Sasuke wakes to an unfamiliar ceiling: cream-colored paint, no cracks, no rust. The table under him is wood, not metal. Even the light is different. For one thing, it's not flickering as if slowly ticking down the seconds till it can implode. This lamp is working fine, ergo, he's not at Naruto's.
His fingers won't move. He can't turn his head. His tongue moves, he can grit his teeth, his vocal box doesn't seem impaired, and he can feel his autonomic functions going -- lung, necessary for speech and to keep his insides clean; gyroscopes -- as if he needs a sense of balance, flat on his back; power accumulators necessary to activate the syntheskin. If someone takes a swing at him, he can go into armor-shift to protect himself. But none of his muscles will respond to any of his commands.
Screw that serial killer. Screw Sasuke's own law enforcement subroutines. Sasuke is going to kill Naruto with his own two hands.
He waits for the yellow warning screen to screech at him about threatening harm to civilians, ready to close it the millisecond it pops up, but it doesn't come.
... Strange. For one second he wonders whether the program somehow recognized it as an expression of frustration without real intent. But it's never been that subtle before -- and the anger and desire of retribution behind Sasuke's words were real enough to deserve a warning anyway.
When he checks his memory banks for the government add-ons, he finds the whole folder wiped.
It's a thorough job. Not a clean one; he can see some broken code and useless info-bots, automatically gathering data for a decision-making tree that isn't there anymore. He searches and he searches, but he can find no program left that will actually do anything. No program to berate him for threatening a civilian. No program to demand action for any crime bigger than petty theft.
No program to enforce the Sharingan mode and assign absolute priority to predefined targets.
"Whatever you do, don't reboot."
The voice makes him blink. His movement sensors weren't tripped; he wasn't expecting it. The man isn't in his limited field of vision, but he recognizes the vocal imprint.
Naruto's friend, the one he gets drunk with. Shikamaru.
There are questions to ask -- what am I doing here, what did you do to me, who deleted that program. Those are not the most urgent. "Where is Naruto?"
Shikamaru sighs, from somewhere to the left of his feet. "Ahh, I don't have a clue. He dumped you through my window and ran off."
Sasuke grits his teeth. Figures. "He didn't say anything?"
Shikamaru's spiky ponytail wobbles into view as he hauls himself from either a low bed or the floor. From what Sasuke gathered from their only meeting, he's been known to nap in strange places. "He said to keep you there until he came back or until next week."
"It's been a week?"
He's going to kill him. Kill him dead. Fucking moron went and got his fool self killed. Sasuke's going to hunt down his corpse and --
-- and --
Shit. Shit. Not again.
"It's only been two days," Shikamaru drawls.
Sasuke stares at Shikamaru, who stands with his hands in his pockets, a thoroughly chewed pen dangling from his mouth.
"... Why, then...?"
"Because he's an overreacting idiot when it's about keeping his friends safe. Because I figure whatever it is he's doing, he needs backup more than you need your hand held. Because, frankly, I don't know you, and I want him alive and safe a lot more than I'm afraid to see you dead."
Sasuke tears his attention away from his still unstable and conflicting emotions -- anger and fear, memory of grief. He doesn't have the time. And this, right now, wasn't what he expected of the man. Naruto told him Shikamaru was just a normal guy who didn't know anything. He's even supposed to have a nice little legit job and everything.
But someone has to have hacked him, and Naruto already said he couldn't do it.
"You know what I am."
Shikamaru switches the pen from the left of his mouth to his right. "Since you perched your anorexic ass on that stool, and left the same kind of gouges in the floor Chouji does. I knew Naruto was fixing you an arm, but even four steel limbs wouldn't be that heavy."
Sasuke stares at him in blank disbelief.
"Granted," the man adds, as an afterthought, "I didn't know what kind of bot you were at that point."
That's pretty clear subtext. "And now you do." He wants to hear it. For confirmation.
Shikamaru shrugs and leans against the wall, hands still deep in his pockets. "Now I do."
Sasuke's upper lip curls in impotent rage. "You hacked me."
Shikamaru gives him a heavy-lidded, cryptic look, and doesn't bother denying it. "It was an interesting challenge. No time to do it clean, though, sorry."
A challenge. A fucking challenge. "That's --" Treason, he wants to say, but he's not sure how it is; he's his own legal person now, not property of the government anymore. It's still something he could sue him over, he's pretty sure; there have been precedents to treat AI hacking as assault and violation of privacy, but without the subroutines prodding him, he can't quite push himself to place Shikamaru in the Enemies of the State category. "...Illegal. I didn't give you permission."
