Time is running out for the team. Hunted and exhausted, they must move quickly if they hope to succeed. Of course distance doesn't always help when fleeing, and there is always the fact that an e...
Chapter Three: The Warning
He was in that place again.
That place with concrete walls and cavernous hallways. Conduits ran haphazardly overhead; the stale, shallow water at his feet running under those doors. Those doors.
Those HUGE cage doors. Its bars were too thin, so that what it held within should have been able to escape easily, were this the real world.
But this wasn't the real world. The bars were fortified by a single thin piece of paper; a seal.
And in this world, that was all it took.
The eyes opened within, as they always did when he walked up to the doors. But Naruto wasn't afraid. He'd been here many times before. He knew how close was too close. And when the smile gleamed through the blackness with a bite big enough to swallow a house, he still wasn't afraid. The thing's red aura seemed to emanate from that cage, filling the halls with a crimson glow, the unseen light source defining the demon's massive silhouette from behind.
Though this had never happened before, Naruto still wasn't worried. The kyubi's power was still held tightly behind those sealed bars; he could feel it.
"You've come back, little one." The voice from inside the cage rumbled. Naruto tilted his head.
Why DID I come here? He usually came here during a fight, or during a time of intense emotional strain, when he needed to confront the thing inside and demand that it 'pay up'. The red fog would then seep through the bars, filling him with the power he demanded.
But there's no fight going on right now, he frowned, right? And other than being slightly bewildered he felt no overwhelming emotion, either.
"Hey, you," his tone was insolent, heated, as it always was when he addressed the demon, "what the hell's the big idea? You're not supposed to be able to call me here! Not anymore." The kyubi rumbled again, a sound Naruto recognized as laughter.
"What makes you think I called you here?"
Oh, so now he thinks this is funny! Naruto fumed.
"Well I ain't here because I want to be!" He shouted. "So spill it! What's the deal?"
"I didn't call you here, boy." The beast replied. Naruto startled; uneasy. The demon didn't lie to him. Experience told him that the kyubi had no reason to lie. He had always found the truth to be a great deal more entertaining.
What the hell is going on?
A draft at the back of his neck disturbed his hair. No, not a draft. It was warm and concentrated, as though whatever caused it...
Someone was behind him.
"Hey..." the voice was soft in his ear and Naruto spun around.
Black eyes. Black hair.
"...go..." the breath of the word brushed the whiskers on his cheek.
"Sasuke!" Naruto fell backward, towards those bars.
He blinked. Sakura sat beside him, looking down at him curiously, Lee beside her lost in sleep. Hinata was tucked into the crook of Naruto's arm breathing softly. The fire beyond crackled softly, the shadows it threw off danced against the boughs above. Naruto let out a shuddering breath, the reality of the dream replaced by his current situation. He was still in the forest.
"Are you alright?" Sakura watched him. Naruto ran a hand down his face.
"Weird dream." He mumbled. But she didn't stop watching him.
"You said his name." She revealed. "Actually, you kind of shouted it. I'm surprised you didn't wake everyone."
He wasn't surprised, though. Two days of hard traveling had left the team spent. Naruto had set a grueling pace, necessary to avoid the recovery team Tsunade would undoubtedly send after them. They had zigzagged through the forest, backtracking occasionally, if only to throw their pursuers off. After two days even Kakashi had been close to the breaking point and willingly consented when Naruto declared they would be resting for a few hours.
"Sorry." Naruto mumbled to his friend, adjusting the head that rested on his shoulder. She shrugged as if to say 'no problem'.
"I thought you had stopped having those nightmares." Sakura said. She had known about the dreams he had been plagued with soon after Sasuke's death; dreams of blood and yellow eyes and screams torn from the throat of their friend. A clearing torn into the forest; blue eyes, as hollow as their master. And lastly the crushing grief that always came when the last of the blood and sand had been spilled.
He had told Sakura when the dreams had started, and then again when they finally stopped, just over six months ago. Though she had not actually witnessed the final battle she knew that whatever had happened must have been terrible to give her friend such nightmares. That no one who had been there would speak of that day in any greater detail reinforced her belief.
"This dream wasn't like the others." Naruto said. "We were standing in front of the kyubi's prison. And he wasn't hurt or dying. He was just... there."
"But you screamed." She frowned. "It sure sounded like you were scared." Naruto shook his head, blonde hairs tickling Hinata's face and she brushed fingers against her nose sleepily.
"It just seemed so real." He smirked. "Then again, that's what everyone says about freaky dreams." They shared a little smile.
"Did you sleep?" Sakura nodded, pointing her chin at Shikamaru who was currently sprawled on his back, snoring softly.
