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Of Harrowed Hearts

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It’s two months into his training when Naruto notices it first. It takes another four before he figures it might mean something’s wrong.

It’s one of his rest days, when it first happens. Kurama insists on having them once a week to let Naruto recuperate from the hell he’s put through regularly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not training. Kurama had seen one of the Tokubetsu Jounin on training ground nineteen spitting senbon with the speed and force of gunshots at terrified Chunin, and he’d asked if Naruto wanted to start his inner strength and breath training early during rest days.

And Kurama, the sneaky demon, had known he’d say hell yes after watching what it could do in action.

So he’s sitting on a rock by the waterfall in his impromptu training ground, and… breathing, essentially. But Naruto is starting to get where the strength part is coming from, steady inner power, and is exploring how it seems to work when he sort of loses track of time.

It’s dark when he opens his eyes, which is weird, he hadn’t thought he’d been at it for that long, and Kurama hadn’t warned him when it was getting late like he usually did.

He sends a soft askance through the seal, a hint of a question. He gets no response.

Sighing, he drops back into his head, landing with practiced ease in the clean blue water of the seal space. It’s so different from how it had been nearly three years ago, dark and oppressive and so much like the inside of a sewer. There’s actual light now, though Naruto couldn’t say where exactly it comes from. The pale gold glimmers in sideways like the rays of a sunset after a storm, refracting off the obsidian cage bars in spider webs of fractured light. It gives the air a dream-like quality, the sensation of dozing lightly in a warm room on a lazy autumn evening. The water, crystal clear and mountain spring cool, reflects the golden sunrays in waves across the smoky opaqueness of the walls, stripes of shining dust motes that wink softly as they float about.

The shafts illuminate the sleeping beast within, gilding Kurama’s coat at the ends and making it look more like fire lilies and less like blood.

“Kurama?”

The word echoes softly like a call in a canyon, but the bijuu doesn’t move.

The fox is lying close enough to the bars for Naruto to touch him, so he reaches up to run his hand softly over the fur of Kurama’s snout just above his canine nose– a familiar gesture nowadays.

Kurama’s crimson eyes blink open, dazed and unfocused, far from their usual keen stare.

~Kit?~ He murmurs. ~What time is it?~

An odd question, since Kurama usually knows the time better than Naruto does. “Nine-ish, I think. You fell asleep.”

Kurama scrunches his nose a little, like he finds it hard to imagine how that happened. ~So it seems.~ He mumbles, shaking his head once like a dog as if to jostle away the fatigue. ~Did you finish your exercises?~

Naruto makes a face, but it’s more put out than actually offended. “I promised I would, didn’t I? I keep my promises. Even if the whole ‘just breathing’ thing was dumb at first.”

~I know you do, fishcake.~ He says sleepily, already starting to doze again. Naruto doesn’t try to keep him awake; instead he just strokes Kurama’s fur some more until the beast’s breathing evens out again.

It’s a little weird, sure– Kurama needs considerably less sleep than he does usually, but if Kurama needs rest Naruto’s not going to bother him. He stays in the seal space a little while longer, suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to this creature of blood and chakra that has become his family, has become yet another precious person. He hasn’t told Kurama that little tidbit, isn’t sure the great fox would appreciate it, but he holds the knowledge close and tucks it deep inside him. Another place to draw strength from.

He’s got a long way to go.

But he keeps his promises.

<> 

Kurama sleeps all the way through the night into the next day. Naruto doesn’t blame him, he does the same thing– only when he does it he gets an earful from Iruka-sensei, again, and Kurama gets to snore through the lecture.

But this time Iruka-sensei corners him after class too, and asks him with far more serious concern if he’s getting enough sleep. Naruto grins sheepishly and apologizes again for dozing off, sincere and everything. It’s worth the way Iruka-sensei smiles, exasperated and fond, and reaches down to ruffle his hair.

“Ramen, kiddo?” he asks, and Naruto grins bright.

