Betrayed and bewildered, Naruto is in a position he never would have thought possible. Now he must adapt and overcome if he is to live long enough to secure the safety of everything he knows and l...
Chapter Two: In Pursuit of Him
The sky outside of the thin paper shades had begun to glow a faint pink, and the sounds of the waking village stirred from beyond the open pane of glass. He realized it was morning already, and wondered how many hours he had been sitting like this. Long, slender fingers combed through a mass of silver hair and Kakashi returned his attention to the man in his apartment.
He still looks like shit, he regarded his young friend's hunched posture. Of course he was not without understanding. Had it been Rin or Obito-
He shuddered. It was impossible for him to imagine those two turning against him. It simply would never have happened.
And that was why Kakashi was so patient with Naruto right now; because Naruto was thinking the exact same thing. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be. And yet Gondaime would not have said such a thing had she not been absolutely certain it was the truth.
It had taken forever, but Kakashi had managed to draw the details of the meeting from him. Tsunade's words made sense, and Kakashi found it difficult to argue the woman's logic. It had not helped Naruto to tell his story, but at least Kakashi knew now why the kid had shown up on his doorstep. He didn't want to be comforted. He wanted to make sense of it all. But until he could come to terms with the situation it wouldn't happen.
The two men hadn't spoken for a while. Naruto was face-down in the palms of his hands, breathing slowly. Feeling it was best not to push his friend just yet Kakashi said nothing and was simply waiting.
"Tell me what to do, sensei," the young man said at last through his palms, "because I don't know what to do anymore."
Oh no you don't. You're better than this!
"I can't do that, Naruto," he said, "this isn't something I can fix."
"So that's it?" Blue eyes overwhelmed with desperation tore at Kakashi. "If I don't do something, and there is a traitor, I'm dead, and the kyubi is as good as free in Itachi's hands. Gondaime says I can't trust any of them anymore. Not even Sakura! Do I just obey her? Just walk away from them, like they never were a part of me? And what about you, and Jiraiya, and Iruka? You guys were there, too! Do I toss you aside also?"
"Is that what you want?"
Naruto's head thrashed from side to side; his fists balled until his knuckles turned white.
"I don't want any of this!" He shouted. "I don't want this to be happening! I can't do this! I can't just walk away from them! This is who I am!"
Kakashi knew exactly what Naruto meant. When he was young he had been the same way. He could picture his younger self sitting there, just as Naruto was, crying out those same words. But Kakashi had never known this dilemma. Instead he had suffered his great loss and then closed that selfless part of himself away. Years went by and Hatake Kakashi had made it known that he needed no one. It had taken three amazing genin to reopen that lost part of him once more, and he hadn't even known it was happening.
Not until they lost Sasuke that first time.
"You live for those you love." Kakashi acknowledged.
"Yes!" Naruto shouted. "I do! So tell me how I am supposed to do this! How am I supposed to go against everything I am?" His sensei shook his head.
"You can't. To go against yourself is to fight a losing battle." Naruto groaned.
"So what do I do?"
"I can't answer that question, Naruto," Kakashi repeated, "only you can. Only you can know what the next step will be."
"But I don't!" Kakashi leaned forward over his knees and towards the man before him, his one dark eye trained intensely on his friend.
"I think you do." Naruto returned his face to his hands and Kakashi waited again. He would not let Naruto surrender control over his life; not the one that had, without even knowing it, helped Kakashi to gain control over his own.
'From now on I'm finding my own ninja way; a way that's straight and true and without any regrets!'*
Had it really been so many years since a boy of twelve had come to such an amazing decision? Against his teachings, his experiences, and even the words Kakashi himself had said back then, Naruto had declared his greatest strength without even knowing it. And he had held true to 'The Way of Naruto' ever since.
He can't give it up now!
"I know you do." Kakashi insisted.
His voice was soft, but the conviction behind the statement drew Naruto out. Wide eyes met his as Kakashi watched and waited. Naruto shook his head slowly, his eyes drifting off absently and he was quiet for a moment. His lips parted, ready to let lose another protest; but then he just stopped. His head tilted so slightly it had barely registered with the older man. Barely. Kakashi knew with rising hope; Naruto wasn't lost anymore.
He was fighting for his ninja way. Another shake of his head.
"I won't give them up." The blonde announced at last. "I refuse." Now it was time to push him.
"And if there is a traitor, as Tsunade believes there to be?" Kakashi asked. Naruto grit his teeth.