"There was no time to ask for it." Shikamaru spits out the pen, drops it in a wastebasket, and stares down at him, deadly serious. "I'm not sorry."
Sasuke bristles, literally, the current running through his body making paths where his syntheskin goes from golden skin to sharp-edged plates of steel. Patches of metallic blue-gray scales spread up his side, creep over his cheek and the bridge of his nose.
Shikamaru only arches an eyebrow.
"What do you want to do the most right now? Punish me for that?"
Sasuke is tempted to say yes. But it's not true.
Shikamaru's eyes are full of intent. He expects something. Sasuke might just be able to give it.
"... You'll still be there when I come back with that retard. Won't you?"
The man smirks, just a tiny twist of the lips. It's the first Sasuke's seen on his face today, and it's nothing like the lazy amusement he showed that night at the bar. It's darker, and really not that amused after all.
"I will be," Shikamaru promises, and then something beeps and unlocks, and Sasuke can move again. His first movement is to pluck the datajack out of his neck port.
"Know where to find him?" Shikamaru asks.
Sasuke nods briskly as he sits up, taking in the rest of what he realizes is Shikamaru's bedroom. He rushes through his check-up routine. Everything seems to work. He slides off the desk.
"Remember what I told you. Don't reboot. It's not gone."
Sasuke pauses midway to the window.
"There's a node deeper in, but I haven't figured out how to get to it yet. As long as it's here, the programming will redownload the second you hit the 'net. That's why I blocked your wifi access."
... Shit. No counting on police feeds to track the killer then. He's not sure if he's relieved or disappointed to know that the government subroutines might still come back. They're a hindrance in everyday life, but he's had them for so long, he's not entirely sure how to trust his personal sense of justice. Interpretation is always flawed in some way, after all.
Shikamaru opens a drawer and hands out a handheld datapad to him. "Here. Don't lose it."
Sasuke frowns at the little machine and its bothersome keyboard, so slow and inefficient compared to direct uplink, but stuffs it in his pocket anyway. He doesn't bother nodding his thanks, saying goodbye, saying anything at all. He steps across Shikamaru's bed, making the springs cry out, and then he's out of the window. A fire escape takes him down to ground level, and he runs.
The train to Jinsha is fast; it only leaves him forty-seven minutes to hack his way manually through the camera feeds around the train station, so he can get an idea of the direction Naruto took. It's a lot harder without his embedded authorization codes, even though they're outdated anyway. He wishes he could just jack himself in the datapad, but there's a chance the program would try to connect through it, which would make Shikamaru's efforts pointless. And the fingers of the hand-that-is-not-his just react too slowly.
He manages to find a low res view of a blond fox-furry. Westward. That's something. Now Sasuke knows Naruto didn't get killed before he even left the train station.
Sasuke is getting up to leave the train when the news stream he was tracking mentions a new Beach Murder, but a harried businessman all but shoves him down on the platform and he loses the signal. Shit. He doesn't even bother glaring at the man, just hurries to the West exit and curses at his sudden inability to notice wireless dead zones before he's right in the middle of them. In fits and sputters, the information stream starts again. "Similar modus operandi," he catches, and "victim in a critical state" -- he relaxes a little. Not dead. ... Also, female. Not Naruto. Even better.
Shouldn't be better, he thinks. It's not ethical to order the importance of victims -- they should all have the same priority.
Shouldn't be, but is. Sasuke walks a little faster.
He works on getting through street camera feeds as he goes, but they belong to the city and not the train company; the security's a little better. And he sees enough furries in the area to know that asking about Naruto would be pointless, two days after the fact. It's common around here -- cat ears and wolf tails and tiger stripes, even a zebra mane down a shirtless guy's spine. About half the people he sees seem to have fangs; he almost feels conspicuous. It would be worse if he wore his usual button-up shirts in the middle of all those tanktops and net shirts, but he's still in his orderly scrubs; it makes him look harmless.
He loses the trail a few streets in; a small plaza, several streets branching off, and no Naruto on any of the feeds. If cursing did anything, he'd use his whole dictionary. He was a cop. He heard enough of them.
He was a cop. What should he do? He can't follow Naruto's tracks, and he doesn't know the name or address of his target.
... Question the victim. The latest one. It must have happened in the last twenty-four hours, or he would have heard, so Naruto would have been around when it happened. Perhaps she knows where he and the killer are. Perhaps she doesn't, but he has to start somewhere.