“Is that even a question?” he declares, and it makes Iruka laugh.

He lets Naruto get shio ramen with extra pork belly on top, which is awesome, and asks Naruto how he’s been doing like he does every week. Naruto tells him he’s been training, which is true, he just neglects to mention how.

Kurama wakes up when Naruto’s halfway through his food. ~Really brat? More ramen?~

“Oh go back to sleep you grumpy old demon.” He shoots back, but it reminds him of something.

“Hey, Iruka-sensei?”

His teacher swallows a bite of his shoyu and egg ramen, glancing over. “Yes Naruto?”

“Will you teach me how to make curry?”

Iruka blinks at him, surprised. “Of course.” He says easily, and then grins. “I’m glad to see you taking an interest in something other than ramen for once.”

Teuchi smacks a ladle down suddenly on the counter, making Iruka start. Naruto just snatches up his bowl and holds it close to save it from the wrath of the ramen vendor. Iruka’s isn’t so fortunate, and broth sloshes over the side at the impact and splatters all over the counter. “You trying to chase away my best customer, Umino?” he says accusingly.

Iruka holds up his chopsticks in surrender. “No, of course not! I wouldn’t dream if it, Teuchi-san.”

Naruto giggles, setting his own ramen safely down. “Couldn’t chase me away if you tried!” he insists, and Teuchi favors him with a grin.

“You better not. My sales would drop threefold.”

Iruka winces. “My poor salary.”

<> 

Kurama doesn’t have another narcoleptic episode for two weeks. By the time it happens again, Naruto is so focused learning and memorizing new sequences for the C-ranks he’s been okayed to start on that he doesn’t tie the two events together at all. It’s only when it starts happening once a week that Naruto really starts to notice– and worry. Though nothing seems terribly wrong except for the intense lethargy that overcomes the bijuu without rhyme or reason. Kurama insists it’s nothing to lose his fishcake brain over, but Naruto suspects that Kurama is not only wrong, but he’s lying too.

Naruto is given irrefutable proof early one morning, two days before the end of the school year and two weeks shy of his birthday. He’d just fallen asleep, having gone over his ‘acquired’ scrolls about an hour prior. Deep in the recesses of his dreams, he hears a rumble like the starting of a flash flood, and then the precision-like crash of something shattering. A few moments later he’s jerked from sleep, hard, goes from dozing to completely aware in less than a second.

Something is burning across his abdomen, sending scorching pain from below his navel clear up into his ribs, and when he tears his blankets off to grip his stomach, he’s surprised that he’s not actually on fire.

The skin over his seal is a hot and angry red like it’s fighting an infection, only the infection is eating through his shirt; a soft hissing sound accompanies the volatile energy as it chews through the fabric of his sleeveless top over where it was pressed against his seal. He rips it off fast, hurling it to the other side of the room for good measure.

Despite the obvious danger of doing so, Naruto presses a hand to his seal, visible in dark black against the tan skin of his torso. The chakra is Kurama’s, but… wrong, vicious and lost and in pain, and fighting, though with what he can’t tell. He tries to dive down into the space but is instantly rebuffed– Kurama’s chakra flavors half with fear and half with protective instinct and snaps him right back out.

Kurama hasn’t done that for almost three years.

Naruto goes from worried straight into Oh Shit DEFCON 1.

He tries again, forces his way through the raging energy Kurama is throwing off in waves, and drops down into a place very different from the pocket of ease and peace that Naruto has grown used to. The water at his feet isn’t water anymore– it’s scalding hot and viscous and the color of a bruise– bubbling like a cauldron and spewing dark choking miasma into the air of the seal space. In the center is Kurama, thrashing and tearing around, tails slicing through air thick with fumes.

“KURAMA!” He shouts, trying to make himself heard over the din of hissing smoke and roiling tar and retching painful coughs, throwing up an arm in an attempt to shield his eyes from the stinging fog.

