, and science in various parts of the world. No one bothered to dig more into this, but his influence was no doubt felt as he latched onto Fugaku and became his confidante and ally.


With Orochimaru now in his corner, Fugaku became even more powerful and in demand; so much so, the prime minister was in talks to promote him to the Ministry of Defense! What did that mean? It would mean that not only would Fugaku end up becoming the head of the entire military service, but more resources and power would be given to the Uchiha clan in general. There would be simply no limit to what they could or could not do, and Danzo craved that power and influence like a drug. He wanted to be a part of that innermost circle Orochimaru seemed privy to, hence he had gone out of his way to befriend the white-skinned man, who also appeared to have other plans of his own.


Danzo should have known from the beginning.


“With your influence in the underworld, and my powers with the military and police,” Orochimaru had confided over a private dinner. “Do you not think it beneficial that we join forces to take control of a clan so infused with so much wealth and prestige?”


“…what’s in it for me?” Danzo had asked warily.


“This…” He had pushed a blueprint of the entire layout of Byaku-Shinkyou before him. “You will be the one in charge someday, Shimura Danzo. If you simply leave things up to me.”


So greedy and naïve had he been at the time, Danzo had leaped at the opportunity without knowing Orochimaru’s true intentions. Fourteen long years later, it was apparent that his plans had been foiled. As long as Orochimaru lived and kept Uchiha Sasuke as the pawn in his quest to control power for as long as possible, Danzo knew his time was running out. He had been fighting back the only way he knew how; by blocking Orochimaru’s appointment to becoming the head of the Ministry of Defense. As long as he lived, he was damned if he was going to make this white-skinned freak take control of this country. He had worked long and hard to get to this point, and nothing…absolutely nothing was going to stand in the way.


He just hoped that one more obstacle would be eliminated with the festivities tomorrow. If all went as planned, then Uchiha Sasuke – the one last blip to this plan – would no longer be in the picture.


“Sometimes one most make allowances for good fortune.”


Danzo shook himself back to the present; his lips turning down with disdain as he took note of what was now taking place. He was in Orochimaru’s private quarters; having arrived earlier in the day with a few other guests. This particular invitation by Orochimaru hadn’t been that surprising. They both needed to talk anyway, but Danzo would have preferred not to have witnessed the strange ritual Orochimaru seemed to pride himself in performing before his visitor.


For starters, he insisted that Danzo join him in a private underground onsen just off his bedroom,  where the lanky man was be stripped down to his birthday suit and lowered into the steaming water by two priests chanting prayers beneath their breath. His white skin would then be pierced with large acupuncture needles in several places as he remained floating face up in the water; eyes widened as if staring at something in the caved ceilings no one else could. For almost half-an-hour, Orochimaru would remain this way, while the priests prayed and continued their mindless chant. Danzo had fully expected the man to either experience severe skin burns from remaining in the onsen for that long or at least bleed from where the pins stuck, but none of that happened.


When this was completed, the needles were removed, Orochimaru was helped back to his feet, and a parade of (actually six) effeminate young men appeared with towels to dry him off while applying sweet smelling oils onto his skin. A robe of fine silk and gold was then draped around his lanky frame, and his hair brushed until it shone blue-black beneath the lanterns’ glow.


Danzo was a patient man, but even he had his limits to how much more of this charade he could take.


“What are you talking about?” he finally grated beneath his breath as Orochimaru sat daintily on his low gilded chair with armrests in the shape of snakes (hardly surprising).


Orochimaru smiled and licked his lips slowly. “I have found something new and delicious among my sinful flock.”




“Senju blood.”


Danzo raised a brow. “Sen…ju? Impossible. They are a rare breed these days.”


“True, considering your precious Bakufu dogs were responsible for wiping them out over the years. Somehow, one of them slipped through the cracks. I would have thought they’d be more careful.”


“The Bakufu these days have no care for history or the past,” Danzo replied with a snort. He helped himself to some sake that had been poured by yet another beautiful young man. Were there really no women in this place? Disturbing. “Do you think they’d really care about a descendent of the Senju?”


Orochimaru pouted and sucked absently on a strawberry. “This one is most delectable for I believe he just might be the son of one of those troublemakers.”


Danzo sighed heavily. It was getting late after all and he had to be awake early for the beginning of the festival. “Troublemakers? If I gave you a list of everyone who has ever given me trouble over the years, Orochimaru, we’d never leave this room tonight.”


“Hn.” Orochimaru smirked and snapped his fingers. As if on cue, Kimimaro appeared from his waiting place behind the shoji screen doors to present a dossier which was placed before Danzo. Stamped on the cover was the word ‘CLASSIFIED’ and as Danzo reached for it, he gave the other man a wary glance.


“Go on,” Orochimaru invited with a wave of his hand. “Read it and see what I mean. I was able to do a little research and came up with something you might appreciate.”