"If there is a traitor I'll deal with it when the time comes. But I won't abandon them, or my beliefs, just because of that. Gondaime can skin me alive if she wants, but I won't do it." His resolve was getting stronger, the color was coming back to his face; the fire to his eyes. "I'm taking my team and I'm going after Itachi and if the hokage wants to stop me she's gonna have to kill me. I know she thinks she's protecting me and the demon, but she's not. Not in my opinion. I gotta do this my way; and my way is to protect this village; even it that means I protect it from me."
"Think carefully, Naruto," Kakashi would not relent; not until he was certain that Naruto was again himself. "Itachi has the sword. Your advantage over him is now gone." But the blonde's eyes narrowed and when that determined glint returned Kakashi almost smiled.
"I've got my friends." Naruto growled. "They're all the advantage I've ever needed." Now Kakashi did smile. Raising to his feet the silver-haired man gazed down at his friend.
"When do we leave, leader?"
"What do you mean, 'it's time'?" Sakura's fist held tight to her nightshirt, holding it closed. It was not even five in the morning yet and the kunoichi had been seriously pissed when she was roused from bed by a loud banging at her door. Naruto had stood on the other side of the entrance, a raised fist interrupted from its constant beating against the wood when Sakura swung the door open. Had it not been for the fact that Naruto had that look in his eyes she would have pummeled him on sight.
But Naruto did have that look, and Sakura had learned to bite her tongue during those occasions.
"Itachi is on the move." The blonde replied. "He's coming for the kyubi." His friend's eyes opened wide; he had her full attention now. "I'm not gonna sit here and wait for him. I'm gonna go find him before he finds me. Kakashi's spreading the word to the others. If you still want in you'd better get ready."
It was time to make good on their promise.
"Give me ten minutes." She said. Naruto turned to leave; to gather the others, she knew.
"My place." He relayed and disappeared down the outer hallway.
Sakura closed the door quietly.
Sasuke's revenge... She had been anticipating it for so long. But now... now that it was really happening, Sakura couldn't bring herself to care.
There are more important reasons to do this than revenge.
She decided it was time to take the fastest shower of her life.
Hinata nearly jumped out of her skin, her Byakugan instinctively peering to the apartment door from her place in bed. Lee was there, knocking on the front door. Another figure came up the hallway. Shikamaru; and he did not look pleased.
"What is going on?" Hinata mumbled and yanked on one of Naruto's T-shirts and her pajama bottoms. "I'm coming!" She shouted and hurried to the door, pushing disheveled hair from her face. She released the locks and Lee, noticing her appearance, cast nervous eyes away immediately.
"Forgive me!" He stuttered. "But Kakashi told me to come here without delay. Had I known-"
"Is Naruto alright?" Hinata's hand clutched at her throat and Shikamaru entered the apartment, pushing passed Lee.
"Yeah, he's fine." He reported. "I just saw him, and he told me to get over here, too." Hinata closed her eyes and sighed with relief. With a little shake of her head she held the door open wider, signaling Lee to enter.
"You will be coming as well, I trust." Lee said, trying his best not too look anywhere but at her eyes. Hinata frowned.
"Coming where?" She crouched down, picking up the lamp she had knocked over during her rush to the door.
"After Itachi, of course." He answered. "I could not imagine that you would remain behind while that man is hunting Naruto." Hinata whirled, the lamp slipping from her fingers; forgotten.
It had only taken fourteen minutes from the first arrival to the last. Hinata had been brought up to speed by Lee and then by Naruto once he had arrived. Naruto had left out the part about the traitor, though, saying only that he had stopped by Kakashi's first. It was not a lie, though it felt like one to him. But Kakashi had suggested that the news of a possible traitor be left unmentioned for the time being. The last thing the team needed was to let suspicion tear them apart.
If there was a traitor, let them believe they were still a secret. Let them feel safe. Kakashi would be watching carefully, even if Naruto did not.
"I'll try to make this quick." Naruto said at last. "Itachi is after me. He wants kyubi. Fine. Let him come. I've been waitin' for him anyway." Naruto brandished a fist and the silver-haired jounin felt it best to get on with things quickly.
"There is just one problem." Kakashi spoke up from his usual stance against a wall.
"Other than the fact that fucking Uchiha Itachi wants Naruto dead?" Ino demanded.
"Yeah, besides that," Naruto said derisively, "he's got Kusanagi."
There was a heartbeat of silence through the group.