The bijuu looks up. Noxious sludge is dripping in nasty gobs from his open maw, coating his normally pearlescent fangs in slime reminiscent of congealed blood. Kurama blinks, dazed, and is suddenly overtaken by another series of racking coughs. He shakes all over like he’s trying to throw off an attacker, and then he turns abruptly to vomit more muck the color of busted blood vessels.

Naruto tries to force his way through the bars, tries to get to him, but the unseen forces that govern the seal space won't let him through, and Kurama isn’t close enough for him to reach out.

But Kurama looks like he’s dying, and Naruto can't just stand here, can’t just do nothing–

Before he can so much as call Kurama’s name again, the Kyuubi looks right at him, reaches out, and swipes a clawed hand through the air. The chakra that pushes him from the seal this time is more familiar, more like Kurama’s, less like the rotten sensation he’d felt at first.

He finds himself suddenly back in his body, and Kurama must have slammed shut some kind of door behind him, because now Naruto can’t find his way back in.

So ya. Sue him. He panics.

He spends probably a whole ten minutes just freaking out. Because what the hell? Kurama is a bijuu, the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and everything Naruto knows about what that means tells him that Kurama can’t get sick, can’t die, can’t even really be truly damaged.

Then what the hell is going on?

The more he thinks about the more he realizes that it has to be chakra– everything Kurama is begins and ends with chakra. The stuff Naruto can feel roiling inside him feels rotten, spoiled.

Rancid chakra?

Naruto has no idea what that means, and has even less of a clue about how to deal with it, but he has no time to think. Class starts in twelve minutes and even if Naruto tries to ditch, Iruka-sensei will notice and come track him down afterwards, both to make sure he’s alright and to give him a good lungful of lecture. Naruto knows this from experience, so he makes himself breathe through the fear.

Think idiot, think.

He can’t go to class with sick bijuu chakra eating through his clothes. The acidity factor of the chakra seems to be calming down somewhat, but it’s still enough to make his hand hot and itchy if he holds it over the space for too long. It also isn’t moving much outside the seal, merely saturating the air directly above it.

He pulls his med kit out of his closet, ransacking through for the adhesive bandages until he finds one large enough to cover his stomach. He slaps it over his seal and wraps it with as many layers of gauze as he can conceal safely under his shirt, which he leaves untucked as he pulls the spare over his head.

He has no clue if it will be enough, but he doesn’t have time for anything else.

It’ll have to be.

<><><> 

 

Sasuke has begun to note the days when class is quiet.

It’s an irritating thing for his brain to latch onto, but he finds himself incapable of truly ignoring the abnormal hush that settles over the classroom whenever Iruka pauses for breath. It’s instinct now that his senses stretch, that he listens for changes in the air that might indicate the doldrums will pass, but more often than not, on days like this, they don't.

Naruto is quiet.

He’s not sleeping either, though Sasuke refuses to look behind him to check. Naruto has slept through class for the last three weeks solid, and that’s an entirely different kind of quiet– soft and easy and normal in a way this deafening silence is not.

The first time it happened was the day after the one he came in sans obnoxious jumpsuit– he’d been so quiet that the black shinobi clothes had seemed like mourning attire instead of a uniform. This quiet is different though, he feels that something isn’t right, and the tension in the air is too tight for that feeling to be a coincidence.

The second he gets a chance, as soon as Iruka leaves them for lunch break, Sasuke–as covertly as he can– casts a glance at the dead last.

What he sees startles him.

There are bags under Naruto’s eyes that speak of exhaustion– the kind that sleep can’t fix– potent and arduous and born of tortured sleepless nights. His eyes are downcast, weary, even his hair is far tamer than it usually is– which is standing in all directions after no doubt only just rolling out of bed. Instead he looks like he hasn’t slept at all, like he’s spent the night battling demons only to find them still there as the sun rose.

Sasuke’s seen that look before.