This hospital is a lot bigger than Tsunade's glorified clinic. Cleaner and with better security, too. Paradoxically, that makes it easier to get in. They're not hit so often that they need to have every stranger escorted by a pair of burly security men. He just gives his ID to be registered and tells the truth -- he's there for a visit.
"Came straight from work, huh?" the reception nurse says with a friendly, commiserating look.
Sasuke nods; that gives him the time to analyze his snapshot of the admission list. He finds a likely name in the right unit -- trauma ward. "Yeah. Holsten -- room 542, right?"
He expects the alarm to howl when he walks through the detector gate, but the man just arches an eyebrow. "Gotta update your ID."
Sasuke suspects the guy who gave him a 100% meatware pedigree never bothered to have a chat with the guy who didn't allow an ex-cop to keep his jammer. It's better than suspecting it was deliberate. "Yeah," he replies with just a touch of 'man, I know.' "The paperwork takes ages to be processed."
And with that, he's in, left to his own devices. He's pretty sure if he 'got lost' in some other ward someone would be there right away to direct him to the appropriate area; but... How come the gate at Tsunade's clinic read him better than this one? He would have noticed if Naruto had installed a jammer in him recently. Maybe Shikamaru?
He starts a quick scan for new hardware, and then aborts it. Jammers are illegal unless obtained via government dispensation; if he actually found one, he would be obligated to stop right there and take it out, and that would blow his cover. Later, he tells himself, when it won't compromise the goal -- a little misdemeanor is nothing faced with a human life.
He weaves in and out of several groups of people -- visitors, patients, actual medical personnel. By the time he's on the fifth floor, the probability that the people in the security room have lost track of him is high enough to take a chance.
The rookie cop keeping watch at one of the doors barely gives him a second glance. He's aware enough of Sasuke, but the scrubs are like a chameleon suit. Same for the plainclothes officer at the other end of the corridor. What Sasuke didn't expect was the well-dressed, heavily scarred man leaning on the other side of the closed door. He has a dark bandanna across the mess that is the left side of his face, and a gun tents his jacket. There's a double-triangle tattoo on his bare cheek, deep red over the swarthy skin.
The victim has mafia ties. Shit.
Not slowing down, he reviews his options. Sneak in pretending to be an orderly checking on the patient? He'd be stopped. He has no local name tag, no way to know whether the patient actually asked for anything. No doubt they've had to deal with enough nosy reporters to make them wary of any excuse he could come up with, and that's not counting the fear of the killer slipping in to finish the job.
If he speaks to the cop, he'll be told to butt out and that they'll find Naruto for him if he just stays put. Naruto wouldn't thank him -- least of all for the ensuing mess over his lack of legal existence and his tendency to vigilantism. Sasuke still remember his total conviction that anyone but him would be killed.
He still has half the corridor left to cross when the door opens up and a detective storms out, lips moving in a litany of words that Sasuke reads with little effort. Most of them are in his profanity dictionary. The mafioso's visible eye narrows dangerously; the detective glares at him and gestures at the uniformed rookie to follow him a few steps away.
Sasuke won't have a better occasion. He keeps walking toward the mafioso, looking at him straight-on now. He makes sure to keep his hands visible, though underneath his clothes his syntheskin hardens from soft flesh into metal.
When he stops, a couple of steps away, the mafioso's hand is on his gun, but he hasn't pulled it out. Sasuke interprets it as a 'I'm listening. For now.'
"I need to speak with her."
The scarred man snorts.
"I'm not a reporter. I'm not going to sell the story. You can stand right behind me with a gun against my head. But I need to speak with her."
"A problem?" the detective asks, looking as if he's ready to storm back and throw Sasuke out, since he can't do the same with the scarred bodyguard.
Sasuke sets his jaw and waits for his decision.
"... No, Detective, it's fine." The mafioso looks him over. "Who are you with?"
Him, in a gang? Sasuke sneers. "Myself."
The man's lip quirks up a little, just barely. "She'd know you?"
"I don't even know her name," Sasuke retorts; then he drops his voice so the cops can't possibly overhead, tense and grim. "But she might have seen my friend, and I need to find him before he ends up just as mangled as she is or worse."
The man nods slowly as he takes in Sasuke's words, but he doesn't seem convinced. "You're out of luck. She doesn't remember anything. Post-traumatic amnesia."