"What?" Sakura's voice broke free and nearly pierced their eardrums. "How the hell-"
"I don't know how he found out." Naruto cut in, not wanting her to finish the question. Then the lie would feel more real. "But it looks like he did. And as far as I'm concerned all that means is that I can bleed when I'm me and I can bleed when I'm the kyubi. Period."
"It means a lot more than that, Naruto," Neji pointed out. "If he found out about the sword what else does he know?"
"Could he have found a way of transferring the demon over to himself?" Chouji asked. "I mean, I thought your dad took that knowledge with him when he died."
"I don't intend on letting Itachi live long enough to find that out." Naruto replied. Murmurs were rising, spoken thoughts on preparation and the best way to find their prey.
"You need to know something before any of you commit to joining us," Kakashi said above the voices. "This mission hasn't been approved by the hokage. In fact, she expressly forbade Naruto from going after Itachi."
"You said there was just one problem!" Chouji blurted.
"You are going against Gondaime's orders?" Lee demanded, his round eyes bulging.
"She could name you a missing-nin for this, Naruto!" Tenten cried out. "You could lose everything; your chance at becoming hokage, your freaking life!"
"Do you have a death wish, Uzumaki?" Neji grated, anger barely contained.
"I gotta take this chance!" Naruto argued. "What if he found a way to release the kyubi without coming anywhere near me, or if he gets lucky when he does find me? What if I'm in the village when the seal is broken? Everyone here will die! I gotta be away from here if that happens." Naruto took a deep breath, trying to calm himself a little.
"He took the sword three days ago." He explained. "That means he's still in the Land of Wind. If I leave now I can make sure I'm far enough away from Konoha to protect it from the kyubi. I can't sit here and wonder 'what if' and keep looking over my shoulder. I'm gonna go out and fight to keep this bastard thing where it belongs: inside /me/!"
"I can't ask any of you to join me, I know that." Naruto scratched the back of his head. "Anyone who comes is gonna find themselves in the same boat as me. All I can do is say that I'm going, and anyone who wants to come with me is welcome."
"I'm going with you." Hinata's reply was almost instantaneous. She rose to stand beside her fiancÃ©, an arm wrapped around his waist, white eyes combing over their friends.
"I'm going." Sakura stepped out of the crowd. "But not for the reason that I originally planned. I've realized that Sasuke doesn't need revenge anymore. He's at peace now. But you're going to need help, Naruto." Her green eyes fixed on his. "We made a promise to each other years ago. I don't intend on breaking it now." She took her place beside him, glancing around hopefully.
"Your reasons are noble, Naruto. Gai-sensei would have joined you were he still alive." Lee said, moving to stand beside Sakura. "As his disciple, and as your friend, I shall accompany you." The cherry blossom flashed him a grateful smile.
"Aw, shit," Ino moaned. "I've got to be some kind of masochist to stay friends with a group like this. Fuck it. I'm going." But the sardonic smile that tugged the corner of her mouth told Naruto that she wasn't as reluctant as she let on.
"Shikamaru..." Chouji jerked his chin towards the ever-forming group.
"You know you're going too." Chouji replied. Shimakaru groaned and pushed from the window.
"Fine. I really didn't want to be here anyway when Tsunade finds out Naruto bolted. She'll just go ape shit on anyone who's left." Chouji smiled brightly.
"We're in!" It almost seemed as though the guy was signing up for a friendly gambling game.
"We're all in." Tenten spoke up, and Neji nodded. "You really didn't think we'd let you go through this alone, did you?" Naruto grinned.
"Not for a second."
They agreed to wait until nightfall, and to meet at a designated area that was well outside of the village. Traveling together and in broad daylight was begging to bring Gondaime down on them.
Sakura realized that this could be her last chance to walk the streets of Konoha freely. After this there was a high probability that they would be considered missing-nin. Traitors in their own right. The thought didn't bother as much as it should. Maybe it was because everyone she cared for was coming along. Maybe it was because she knew what they were doing was the right thing.
Maybe I'm just insane.
Either way, this was probably her last day in the place of her birth; the place she had called home all of her life. With that in mind she decided that there was something she had to do before they left.
The graveyard wasn't as deserted as she had thought as she passed through the gates. Someone else was there, standing close to Sasuke's grave.
Standing before Sasuke's grave.
She should have known. No one outside of their diminished group visited Sasuke's grave. They were all the Uchiha had during his last years on earth.
"I knew you would come here eventually." He said as she approached. She granted him a small smile and then templed her hands and bowed before the marker. Lee followed her example. For a long stretch of time both were quiet, lost in silent communication with their friend.