After long nights of terror and nightmares of bonds and brothers and blood, he’s seen it in the mirror.

Sasuke’s not the only one that’s noticed.

“Do you think he’s okay?”

He whips his head around, momentarily mortified at being caught staring at an idiot that shouldn’t hold his attention at all, only to find Sakura there, sitting next to him.

Doing the same.

He scoffs and turns his head away. “What do I care?” he snaps.

Sakura blinks, a pathetic look of hurt flashing across her face. But then the hand she’s holding clasped over her chest tightens, and something else flashes through her eyes, so fast Sasuke nearly misses it.

Something ferrous.

She turns from him, which alone is startling, and walks up the steps to the rows above them. For one terrifying moment Sasuke fears she’s going to talk to Naruto, and something in him panics just a little, because no, stop, it’s not the kind of pain you can console, it’s the kind of pain that when confronted turns angry and defensive, and Sakura won’t like what she sees if she tries.

He’s not sure why he’s worried about Sakura. He’s even less sure how he knows the way it would end.

But thankfully Sakura doesn’t turn to Naruto– she bypasses the row he’s sitting in, both seats beside him empty, and instead goes one row up to sit on the side of Shikamaru that isn’t occupied by Choji. Sasuke can’t fathom what she wants from the dozing shadow-nin.

She looks to Choji first, oddly, a question in her eyes, and Choji nods, his hand buried in a bag of fried pork skins.

Like she’s been given permission, Sakura jostles Shikamaru’s arm gently. The Nara blinks awake, turning his eyes to Sakura with alarmingly razor focus for half a second, before his gaze relaxes back into it’s normal lazy stare.

Sasuke eavesdrops shamelessly.

“Ya?” Shikamaru yawns, not bothering with a more complex sentence.

Sakura points at the back of Naruto’s head. “What happened? Do you know?” She murmurs softly.

That hits Sasuke kind of sideways. What would Shikamaru know about Naruto?

Shikamaru favors Sakura with one long blink, eyes sliding between Naruto and Sakura as if debating which one was more trouble.

Sakura levels him with a glare Sasuke didn’t know she was capable of. “And don’t tell me you don’t know, Nara. I may be no genius but I’m not stupid.” She growls, though she keeps her tone soft and low as not to attract the attention of the blond below them. Sasuke figures she needn’t bother– Naruto’s eyes are clouded like he’s looking in instead of out. The view is inordinately disturbing.

Shikamaru sighs heavily, disproportionately harassed for what’s been asked of him. He looks down at Naruto again, his eyes lingering, assessing, on blonde hair. Sasuke isn’t expecting the pinch of worry around Shikamaru’s eyes, or his own response to it.

Irritation.

Frustration that Shikamaru knows something about Naruto that he does not.

Sasuke moves to shut the emotion down, as violently as he can, but his anger only rises when he finds the sensation can’t be quelled.

“He’s sick, I think.” Shikamaru responds.

Sick?

That brings him up short again. Naruto doesn’t look sick, he looks in pain. The signs on his face speak of stress, not ailment.

Sakura seems to come to the same conclusion, because her forehead scrunches and she frowns. “That doesn’t make any sense. He’s never been sick.”

She’s… right, now that Sasuke thinks of it. In all the years at the academy that he remembers, Naruto’s never presented with so much as a sniffle.

“That’s not the kind of sick I’m talking about.” Shikamaru corrects, and the concern in his lazy eyes becomes more apparent. He tears the corner off his notebook– a prop, since he has an eidetic memory– balls it up and flicks it at Kiba.

It hits the dog-nin in the back of the head, and he cuts off his conversation with Hinata to glare at the culprit. He’s clearly surprised when his eyes land on Shikamaru. “Shika?” He asks. “Somethin’ the matter?”

“You remember that...thing you heard happened outside Ichiraku a while ago?”

Kiba’s eyes dart immediately to Naruto, a terrible tell that whatever Shikamaru is talking about obviously involved him, and then flick back to Shikamaru. “I remember.”