On closer inspection, there were actually two dossiers – one for a sinner called Uzumaki Naruto and the other for…


“…what is the meaning of this?” Danzo asked curtly as he took in the photograph of the young man. “Why do you have a dossier on Minato Namikaze?”


“He was a wanted criminal after all. It was found in the archives of this place,” Orochimaru explained with a small smile. “I do believe he used to work for…you?”


Danzo felt the blood drain from his features, but he managed to keep his composure; replying back curtly. “Minato was a traitor. Yes, he did work for the Bakufu, but only as a hired gun. He fled eventually and no one knew where he was. He was useless to me.”


“Only after he decided he wanted to move on from killing your enemies,” Orochimaru drawled as he pretended to eye his fingernails. “Must have been a trying job having to assassinate so many government figures who stood in your way. The poor beautiful man. Makes me wonder how he really died -”


“Cut the bullshit, Orochimaru,” Danzo snapped with a slam of his hand on the desk. “Why are you bringing this up now?”


Orochimaru’s eyes flashed with dark intent. “The one named Uzumaki Naruto just might be his offspring, Danzo. Think about it. If he manages to kill Sasuke…wouldn’t that be sweet revenge for Minato’s betrayal? Of course assuming that Naruto survives the first round of battle.” He grinned and revealed pointed canines. “If he regains his freedom…so many possibilities to end up working for you, hmm?”


“No, thank you,” Danzo replied tightly. “I have enough of the Syndicate as is. There is no room for one more.”


“Are you sure?” Orochimaru asked with a sneer. “There’s still time to make up your mind on whether you can take him away from here…for a good price.”


“You are insane,” Danzo hissed and rose to his feet. “Just keep your end of the deal and make sure Uchiha Sasuke does not survive, Orochimaru. I bid you good night.”


He all but slammed the door shut behind him, leaving Orochimaru seething behind the cold smile on his face.


“That bastard,” came the low growl. There was a loud crack, which had Kimimaro glancing sharply at his master. Orochimaru had snapped off the head of his walking stick; his knuckles so white, it was almost translucent. His strained and pinched features told of his fury, and knowing Orochimaru was in no mood to engage in chit chat, he figured he could slip away quietly –


“Where is that boy now?” came the sudden snapped question that jerked Kimimaro in surprise.


“The boy…?”




“Making his rounds around the dungeon as is customary.”


“Order him to come to me when he is finished.”


“Yes, my Lord.”


He waited until Kimimaro was out of the room before flinging the walking stick across the room in frustration. His entire being throbbed with painful anticipation. It might be the last night he would spend with Sasuke, and he was determined to make it worth his while.


“My love for you is such that I must watch you die, my dearest one,” he whispered into his clenched fist and squeezed his eyes shut. “You beautiful, tragic soul. I will at least give you a night of lasting pleasure you will take to your grave.”






Reflection is the wisdom obtained from one’s own thinking, not just from hearing others. It is the understanding of impermanence, suffering and essencelessness, from what one has grasped by the means of one’s own intellect.


“You bastard! I hope you burn in hell!”


It is the process of intellectually analyzing something to see whether it’s logical or rational.


“Save me! Please save me! Good sir! I beg of you! Save me! I don’t want to die!”


Having gone through such a process, one can then accept a teaching intellectually.


“You condemned me to die!! I didn’t do anything and you sent me to hell! Let me out of here!”


One may thereby become knowledgeable about the theory of Dhamma, and may explain it to others.


“I don’t want your stupid food!” SPIT. “Go to hell you fucking fairy!”


Without skipping a beat, I wiped my face with a handkerchief and moved to the next cell. This was no time to get upset though I could still feel the low embers of fury within me at being treated in such a manner. However, I reminded myself that I ought to be used to it by now. One of the many rituals – and thankfully the last of them – involved a last visit to the sinners set for Gudan tomorrow. As their executioner (and usually last face they’d see on this earth), I was to provide them their last meals and pray for their souls. It was nothing fancy; just a relatively large rice ball and a small cup of blessed tea that was supposed to appease their souls. Unfortunately, there didn’t quite seem to be any appeased souls tonight.


Of the twenty men set for their deaths, more than half of them had insulted or made attempts to harm me through their grilled dungeon doors. I was accompanied by two guards – who were handling the food and doing double duty as protectors – so if any of the sinners dared to get too cocky, they were prodded and poked back into submission. One of them had even had the gall to try to urinate on us; laughing gleefully as I side-stepped the weak yellow stream before he was beaten into silence.




Typical. There really was no redemption for some of these people, was there?


One may even be able to help others realize the fact of anicca, dukkha and anatta, but still one cannot obtain liberation for oneself.