Sasuke allows himself a long, totally incredulous look, and an unmasked glance toward the cops. He's not stupid. If she talked about anything that happened, she might give away some of their gang activities with it. They're not going to help him because protecting their illegal activities is more important to them than stopping a serial killer who mangled one of their own.
Hell, maybe they're unlucky accomplices.
"He's not easy to forget," Sasuke says between his clenched teeth. "Fox-furry. Blond. Friendly."
There's a hitch in the man's heartbeat that tells Sasuke he knows exactly who he's talking about. The mafioso's face doesn't betray any of it. If Sasuke wasn't so sure it would end with a hospital patient coming down with a lethal case of lead poisoning, he'd drag him in a corner and force it out of him.
"Let him in," a tinny feminine voice rasps through the bud in the man's ear.
The man's eye narrows, pulling on the red triangles tattooed on his right cheek, and his eyebrow furrows. "...Fine." He points toward the door with a quick jerk of his chin. The cops are staring at them now, but Sasuke and the mafioso both ignore them.
Sasuke walks in first. There's a little vestibule first, with a sink -- he doesn't get to the other door before a hand lands on his shoulder and pushes him against a wall. He was expecting it, and his armor shift is already dissipated, but the man's fingers twitch from the static electricity.
"What are you packing, kid, Hyuuga bioware?" he asks as he frisks Sasuke quickly. No weapons to be found except for a butterfly knife; Sakura just got too worried when she saw Sasuke didn't have anything to defend himself in the neighborhood. The mafioso pockets it.
Sasuke makes a noncommittal noise, though he has no clue what Hyuuga bioware is supposed to be. He's been out of the loop too long. "Does it matter? If I wanted to kill her, there would be easier ways."
"Mmh. Stay by the door. You move in a way I don't like, you're dead. We're clear?"
Sasuke nods briskly, tired of the game already. He just wants to be on his way.
He steps in the hospital room itself, and stops there as promised, feeling the muzzle of the gun pressed against the back of his head. It doesn't matter.
The woman is young to be so high-ranked -- in her twenties, though with the bruises and the rashes on her face it's hard to be any more accurate. Her hair is dirty blond, thick, bristly, gathered out of the way in a messy ponytail. She lies limp and bandaged, as if she couldn't find the strength to get up even if her leg wasn't in a cast. Her eyes, though -- they're clear. Sharp.
"Baki, close the door."
Grunting an acknowledgement, the man nudges Sasuke deeper inside the room and complies, then pulls a bug sweeper out of his pocket. It tingles over Sasuke's skin, but finds him clean. The woman pulls out a gun, points Baki at the visitors' chair in silence, and then aims at Sasuke with a steady hand while the mafioso sweeps the indicated area.
"Clean. Detective Huong doesn't seem to have forgotten anything," Baki says, and goes to stand behind Sasuke again.
The woman's hand falls on the blankets, gun still held loosely. Sasuke refrains from asking her if she's got a permit for it.
"Who are you?"
She smirks, chuckles, and then immediately regrets it, from the wince of pain she can't fully hide. "Ballsy, huh."
"I just don't care," he replies tiredly. "Right now my priority is finding Naruto before he gets killed. Where did you last see him?"
"What makes you think I've seen him? I might not even know who you're talking about."
Sasuke scowls. "If you want to play games, I'm sure they'll allow you a pack of cards. What do you know about Naruto?"
She arches an eyebrow, mocking. "He's blond. Friendly. Foxy." She's just repeating what she heard from Baki's bug. Bitch. She sobers up before he can snap, humor drawn out of her by the pain. "I might have seen someone like that. Maybe. What would telling you get me?"
"You'd sleep better at night."
She laughs again, softly this time though it's obvious she wants to laugh louder. "Nice try. Secret for a secret, Sasuke. Who are you?"
"An orderly at Doctor Tsunade's clinic. Where was he the last time you saw him?"
"On his own two feet," she replies, and relents briefly. "He wasn't about to keel over or have a wall fall on his head, either. But that doesn't mean much."
"It doesn't," he agrees quietly. "What was the situation?"
Her eyes go wary, shuttered, all amusement gone. "Situation, huh?"
Sasuke is tempted to swear. Damn it, what a stupid slip-up. "...I was a cop for a few years. Now I'm not."
Behind him, Baki doesn't move, but Sasuke can hear his heartbeat speed up as adrenaline starts spreading through his body.
"Uh-huh. Badge number?"
Sasuke closes his eyes briefly. What are his choices? He can make one up, and be found out whenever she gets around to running a background check. Or he can tell the truth, and be found out right away.