‘A while ago’ could mean anything, but Sasuke gets the sinking feeling that it has something to do with the day Naruto came to class without his jumpsuit.

“Has anything like that happened since?” Shikamaru asks vaguely.

Kiba shakes his head. “No idea. I only found out about the first time on accident because my sister has a big mouth.” His eyes flicker to Naruto again and back. “Did you hear something?”

Shikamaru shakes his head, even as Hinata leans forward.

“What are you talking about? Is something wrong?” She asks.

Kiba smiles back at her, reassuring and false. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. So your idiot brother did what now?”

Hinata flushes angrily and becomes so busy defending Neji that she fails to notice the strain that crops up on Kiba’s face.

What the hell is going on here?

“Shikamaru?” Sakura asks, her expression uncertain.

The shadow-nin waves his hand as if to disperse her wariness. “Just… leave him be. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Sakura doesn’t look convinced though, and neither does Shikamaru.

 

<> 

 

The problem is that Sasuke can’t stop thinking about it.

Not the fact that something’s wrong with Naruto or the fact that he was acting strangely today, but the fact that something in him needs to know why. Naruto’s an idiot, a failure. He shouldn’t so much as catch Sasuke’s attention, let alone hold it in a vice the way he does, and without even trying.

Sasuke’s instincts are running wild, and trying to sort out the barrage of impulses and intuition is like trying to categorize a hurricane– like trying to differentiate wind from rain and rain from flailing debris. It’s not just one thing; it’s too many little things.

Naruto sleeps through almost all of class now in a way he hadn’t before, but clearly his grades haven’t dropped enough to warrant being kicked out. So where is he getting the information? He can’t be absorbing it the way Shikamaru seems to be able to, or else he wouldn’t be the Dead Last, yet he somehow passes every test by the skin of his teeth.

What’s worse is that he comes to class obviously exhausted, but when it’s time for spars and they’re pitted against one another Naruto doesn’t fight any worse than he used to– in fact he fights better. And sometimes, when Naruto’s far too weary to really even be considering spars, or Sasuke is inches away from victory in them, something changes. Sometimes, deep in Naruto’s eyes, something switches on like an instinct or a reflex, and suddenly Sasuke is forced back by strength the idiot shouldn’t have, and all the ground he’d gained is lost in moments. He still wins, but it makes the victories seem hollow, makes that strange sensation throb in his chest– the one that tells him he’s missing something.

The more he interacts with the idiot, the more a very specific instinct in his hurricane gains credence. Because even before these strange things started happening, Sasuke has always had the feeling that somewhere in the core of both of them, somewhere buried deep, is the same kind of pain.

And that makes him hopeful and furious all at once, because Sasuke, ever since that night, has defined himself by his misery. The idea that Naruto might feel the same pain and can still find joy and meaning in the smallest of things– it makes him furious. Once upon a time Sasuke might have said that his indifference made him the stronger one, that Sasuke’s ability to disregard everything between him and his revenge gave him power.

But the painful thing is that he’s not sure. And because he’s not sure, there is a fraction of a chance that Naruto is the stronger of them both.

 

That night he thinks himself sick about it; lies cold in his too large bed in his too large house in a complex filled with ghosts and tries to use their torments to school his thoughts into order. Vengeance for those who died here, for his mother and his father and dammit for the memory of his brother, the one he used to know. That ghost is by far the loudest; the wraith of who his brother used to be screaming across the house in echoes of why why how could you why?

But the idea of his strength against Naruto’s sinks its claws into him until he can practically feel blood welling up in his throat.

He hates nights like this.

But more painful are the nights when he’s flooded with ideas of how things could have been, when he dreams of having a family again only to have it ripped from him again and again until he’s left in nothing but pools of Uchiha blood that only grow and grow and grow.

So he lies awake and tries to hate for it.

He succeeds less and less these days.

 

<><><>