“Well, well, well, a last visit from the prince, eh?” came the amused drawl from within the shadows of the dungeon before me. Though I could not make out his features, it wasn’t hard to tell who it was. That slicked-back gray hair was unmistakable. It was the hedonistic heathen…Hidan. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”


I said nothing; simply motioning for one of the guards to hand me another plate of food and the drink. I stooped to my haunches and slipped the meal beneath the rectangular slat opening; only to gasp in shock as I felt my hand suddenly grabbed and my face all but slammed into the steel grille.




“Let him go!” came the growls from the guards, but it was pointless. Hidan had me in a death grip and I could feel my fingers nearly getting crushed as his hot breath whispered into my ear.


“I should perform the rite of Jashin right now on you,” he hissed. “Lord Orochimaru understands, which is why he does this, didn’t you know?”


With an effort, I tried to reach for my sword with my free hand; though the guards were still doing their best to push him aside with their bokken. The son-of-a-bitch still wouldn’t let go.


“You would make such a beautiful sacrifice.” The sensation of his abrasive tongue licking my ear finally broke my last reserve of polite temperament.


I finally grabbed the handle of my sword, unsheathed it, and without pausing, swung to make sure it was buried deep within the bastard’s shoulder. His howl of pain was accompanied by him finally releasing me, and I rose to my feet just in time to withdraw my sword before he stumbled back into the dungeon with it. The thick metallic smell of his blood was a keen reminder of how long it had been since I had actually used my katana on any human, and the realization that I would be likely to shed even more tomorrow triggered something dark and inhumane within me. I flexed my fingers – nothing broken it seemed – but his long fingernails had left scratches etched into my skin which disgusted me.


“Haha…hahaha…” the fool laughed, though he kept holding his bleeding left shoulder. “Good one, oh Prince. That almost hurt.”


I noticed he was also bleeding from cuts to his forehead and cheek; signs of the guards having inflicted some damage as well. Still, the man looked positively gleeful, and as he licked his blood, I knew I was dealing with a deranged lunatic.


He might end up being the one I fight with tomorrow, I thought wildly. None of the prisoners know exactly how it’s going to be, so this man…if this man realizes he’s got the opportunity to kill me…


I spun on my heels and made my way to the last dungeon. I forced myself not to think of it. I had done well with that all week; choosing instead of cleanse my mind of all burdens and pressures I felt. I chose to be in the temple for the most part; content to remain in the solitude of Buddha and the priests, who were willing to simply pray and purify me as needed. I would not think of my battle tomorrow. I would not think of who I might face. I would not think of my possible death for I felt I was spiritually ready for whatever the outcome. Besides, perhaps it would be only fitting I finally join my family in the afterlife and even meet Ino and sincerely apologize for her tragic ending. Not even the sinners were treated to such barbaric techniques…at least I would have liked to believe that. Seeing those pictures of her body; that beautiful body that I had touched and explored for the first time in my life, become nothing more than a canvas for human brutality…


Fuck it all to hell and back! I swear if I survive…no…WHEN I survive the fight tomorrow, I’ll find those bastards who did that to you and kill them just as slowly and as painfully as they must have done to you too!


I was unaware I had pounded a fist into the wall of the cave until I felt the sharp pain race up my arm and the subsequent bruises on my knuckles.


“Sasuke…sama?” one of the guards asked warily. “Is everything all right?”


“Yes,” I replied with an absent nod; wrapping my bleeding hand with the handkerchief. “This is the last I believe.”


“Yes, my Lord,” the guard replied.


I already knew whose dungeon it was, and though I could still hear the cacophony of complaints being made by the other sinners, they seemed muted and dulled in this section of the caves. The adrenaline rush and explosion of anger felt when dealing with Hidan, as well as my thoughts about Ino, seemed to all come to a head as I approached the last cell.


On the contrary, there is a danger that one may accumulate more mental defilements by developing ego since one lacks the direct experience of wisdom.


Even in the gloom, he literally seemed to light up the place; perhaps due to the blond hair – which had grown even longer since I last saw him, for it now kissed his shoulders and looked even shaggier than ever – or those piercing blue eyes that were trained directly on me. He was sitting against the wall; knees raised to his chest and an arm placed on them to hide his nose and mouth. He was naked…except for a loose piece of cloth around his waist. It was the first time I had seen him in this state, and I wasn’t surprised to find that despite his slender frame, he looked…strong. There were still a few bruises here and there, and he looked in need of a bath, but that would be taken care of tomorrow morning. The sinners were given one last cleansing before being presented to the public. I wondered if he had heard the commotion with Hidan, and suddenly felt an inexplicable need to explain the reason for it.


He had not moved; nor made any attempt to acknowledge my presence. All the same, I motioned for the last plate of food and cup, stooped to my haunches and repeated the process; though a part of me stiffened with anticipation at being attacked again. Would I be better prepared this time? Would I be able to stab him as I did to Hidan? I paused and held my breath. However, nothing happened. Naruto was still as motionless as ever; and I began to wonder if he was actually sleeping with his eyes open. Was he even still alive?