"I just took the watch from him, maybe twenty minutes ago." She reported. He extracted himself from Hinata's embrace, sliding her head to his leg.
"Go get some more," he told his best friend, "I got it from here." Sakura didn't argue. Naruto's stamina was at a higher level than hers and she would need the rest more. She curled herself against Lee's slumbering figure and was lost to the world minutes later.
I couldn't sleep right now if I tried. The blonde jounin grumbled to himself. This was going to be a long night.
'What the hell did you do?" Her door slammed open with all of the delicacy of a hurricane. Tsunade startled, though only a little. No one had dared to invite themselves into her home for as long as she could remember, let alone with such blatant disrespect. She vaguely wondered what he had done with the attendants that had been standing outside.
Took him long enough to come here.
"I did what had to be done." She replied coolly and pulled herself from her sake cup, raising tired eyes to her former teammate. She'd been thinking on it since that night. In fact it had haunted her to such a degree that the only thing she could think to help was her old friend: booze. And so here she was again, full circle, bleary eyed and cup-in-hand.
"You sent the ANBU after him!" The incensed man pounded his hand on her table, spilling over the bottle of liquor. "You betrayed him, Tsunade!"
"I did what had to be done!" She shouted. "Do you even know the entire story? Did you bother to get all of the facts before storming in here like a one-man crack squad? No, I bet you didn't! That's the difference between you and me, Jiraiya! I know when to stop thinking with my heart and start thinking with my head!"
"You never think with your heart! You'd need to have one to be able to think with it!" He shouted and earned a sharp blow to the face for it. He felt the bone in his cheek crack, but betrayed no hint of the pain; his anger keeping him grounded.
"You have no right." She seethed from her chair. "I care about that boy more than you will ever know. But I have a responsibility as hokage. I don't expect you to understand that."
He deserved that. He could never be hokage, though he was certainly skilled enough and had the experience. But Jiraiya had always lacked the discipline required of the position. It had come as a surprise when Naruto had surpassed him in that aspect, and earned Gondaime's plans to name him as her successor.
But then, Naruto had always been far more determined than he, Jiraiya knew, and far more reliable.
"Have you marked them yet?" He had stopped shouting, but was no less belligerent. She sighed at his question. Normally such an inquiry would have earned him a few more broken bones and a free trip to the ICU, but now the question had merit.
"No," she said.
"Neither?" She understood: assassination or treason; the two marks that signaled the end of a shinobi's existence. It was understood by all that the second mark was never given without being closely followed by the former. Either one meant Naruto's death, and the deaths of all those with him.
"No," she repeated.
"Kami, Jiraiya-" she shouted angrily, intent on lighting into him for his badgering, her fist raised. Strong fingers wrapped around her arm, stopping the blows that were to follow.
"You're not the only one who cares you know!" He announced and her struggles stopped. "I only ask because technically that's your duty, too, or did you conveniently forget that? Because I promise you that the ANBU haven't!" Jiraiya released her and spun on his heel for the doorway.
"Where the hell are you going?" She already knew. He paused by the door frame, though he did not look back at her.
"When and if you decide to mark them," he said, "you may as well add my name to the list too. I'd rather die by his side that at his back." And then the enraged man was gone and Tsunade let her head fall backward, avoiding the burn in her eyes and the desire to beat the man to a bloody pulp.
"Fuck." She pounded her head against the backrest of her chair in impotent anger.
You never even asked...
"Jiraiya!" She called out, hoping he was not too far away. No answer.
I'm gonna fucking kill 'em...
The trees were thinning out. It was gradual, nothing really noticeable by sight. But it took a little more effort to make it to the next branch, the tree trunks spaced apart a little more from the last. They were coming to the edge of their home.
Light feet touched boughs with almost no sound as ten shinobi darted through the forest canopy, the blonde man at the fore of the group. Yet his progress was being carefully watched and when Naruto blinked and shook his head Hinata's concern grew. He hadn't been sleeping lately.
In truth no one had been sleeping well these passed five days, though at least they had gotten some rest. But ever time Naruto brought the team down for a few hours he had been unable to sleep at all, nightmares filling his mind as soon as he drifted off.
Hinata removed her transmitter and fell back in the ranks until she ran beside Kakashi. With a silent motion she gestured for him to take off his transmitter, and he complied.
"I'm worried about Naruto." She said softly, her eyes trained forward, watching for some sign that her lover had heard. "The nightmares are getting worse. He wakes up shaking, crying out Sasuke's name. I have a bad feeling. This isn't normal."
"I agree," Kakashi leapt easily to a higher branch and the Hyuga followed. Kakashi had the distinct feeling that Naruto was under attack, yet there was no sign of an aggressor anywhere near them.