She had come here to pray with Naruto many times before. It felt right to stand before Sasuke's grave with a friend. Maybe Sasuke would know from wherever he was that he would never be alone. Not really.
"Lee?" Sakura spoke softly, her hands still formed in prayer. "What are you saying to Sasuke?" She never had to ask Naruto. She could see it on his face everytime he prayed; her heart aching as she silently shared in his pain.
Lee cast a small smile at her, barely turning his head.
"I believe it is something that I should only share with Sasuke for the time." He said finally.
"Oh." Sakura returned to her prayer. There was another stretch of silence between the two, the birds around them the only sound. "I'm saying goodbye." She revealed at last.
"Did you not already say that?" Lee asked. Sakura shook her head.
"I'm saying goodbye to his memory. I think he would understand. I need to live again. I can't do that if I hold onto his memory so tightly. So I'm saying goodbye to him; to the future we could have had together."
"I see." Lee replied and the two returned to their prayers.
"I believe Sasuke would not mind if I shared my prayer with you."
"Oh?" She turned. "So what did you say?" Lee bowed again and then met her gaze.
"I told him that he had been a very fortunate man, even if he had never comprehended it. He had possessed everything; great skill; abilities I could have only dreamt of; the admiration of his peers and the love of a wonderful girl. I admitted to him that for a long time I had been envious. There were times when I even resented him for his inability to appreciate what he had. But Sasuke had been a good man, despite his blindness to his own fortune, and I consider it an honor to have been his friend. I then pleaded for his blessing, and for his understanding, in what I am about to do."
"And what's that?"
Lee took Sakura's chin between two fingers, gently pulling her lips into a kiss. For a moment all Sakura could do was stand there, her hands slowly dropping to her sides. But Lee did not push her for more. He did not try to pull her into an embrace. He simply held her chin there, lightly enough that if she chose, she could pull away.
But she didn't.
It took a few seconds, but she finally moved closer, her hands pressing into his shoulder blades. Only then did he take her into his arms. Yet the kiss did not intensify. Lee simply held her there, kissing her, marveling at the sensations of it. He felt a puff of air against his cheek when Sakura sighed deeply. A few more seconds of soft lips and breathing in her scent and then Lee released her lips.
"Out of respect for Sasuke and for you, I have restrained myself for sometime." He admitted into her hair. "Yet the future is uncertain for us, and there is no guarantee I will have another opportunity to express my feelings for you after today. I will now follow Naruto's example, and leave no regrets in my wake."
Sakura's forehead rested against the hollow of his throat and he sighed, content. Her fingers trailed lazy patterns against his back and he believed he could spend eternity just as he was now.
"Lee," her voice was thick against his skin, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I never gave you a chance before." His chin mussed her hair when he shook his head.
"You could not go against your heart, Sakura." He said, and her hands pressed into his back, pulling her against him tightly.
"You've loved me for so long and I just cast you aside." She whispered. "I don't deserve you, Lee."
"You do not have the right to say that," Lee said with a gentle force, tilting her had back so that she was looking into his eyes, "all you can say is that you reject me or that you accept me. But you have no say in whom I deem worthy enough to give my heart to."
"And I'm still worthy?" She whispered. He nodded, tracing a finger along the side of her face reverently.
"You have had my heart for so long, Sakura, that I believe it is now more a part of you than it is of me." Green eyes glistened and she smiled.
"I accept you, Lee." She said. "And if we live through this I promise that I will do my best to make up for those lost years." Lee's smile matched hers.
"I could not ask for anything more." He said.
The breeze ruffled the long grass softly, the tall prayer sticks behind Sasuke's marker casting shadows from the bright sunlight. And in the shadow of the marker itself, its blue ties folded neatly beneath shining metal, was a hitai-ate; lovingly placed by a pink-haired woman who had taken the band from her arm.
A symbol that she was finally moving on.
Tsunade had not heard from Naruto since giving him the news last night and that disturbed her. It was not unusual for Naruto to go days without communicating; weeks sometimes, if he was on a mission.
But the way he had stumbled from her office looking pale and lost had alarmed her, and she had fought the desire to go after him. He needed time to think, she had told herself. This was a lot to deal with, and having someone breathing down his neck was not going to help him come to terms any quicker. But as the hours ticked by she wondered if her parting orders for him to remain in daily contact had fallen on deaf ears.