Forcing myself not to be deterred by his anti-social behavior, I rose to my feet; clasped my hands and began to pray when –


“Don’t bother,” came the quiet statement that stabbed through the silence. “I don’t need your hypocritical prayers.”


I ignored him and continued, or would have if he didn’t keep talking.


“I’m telling you, it’s going to be pointless. Who do you pray to anyway? God? Which God? The one that allows you to kill people for your own cause? That’s one fucked up God if you ask me.”


I clenched my jaw and realized how stupid I was looking with my hands still clasped together.  I would not dignify him with an answer, and yet my mouth had other plans.


“You are a murderer,” I stated firmly before I could reign my words back in. “Your soul has been tarnished and will be…”


“And I’d do it all over again if I had a chance,” came the words that sent a shiver down my spine. I looked into those eyes that were now brimming with an intensity that made me slightly feverish. There was a cold determination there; one that made me realize that he was capable of carrying out such a task if need be.


And what if it’s him tomorrow? What if I end up having to face this? But then again…it shouldn’t be too hard to take him out. If his pathetic skills at the dojo the other day were any indication, eliminating Naruto would be much quicker than the guests would like.


“If you had someone you loved,” Naruto continued quietly, though his voice was loud and clear and seemed to resonate deep within me. “Someone who for the first time in your life, showed you what it meant to be needed…wanted…appreciated…what would you do if that person was suddenly taken away from you before your eyes?” He made a pistol with his fingers and placed it to his temple. “To have her brains blown out…pow! Just like that. Tell me, Sasuke…what would you do?”


It was cold…it was supposed to be cool beneath the earth and yet…I could feel beads of sweat breaking out on my brow. What would I do?




What could I do?




I have waited for far too long…


“What would you do when your life is on the line, Sasuke?” my tormentor continued with a grim smile on his visage. “What would you do when you find yourself being threatened by the one person you thought you could trust. Hmm? What would you do when you find a gun…pointed right at you?” This time he turned his pistol-fingers towards me, closed as eye as if concentrating and fired right at me complete with sound effects. If he had a real gun, I was sure the bullet would have lodged itself between my eyes. “Would you run away like you’ve been doing all your life?”


He couldn’t have hit me any harder even if it had been physical contact. I felt my entire being flush with a heat so strong, I really was sweating more than I would have liked. Why was I standing here listening to this? Why was I allowing him to get to me like this? Was this a challenge? Was he daring me to become as brash and heartless as he was?


“Shut…up,” I grated coldly; not sure who I was speaking to. Him or my inner voice?


“What’s the matter, Sasuke?” came the low teasing question. “Having doubts now?”


“I swear to God…!”


“What? What are you gonna do to me?” he taunted. “Come on in. We can finish it right here and now, if you want.”


I smiled bitterly. “You wish. You do realize I -”


I snapped my mouth shut. I couldn’t tell him about the final battle…providing he survived the first. I straightened up and took a deep breath to calm myself. He was doing this for a reason. To rile me and get me out of my organized thoughts, but I had no intention of playing to his cheap methods.


“Enjoy your meal,” I finally said. “Though I shall still pray for your soul tonight.”


“Mighty kind of you, sir. In fact, you know what? I think I’ll pray for you too.”


My jaw must have dropped or at least it felt that way to me, and I was embarrassed to find my cheeks burning all over again. Composing myself quickly, I managed to spit out an icy, “Keep your heathen prayers to yourself -”


“Dear Lord,” the bastard said aloud; completely ignoring me (as usual). “Please give some people the ability to see the errors of their ways and to realize that they are only being used by some sick perverted bastard like that Snake Dude…probably…because God knows what that guy does to poor Sasuke-chan when they’re in the bedroom - ”


Shut up, Naruto!” I hissed quickly as my humiliation and annoyance grew (the guards were still here for crying out loud). It took me a second later to realize just what I had done. I gasped as his eyes widened and a gleeful smile of victory came to his visage. Oh my God! I had…I had…




“Ah ha! You finally called my name!” the blond trouble-maker cried out in delight. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”


“You have…no…idea…” I growled beneath my breath as I focused my gaze on anywhere but that face that kept laughing at me. “…how…much…I…”


“…loved calling out my name?” Naruto taunted with a knowing smirk. “It’s okay, Sasuke. Might as well get used to it since I don’t plan on losing tomorrow.”




He rose to his feet and approached the grille, and it was only then that I realized just how close I had been to the damn thing all this time. Just one more step and he would have been able to reach out to grab me, but he did no such thing. He only seemed content to wrap his fingers around the cool steel bars and to grin at me; only this time, I could see that it didn’t quite reach his eyes. For all his ‘joviality’, Naruto was still pissed at something.




“I’m going to survive,” he said beneath his breath as if only for my benefit. “I don’t know how, but I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, so you had better start getting used to the idea of seeing and hearing about me from now on.”