"Could it be him?" Hinata watched as Naruto made a particularly longer jump, his footing secure. "Itachi?"
"I don't know." It was the truth, but Kakashi had a far more troubling worry. What if Tsunade's theory about a traitor was true and this was an act of aggression from within?
"What do we-" Naruto raised a hand, halting the team. Kakashi and Hinata replaced their transmitters, awaiting instructions.
There was a tremor in the ground beneath them; the vibration traveling up the trunks until it was barely noticeable. Yet Naruto had felt it. Kakashi looked up sharply, fully alert, the others not far behind. No one had missed it.
Another tremor, and then another; each one was stronger than the last and coming in quick succession.
"What the hell..." Ino barely breathed. Naruto was already tuning in to the origins of the vibrations. There was a scent in the air; so well-known to him he didn't even have to consider what it might be.
"Jirayia," he whispered, recognizing the faint musk of a summoned toad, his earlier weariness forgotten. They'd never outrun a Gama family toad, he realized, not now. No matter how fast you were, if you felt them coming it was already too late. Gamakichi, he guessed his tutor's mount absently, or maybe Gama?
"Wait, Jiraiya?" Chouji seemed hopeful. "That's good, right? He helped you guys out last time. So maybe he's come to help again?"
"Maybe." Naruto alighted on the forest floor, his team at his back. There was no point in staying in the trees. They'd find no advantage up there.
And Chouji's thoughts certainly seemed to match the sennin's style; to run off against orders and help a friend in need. That was part of the reason Naruto was able to look passed his friend's perversions and admire the man within. Jiraiya had told him once when he was younger, and while Jiraiya had been quite drunk, that the blonde boy reminded the sennin of his younger self. Naruto could understand that now.
The sound of breaking twigs and a quick gait drew close and Gamakichi's massive body appeared through the trees at last. Padded feet dug into the ground, spraying dirt and debris over the waiting team as the toad came to a stop before the fire. Jiraiya sat atop his summoned companion, a large purple welt on his cheek puckered his left eye.
"You guys really flew, huh?" He said nonchalantly.
Hands on his shoulders! Naruto's eyes slipped from the sennin's bruises to the fingers clutching Jiraiya's shirt; manicured and polished red.
"What did you-" Naruto's growl was cut short when Tsunade dismounted from behind her former teammate and was on Naruto in less than a second.
A few teammates cried out in alarm as a pale fist hurtled towards Naruto. The teen spun lightly out of the way, tanned fingers grasping the wrist and a well placed foot blocked the leg that followed. Another blow met with the palm of Naruto's hand, the sound of impact painful in their ears. Each strike was matched and deflected; Naruto never going on the offense but never letting a blow land on him as Tsunade rampaged on.
Is she holding back, Neji wondered in surprise, or has Naruto really come THAT far? Had he not seen Naruto defeat Orochimaru with his own eyes last year he never would have even considered the possibility that the man was a match for the hokage. Perhaps there was something to Gondaime's fascination with his loud friend.
A final failed attempt at knocking Naruto's head from his neck and Gondaime stopped her attacks, her fist clenched tightly in Naruto's grip. Blue eyes locked with brown and mentor and protÃ©gÃ© stood that way for a moment, staring each other down with deadly intent.
"Bastard." She hissed. Naruto smiled slyly.
What the hell is he smiling for?! Shikamaru took a step back.
"Bitch." The blonde man swore and Sakura shoved fists to her mouth, unable to believe what she was hearing. Tsunade had already proven she had no qualms about nearly killing a friend when she had beaten Jiraiya; and that was just because she caught the pervert peeping! Naruto was digging his own grave with his insolence.
Tsunade returned the frigid smile. Naruto released her hand, white finger marks turning red on her light skin.
"So are we good?" He asked, his relaxed posture doing nothing to settle his team's nerves.
"Yeah, we're good." She relented, flexing throbbing fingers. Neji released a slow breath and Ino cursed under hers.
"You called off your pack-dogs?" Naruto checked. But Tsunade shook her head.
"I can't do that, Naruto." She said. "I have a job to do and you forced my hand, brat. They're still coming for you."
"Would someone please tell me what the hell is going on here!" Ino shouted, her confusion escalating to resentment. Yet her pleas were ignored as people started speaking at once.
"So why are you here?" Kakashi asked.
"Have you come to take us back?" Lee watched carefully, trying not to appear too combative in his stance.
"You almost took his head off!" Sakura's inner self wriggled free a bit.