After night had fallen, and still no word from Naruto had come, she finally broke down and sent Izumo to check on her one-day-successor.
"He doesn't need to come in." She had said. "I only want you to look in on him and see how he is doing."
Izumo, having no knowledge of what had transpired between the hokage and the jounin, thought the order a little odd but had complied none-the-less. Tsunade waited impatiently, trying her best to concentrate on the stacks of reports before her. She had banned Shizune from her office; unable to brood properly with that woman trying to help occupy her mind.
Minutes ticked by into an hour. One hour stretched into two. Tsunade's guts tightened in her abdomen.
Izumo returned finally, slightly bewildered.
"Well?" She nearly bit the man's head off in anticipation.
"I can't find him, Lady Hokage. It seems as though he's left the village." He reported. She hissed an obscenity.
"Did you ask Hinata?"
"She is gone as well." Izumo tried not to shrink under the woman's icy glare. Tsunade pounded a fist into her desk, wood splintering and cracking under her knuckles.
"What about his friends," she huffed, "did you check with them?"
"I tried, Lady Hokage, but I couldn't find any of them; Kakashi included. Iruka became alarmed when I questioned him. He had no idea that Naruto was planning to leave. Together he and I searched the village, but it seems each and every one of them are gone from Konoha." Izumo shied away when Tsunade stared silently at her desk.
"Lady Hokage?" The man said tentatively.
"Get out." She growled, not looking up from her ruined desk. "Not one word of this to anyone, Izumo." She added as an afterthought. Footsteps hissed on hardwood floors and Izumo excused himself before she could change her mind. She was terrifying like this in his opinion; far more then when she was volatile.
Naruto, what have you done now? He thought, shivering at whatever fate awaited the favored jounin.
Tsunade sat stone-still at her desk. She should be calling up the ANBU right now. She should be raising an alert.
Ten missing-nin. Ten! And not any ordinary shinobi, but the ones who had brought Orochimaru to his knees! Konoha will be thrown into chaos when this gets out!
He had taken the team. Knowing full well that one of them probably wanted him dead he had gathered them up anyway. He had gone against her orders. He had knowingly risked his future, of that she had no doubt.
But the real reason she was hesitating was not why he had disobeyed her.
They followed him.
Though one among the team was probably a traitor - possibly more than one if Naruto was truly unlucky - the idea that the entire group had turned villain was unlikely to the extreme. Most of his friends were still honorable, she believed that without hesitation.
And they had followed, knowing full well that there was no mission - Naruto would never lie about that, she knew - and knowing that this was something that would likely bring about the end of them. They could be marked forever. Criminals. Yet those precious ones who could be trusted had followed him into his fight anyway.
As a shinobi, Tsunade's heart filled with a pride in her subordinates, who were displaying a courage and honor she couldn't help but admire. They were worthy of the title Konoha's Shinobi.
Yet as hokage, Tsunade also knew she had a duty to fulfill, and to ignore it was to go against the very purpose of her title.
Naruto's charge could not fall into Itachi's hands. She had to make certain of this. It was her duty to her village, to her people, to see to it that this never happened, no matter what.
I should have seen this coming. She cursed to herself. I should have known! She cursed him for forcing her to do what must be done.
"Shizune!" She roared loudly and in only seconds the door to her office was flinging open wildly, the dark-haired woman at the ready for whatever Tsunade needed of her.
"Call up the ANBU," Gondaime ordered and her apprentice's face filled with surprise. Tsunade ignored Shizune's reaction. At least the woman had the presence of mind to bow in an attempt to his her shock.
"Gondaime?" Yet the woman's voice was calm and smooth, as though she were taking the hokage's order for dinner.
"Call them up now, all of them." Tsunade repeated, her heart pounding in her chest. "They have a mission awaiting them."
Shizune left to carry out her orders, leaving Tsunade to mull over her decision.
Naruto, you selfless, selfish idiot! She didn't know how to feel. It was all too much.
Never would she have imagined that one day she'd be sending out the ANBU in pursuit of /him/.
Chapter 2 Complete!
You know with every new chapter I write I have more and more fun doing it. And I really like opening my reviews up and reading the "screams" and "shouts" from my readers. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, knowing that I'm exciting someone like that. So thanks to all of you who blaze into my review board in high-gear and blow up my computer monitor!
But more importantly, thanks to all of you who leave constructive criticism or comments. You are the ones who are helping me to grow as a writer, and I really appreciate that. With your help I hope to be able to make my readers' heads explode! (Figuratively, of course!)
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