He seemed to examine me for a second longer than necessary, and I was ashamed to find myself recalling how my mind had been warped enough to imagine him looking at me in this same way when I…I…uh…pleasured myself. What exactly did he see when he looked at me in such a way? How did I appear to this sinner who seemed so sure and confident of himself and of his abilities to survive?


“Heh…” he finally drawled lazily; a wry smile on his face now. “Can’t believe I actually almost had a crush on you too. Remember that time on the bus? The only reason I kept looking at you was because I thought you were a pretty hot chick. Who knew you were such a cold-hearted asshole beneath?”


My eyes widened in shock, and I honestly do think I forgot how to breathe for a few precious seconds. I was literally frozen in place; unable to believe he’d have the gall to confess such a thing to me in the first place. Not so much the insult. I had heard worse after all. It was the notion that he had thought I was…


A hot chick? ME? A hot…girl?! He thought I was a…I was…a female?!


Was this a new way to call me…weak? To emasculate me?! To consider me not manly enough to be in control of –


/…almost had a crush on you…/


And what the fuck was that all about – ?


“Mm…pretty damn tasty rice ball too,” came the commentary that jarred me from my disturbed thoughts. Naruto was back in position on the floor; eagerly consuming his meal before raising his cup in a toast to me.


“Sweet dreams, Sasuke. I’ll see you tomorrow, eh?”


He winked, and I decided that saying anything else was going to be useless. My throat seemed constricted, and I definitely could not trust myself to speak. What the hell was wrong with this man?! These were not the kind of thoughts I ought to be having after a visit with sinners. I should have been in a prayerful mood; in a state of Zen-like enlightenment at having mercy on their condemned souls and yet here I was, barely able to think straight because of some idiot’s ability to say the most stupid things to throw me off kilter. It was a fucking miracle I could walk because I was a trembling mess…inside and out!


I eventually met a solemn Haku outside, and I need not tell you his reason for being this way. Thanks to his new ‘friendship’ with his ‘dear’ Naruto-kun, he had all but moped around all week; almost driving me insane with his need to remind me of my role in all this.


“Kimimaro-san came looking for you,” he said softly. “He said Orochimaru-sama would like to see you.”


I stiffened at this news; my eyes narrowing as I felt a chill (that had nothing to do with the cold night air) seeping into me. I couldn’t imagine what he’d want to see me for. I do know I was going to have to see him tomorrow, as it was the day when he’d present the special executioner’s katana to me, but other than that, I sincerely hoped he didn’t expect me to join his special guests for dinner. Though I had applied my medication, ever since they arrived at Byaku-Shinkyou, the ‘stench’ of their evil and sins had permeated the air almost immediately. I shivered and gave a curt nod.


“Thanks for letting me know.”


“Is it okay to visit Naruto-kun now?” came the quiet question; one he has been asking since we learned of the sinner’s re-incarceration.


I glanced at the entrance to the dungeons, where the guards were still on duty. It was usually not advised for sinners to have visitors the final week to Gudan, but it was the least I could do for Haku. I shrugged and nodded in agreement.


“That’s fine. Just let them know I gave you my permission.”


I received a grateful smile, which made me feel even more of a heel than I would have liked. As I walked away from the East Block, I debated on whether or not to go to my private quarters first, but I decided against that. I would see Orochimaru first, see what he had in mind before leaving so I could get an early night. Besides, I was still in my uniform, which felt more of shield to me than wearing a mere kimono in his presence.


As I approached his domain, I braced myself for the usual loud laughter and music that accompanied his guests paying a visit, but I was a little bemused to find it no different from any other quiet night. He was not in the main living area; neither was he in his office adjacent to it. Assuming he had forgotten he had sent for me, I cleared my throat as loud as I could and knelt before his work desk to await him. Seconds later, Kimimaro appeared from behind a shoji screen door that led to his private quarters.


“Lord Orochimaru will see you in there,” Kimimaro said with an expression that was hard to read. ‘There’ being Orochimaru’s bedroom. ‘There’ being a place that – in the past – I wouldn’t have minded going in, but now…


“I would rather not,” I replied curtly.


Kimimaro seemed taken aback at my response. “Excuse me?”


“I said, I would rather not.” I clenched my fists on my lap as Naruto’s taunting ‘prayer’ came back to haunt me. I could almost see the blond idiot smirking in victory if I gave in as I usually did. “If he wants to see me, I’ll be waiting out here.”


A small smile came to the white-haired man’s face and he nodded. “Very well. I’ll let him know.”


The screen door closed behind him again, and I found myself expelling a gust of breath. I had a feeling that this was not a good time to upset Orochimaru, but a part of me – a part that was gradually getting louder and stronger…


(and you know exactly why, Sasuke)


…was ready to face the music. If Orochimaru berated me, I’d give it to him twice as hard. Though this final week was supposed to be one of finding peace within oneself, incidents like Hidan, Naruto and now Orochimaru’s cryptic decision to see me, was creating a tumultuous range of emotions within me like no other. I decided to distract myself by observing the room carefully. Were there hidden microphones or videos in here as well? Haku and I had managed to do a thorough sweep of my quarters during our spare time, and neither of us had found anything out of place.