Her fingers freeze over her handheld datapad's keyboard. "... UG?"
He's pretty sure she knows what that means, so he doesn't say anything, just stares at her and waits. A hundred emotions race across her face, too fast to pin down any.
"... You're an Uchiha model."
He nods soberly. He doesn't know what she's barricading behind her blank expression, but it's intense. A bit too intense for simple surprise that there's still one who wasn't terminated. A bit too... involved.
"Shit," she says, with feeling, and then she starts to laugh, and she doesn't stop even when her stomach muscles clench and the pain starts. "My god. My fucking god. Where did Naruto find you?"
Sasuke isn't sure that was a question, and he doesn't much like feeling like the butt of the joke. "I found him. I'd like to find him again, preferably not in pieces."
"You'd like, huh?" She watches him with lazy, slightly mocking eyes. "Do you, really?"
"Do I what?"
"Like him. Like anything, really."
Sasuke often feels annoyance, impatience, frustration. But true anger, rarely. He feels it now, and it skews a lot of semi-automated actions. Like his hands, clenched hard. Like his facial expression. He terminates the mood-face connection right away, his features falling back into blank neutrality.
"Did I piss you off?" she asks with faint, mocking disbelief.
He's getting fucking sick and tired of this game. "Not yet, but keep pushing and see what happens. Where is Naruto?"
"What do you think you'll do when you find him?"
He keeps his face and voice blank, though he feels anything but. "Assess the situation and act in consequence."
She makes a vaguely displeased noise. That doesn't tell her anything, but then again she's not telling him anything either. "And if you can't do anything?"
"There's always something to do."
"Like get destroyed?"
"I'll get destroyed creatively. Are you always such a bitch?"
She smirks like she's proud of it, but it doesn't last. "... The killer. What do you plan to do about him?"
Sasuke arches an eyebrow. "Him."
The woman narrows her eyes at him, and Sasuke notes that now she's angry too. It's an old anger, more something he just awoke than something he created.
"Stop him if I can. But my first priority is to make sure Naruto lives." Then he'll just have to come back for the killer. He isn't going to let cops get butchered either.
"Even if it got you terminated?"
"... If that was in the process of saving his life, then yes." He would not knowingly sacrifice himself for someone else, now that he isn't legally obligated anymore. But risk himself... That's different. You can't get anything worth having if you only take the safe paths.
She whistles in fake admiration. "Is that how much you like him, or just your programming?"
A line of armor-shifted syntheskin snakes its way up his neck, curls under his eye.
"Let's put it this way. If I had to dismantle your whole organization single-handedly to save his life, I would. And I could." He takes a step closer, two steps. Baki cocks his gun, but Sasuke doesn't care. It won't go through armor shift. "And I wouldn't give a shit about the body count." He leans over the bed then, voice soft, deadly serious. "As of this morning, there is absolutely nothing left to remind me what is, or is not, appropriate use of deadly force."
Threatening a civilian is prohibited! he expects. The pop-up doesn't come. It's not going to. And if he reaches... if he places his hand around her neck and squeezes... then nothing will happen to him either. His muscles won't freeze. His fingers won't lock. His sensors won't scream negative input until he's half-blind from dealing with sensory overload.
He could kill her just because he wants to, and nothing would stop him.
He stops moving then, his face so close to hers, and he doubles the locks between his semi-automatic emote folders and his body language. If he shows her anything right now, he loses.
He could kill her. He could kill anyone. Baki. The cops outside. The patients. Nothing could stop him. Nothing.
Only the fact he doesn't feel like it.
He wants his censor program back.
The woman's jaw is clenched tight, her pupils dilated. She's taking him seriously now. Good. Good. It means he won't have to prove it.
"... If you insist."
Slowly, he straightens up, still watching her. He waits.
"Know the abandoned industrial area?" she asks. Sasuke nods; he doesn't but he can find it. "Last I knew he went in there with Naruto. Anyone's guess whether either of them came out."
He nods, turns around to leave, pauses. "How does he kill?"
She snorts. "I never could wrap my mind around it."
She reclines in her bed then, still watching him with eyes like a hawk. She's almost daring him to ask what she meant by that -- 'never'. He knows she won't tell him more, unless he's willing to spend the next hour torturing her. He isn't. He has more urgent things to do.
But he knows it's strange, not ordinary. And he knows most victims had defensive wounds. If it doesn't kill him on the spot, he'll figure it out. He walks past Baki and opens the door.
"Be careful, Uchiha. My brother's never been very gentle with his toys."