I was still uneasy.


From my vantage point, I could see it; the sacred sword of Uchiha Riku – one of my clan’s greatest warriors – which has been used to perform Gudan for all these years. Sitting before the large golden statue of Buddha in a private alcove just next to the room, it was displayed on a mahogany stand, sheathed within an ancient scabbard of the finest leather with gilded artistry and inscriptions. It was believed that the great Riku-sama had killed over a thousand men with this sword granting him the status of ‘The-Thousand-Demon-Slayer’. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else about Riku-sama as all I had read about him were in faded historical scrolls in my father’s archives…


The sudden sliding of the shoji screen door had me sitting upright in a flash. Orochimaru – dressed in a white caftan, which just about blended with his flesh – stormed out with an expression that could be considered as irritation. I fully expected Kimimaro to be on his tail, but the other man was obviously not needed at this time. The strong stench of sweet oils and perfume (and was that opium?) almost made me sneeze, but I kept my expression neutral as he walked toward…and then around me. I froze as the soft cloth brushed against my skin – he was that close – and those smells grew even stronger. Fully expecting him to move back to his chair, I was stunned to suddenly feel his strong (but so damn cold) hands on my shoulders. To my horror, he began to knead them gently.


“You seem so tense, Sasuke,” he drawled lazily. “You are usually more relaxed and in control during this time of the year. Or are you that worried about tomorrow?”


The hands were moving a little lower…down to my arms, which made me even gladder I was not in a kimono. I could feel the sensation of snakes crawling up and into my flesh; slimy, slithering creatures that threatened to make me want to vomit.


/What would you do, Sasuke?/


Surprising him, and myself, I rose suddenly to my feet; a hand firmly on the hilt of my sword. Like Kimimaro, he too seemed taken aback at my behavior, and perhaps it was a trick of the light, but I was sure there had been a flicker of uncertainty within those narrowed eyes.


“I am not worried about tomorrow,” I replied; pleased that my voice sounded distant and in control. I nodded toward Riku-sama’s sword. “Did you wish to give that to me tonight?”


Orochimaru’s gaze had returned to being unreadable. His lips quirked upwards and he nodded. “Of course. Why waste time with formalities as was done in the past? It’s a new year and a new way of doing things, so please…by all means…pick up the great sword, Uchiha Sasuke.”


I spun on my heels and away from him; glad I could breathe again as I approached the weapon. As I stood before it, I felt a familiar surge of adrenaline run down my spine and groin. My fingers tingled with the urge to touch…to feel…to caress such deadly beauty. I could still remember the first time I was given the honor of wielding the sacred sword; of how heavy and wonderful it had felt. Now as I reached out to clasp it – call me corny – but I really did feel a thrill of power race up my arm in a rush. I almost felt invincible with the beautiful weapon within my grasp, and I did not want to let it go…ever.


I unsheathed it slowly…admired the way the light shone on its steely blade (such fine craftsmanship) and sensing him behind me, spun around quickly with the deadly tip just nicking his left cheek. Blood swelled from the cut immediately, and a cold grin came to his features as he darted out a tongue to lick it off.


“As fast as ever,” he praised in a low voice. “Though something tells me that you wish it had caused more damage.”


“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I replied evenly. I would give nothing away; would give him no reason to suspect that I really had wanted to go all the way. My hand was steady, my gaze trained squarely on him. In this moment…this very second…I could kill him and end it all. I could make up for all the years of suffering in silence, of knowing he was possibly the one responsible for the death of my family, and for creating this monster I had become over the years.


(just one swing)


Perhaps I would have done it, or attempted to, but I felt something hard and cold pressed into my lower back, and I didn’t need to turn around to know that it was Kimimaro. I hadn’t even heard him arrive; another reason why any attempts on Orochimaru’s life was likely to be a failure; with a loyal assassin like Kimimaro as his shadow…


“Just testing it out,” I said with a nonchalant shrug. I slid the blade back into its sheath and clipped it to my side.


“And it’s to your liking?” Orochimaru sneered.


“Perfect,” I replied with a matching smile that didn’t quite reach my eyes. “Sharp enough to cut steel. Just what I needed.” I stepped away from Kimimaro and noticed it had been a pistol in his hand. He tucked it away just as quickly and gave me a warm smile.


“Just testing this out too,” he said. “Works even faster.”


I gritted my teeth inwardly and gave a bow to both men. “If that is all, I’d like to call it a night now. I have a long day tomorrow.”


“Indeed you do,” Orochimaru replied with a nod and a sharp clap of his hands. “I most definitely look forward to you putting up a good fight, Sasuke. Do not fail me.”


I said nothing, but only gave another small bow before leaving his presence. However, instead of heading straight for my private quarters, I spent almost a good hour or two walking aimlessly around the grounds. Tonight might be the last time I get to see this place I had called home despite the ‘strange’ way I had been raised. I tried to memorize every stone and plant I came across; tried to recall my happier childhood memories especially places my older brother and I used to play or train in, and when I finally fell to my knees beside the small stream that ran close to the mountains, in exhaustion, I squeezed my eyes shut and found myself praying for some kind of divine mercy.


Oh He who watches over us,


Please help me…for I am afraid…






… I know I act like I know too much, and I’m all brave and shit, but really…I am scared shitless deep down inside because I really don’t know what to expect. Oh God…I don’t know what you have planned for me, but whatever it is…please…let me make it through. Please send me a sign that tomorrow’s gonna be a good da –




My lashes flew open at the hushed whisper of my name, and for a second I could only stare blankly at the pretty face peering at me through the grilles of my cell.


“Ha…Haku?” I asked with uncertainty; sure this was some kind of hallucination. They probably put those kind of drugs in the rice ball and that was why I was suddenly seeing my first…well second if you counted Sasuke…real visitor since I was locked up again. Apparently, part of the final cleansing rites had involved not having a damn person to talk to besides your shadow and your mind. After enjoying almost two months of relative ‘freedom’, being thrust back into the gloomy, claustrophobic prison was enough to make one go insane.


(you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone)


I had mentally prepared myself for being tortured all over again, but all I had been subjected to was being stripped of my clothes and spending at least an hour or two a day being tied up and dunked in a large barrel of warm water, while some weird priests chanted something when I was finally brought up to get some much-needed air. It had freaked me out at first, and I honestly thought they meant to drown me at some point, but I came to realize it was…of course…nothing more than a Gudan rite.


I was really beginning to get sick of those.


To kill time in my loneliness, I ‘practiced’ my kenjutsu skills as best I could. I had no sword, bokken or even a stick to swing around, so I used my hands and arms, while trying to recall all that Asuma had taught me.


/The bottom line is that Kendo relies mostly on mental strength. It is the ability to think fast on your feet and to think two, three, five steps ahead of your opponent. It’s all well and good to swing a sword around, but you must keep your mind sharp and think of tactics to throw him off guard. Sometimes the quickest way to win a fight is to be unorthodox. Do something your opponent least expects, and when you have an opening or have him at your mercy…you must strike immediately! /


Mental strength, eh? I wasn’t sure I had much of that, but I had tried to memorize all the steps; from my stance to the rules of Kendo and the mantra I had been taught.


To mold the mind and body.

To cultivate a vigorous spirit,

And through correct and rigid training,

To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.

To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor.

To associate with others with sincerity.

And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.


Through all this, I wondered if I would ever get to see Asuma or Shikamaru again…hell even the boy now smiling before me. I would have hugged the kid, but I was still in a daze to move much.


“How are you feeling, Naruto-kun?”


“Wonderful,” I finally replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “I feel as happy as a man likely to get whacked first thing in the morning. How ‘bout you?”


He lowered his lashes, and I sighed at my snippy remark. The guy had only tried to be nice. Why did I have to keep acting like such a dick around him? “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I’m just…”


“I understand,” he replied softly. “I guess I would feel like you do now if I was in your position.”


“Yeah…well…” I scratched my head and adjusted myself. “Say…your master just left here. Guess he just couldn’t resist my charm after all.” I could spend all fucking day teasing that guy, now that I thought about it. It really didn’t take much to get him pissed off, and a part of me actually found that it was kinda…fun (in a twisted way).


Haku chuckled weakly. “Yes…he always has to perform the final rites and give the final meals to the sinners since he’s the one…well…”


“Nice job he’s got there,” I replied with a roll of my eyes.


Haku gave a wan smile and then leaned even closer to the grille. “Can I ask you something, Naruto-kun?”


“Sure.” I moved close enough until he was literally whispering in my ear. Compared to the fetid smells (including yours truly) of this hell hole, Haku smelled like heaven. Just about the same way his damn master had smelled too. Hell, his very presence was like a breath of fresh air. Would I be considered weird if I wanted to sniff his hair for the rest of his time here?


“I overheard Sasuke-sama talk about the new format of the battle with Asuma-san the other day, and he mentioned that you’d have to kill the other prisoners to be free…is that true?”


I sighed. “Don’t remind me. I’m still trying to figure out a way to get out of actually having to do that, but if push comes to shove…I’m not going to have much of a choice, will I?”


Haku’s features broke into a smile. “I think I can help you with that, Naruto-kun.” He reached into his kimono and withdrew what looked like a sewing needle, but it was pointed on both ends.


“What is that?” I asked in bemusement.


“A special weapon Zabuza-san introduced to me. You have to handle it carefully though because once it pricks you, you…well…die.”


“…and how the hell is this supposed to help me?”


Haku wagged a finger as if admonishing me. “You die…but only until you are revived by the antidote, which I have. The needles contain a special poison that infiltrates the blood stream, slows the heart rate and in less than a minute, you are declared ‘dead’ by anyone who tries to feel your pulse.”


“No shit,” I gasped in awe.


“No shit, Naruto-kun.” Haku giggled then froze. We both listened for any approaching footsteps, but all we could hear was the continuous whine and curses from the other inmates. “I would like you to have them, Naruto-kun,” he continued fervently. It was as if he realized his time was running out.


“How do I carry them though? I’m only dressed in this darn loin cloth thingy.”


“Tomorrow you’ll be dressed in a yukata,” Haku explained. “I will be waiting for you at the entrance to the arena, where I will slip the needles into it as you walk past. During the battle, use as many as you can without being noticed…and try not to hit any vital points.”


“No vital points…got it.” Asuma had taught me about those too.


“Don’t worry about the bodies,” he continued. “Once they are ‘dead’, the other sinners have to take them to the pit that is several miles away from here. I have made plans with the sinner in charge of them and he will administer the antidote to those you pricked.”


“Phew…good to know. I was going to ask you about that little detail…”


Haku – to my surprise – suddenly reached out a hand (with some effort too because the space between the grilles were quite small) to caress my cheek. I fought against my body’s immediate reaction to shudder at the touch and closed my eyes; forcing myself to relax and breathe evenly as he tenderly traced the outline of my scars. I didn’t know if what we were doing was going to be regarded as ‘cheating’ but hell…anything to get out of having to kill unnecessarily and besides a few lucky few might get their freedom if all went according to plan. I really was grateful for him choosing to befriend a pain-in-the-ass like me. I didn’t feel I deserved his attention and care.


“Thank you,” I sighed softly. There was something soothing about his caresses…almost as if he was giving me a massage. “For…everything…”


“I have done nothing, Naruto-kun,” Haku whispered in return. “If you win…you are free, yes?”




“Then you and I must meet in the outside world someday and do a lot of fun things together, eh?”


I lifted my lashes and gave him a warm smile. “Sure. Something tells me you need to get out more often anyway.”


He blushed and giggled again, and before I could stop myself, I caught his fingers and squeezed them gently. Soft yet strong. “You better get going,” I said aloud yet with regret. “Methinks your master’s going to need you tonight.”


“Why do you say that?” Haku asked with a cock of his head in bemusement.


I smiled as the memory of Sasuke’s flustered and shocked expression filled my mind. I knew I had kicked off something within Mr. Righteousness, and if my hunch was right then…


“Just…take care of the guy,” I replied with a light shrug. “He’s got some real issues he’s got to solve on his own and you might be the one he needs to be his moral support.”


Haku opened his mouth as if to say something, but shook his head instead. “Oh…okay…if you say so…although…”


“Although what?”


“Sasuke-sama and I do not have that kind of a relationship. I will protect him with my life, do not misunderstand me, but he is not the kind to share his thoughts and concerns with me. I am nothing more than a tool for him and …”


I squeezed his fingers a little harder before releasing them. “A tool? Yeah right. If you’re a tool, then you’re the goddamn sharpest one in the shed, and if I win tomorrow, I owe you my fucking life.”


I heard the shuffling footsteps of a guard approaching and motioned for Haku to rise to his feet as I scooted back into the shadows. He was just in time to act as if he had been doing nothing for the stern-faced guard appeared with a bemused glance at us.


“All done here, Haku-san?” he finally asked.


“All done,” came the quiet reply. “Thanks for allowing me to stop by.” He threw me a quick glance and a reassuring smile, which I was more than grateful to receive. However, once he was gone, and the heavy cloak of loneliness befell me again, I squeezed my eyes shut and continued my fevered prayers from where I left off.


…you work pretty fast, oh God, by sending Haku to me, so please…please don’t make me accidentally stab myself with the needles. It would be pretty embarrassing if I ended up committing suicide after all the shit I’ve been through. Oh…and just in case this does end up being my last night on earth…could you at least give me a dream I can be happy with? Maybe with Sakura-chan and I together again? I really would appreciate it. Thank you.


I sighed and prepared myself for a sleepless night, but to my surprise – and perhaps it was due to my prayers – I slipped effortlessly into a world where there was no talk of death or of suffering. In this world, I walked with my head held high and with a heart that felt as light as a feather. I was on my way to meet someone – that much was certain – and as I approached the beautiful park fully expecting it to be my love…my life…my precious dear Sakura waiting on the park bench, God (how cruel he could be) had the last laugh as I was greeted by a now all too familiar figure with twin pools of darkest night that seemed to look through me and deep into my soul.


It is time, Uzumaki Naruto, they seemed to say. It is finally…our time.




Chapter 14

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