"You can all stop wetting your pants. I'm not acting as hokage right now," Tsunade said, "I'm acting as Tsunade; Naruto's friend. I was hoping to convince you to come home without the need for the ANBU." Naruto opened his mouth and she grinned. "But that won't happen, I can see. So I'm here as Naruto's friend, and I intend on protecting him from anything I deem to be a threat." A silencing look from the team leader told her all she needed to know.
The group didn't know about her suspicions.
Fine. They've been warned anyway.
"Even ANBU?" She chuckled and shook her head in amusement at Naruto's question.
"Don't push it." She replied. "If they catch up you're going in. I won't stop them from doing what they've been ordered to do. But I will watch your back until that happens. You get one chance, brat."
There was a popping sound and Gamakichi vanished; Jiraiya coming up to join his friends.
"If you guys need it, we've got time to rest a bit longer," he said with a smirk, "I left your friends a nicely hidden present along the way that I'm sure they'll find soon enough. Yomi Numa never does get boring." The thought of the great ANBU squad mired up to their necks in Jiraiya's swamp trap brought a real grin out of the blonde kid.
"No, we were just getting ready to leave anyway." He jerked a thumb behind him. "Besides, these guys are too wound up to sleep anymore." Jiraiya looked out over Naruto's team. Tense postures and wide eyes brought a hearty laugh from the man.
"Fine. Whenever you're ready."
Naruto smiled at his former teacher's deference. A single word from the jounin leader and the team returned to the trees; Tsunade and Jiraiya joining in the group. He then turned the team west again. With Jiraiya occupying the ANBU now was as good of a time as any to head straight on and cover as much ground as possible.
The sky flashed red.
Naruto blinked. Wierd. Hinata was beside him; watching him. She looked worried again, but hadn't seemed to notice the sky. Maybe he was just tired. He tried to smile for her. She had worried enough in his opinion.
No, nothing was there.
"What is it?" She sounded concerned. He blinked and opened his mouth, ready to tell her it was fine.
Black eyes, an inch from his face! He gasped.
Gone. Nothing there.
He shook his head, his foot landing on the next branch.
'...Naruto...' A brush of movement against his arm. Nothing there! He recoiled, colliding into the tree trunk.
"Naruto!" She cried his name. There was a muffled noise. Someone from the team was coming up quickly.
The trees he stood upon vanished in a haze of red.
The moon! Kami, the red moon!
Images flashed before his vision almost before he could register them.
The kyubi roared within, furious.
Red eyes, watching him!
Naruto's eyes squeezed shut, but the black ones were there, watching him!
'...no...' a whisper within his mind.
"Sasuke!" He screamed, unable to shut it out. Hinata cried out from close by. Something grabbed his arm and he flung it away.
Hinata cried out again.
Sasuke, standing before him, in the trees!
'...don't...' his voice was from the dead.
"Get away from me!" Naruto shrieked. "You're not real!"
"Naruto!" Kakashi was somewhere, Naruto could hear him!
Black eyes, pleading; so close again. Warm breath on his face.
"Sensei, get him away from me!" His voice rose in panic, fists clenched against his ears helplessly.
'Naruto no!' A pale hand reached out. Sasuke's...
The red moon loomed into view; a dark silouhette in contrast against it.
"Sasuke you're dead!" It was not a threat, but a plea.
A plea for sanity.
Blue eyes rolled into back into his head.
He was floating.
Kakashi lowered the unconscious man to the ground. Hinata dropped beside her fiancÃ©, throwing off whoever had tried to pull her back.
"Come on, Naruto," he said, slapping the man's face. Nothing. Maybe it wasn't exhaustion. Kakashi's fingers flew up. "Kai!" He tried the release. Still nothing.
Blood trickled from Naruto's nose, though Kakashi had only struck his cheek.
Kakashi was shoved bodily out of the way, Tsunade taking his place. Painted fingers flew in a jutsu and she held glowing hands to the unconscious body before her. Her brow wrinkled.
"Nothing's wrong." She frowned. "There's nothing to heal. No injury, no illness, no strain."
"It was like his dreams," Hinata choked, "only he was awake."
"Dreams?" Gondaime seized the girl's shoulder in menacing grip. "What dreams?"
"Dreams of Uchiha Sasuke," the white-eyed girl replied, "and a red light and the kyubi. He'd wake up crying out Sasuke's name. But they were only dreams!"
Tsunade turned a graven expression back to her would-be successor. She pulled open an eyelid. The orb beneath had rolled back, yet a sliver of the iris was visible.
"What the hell?"
The kyubi... Tsunade released her hold on the eyelid and watched as it slid over the organ slowly. Naruto's breathing had become shallow, his skin tinged with blue.
"We've got to get him back."
Not much to say this time. (Weird, I know. I do so love to talk...) I think maybe some illicit drugs would have helped me get to results I was hoping for with this chapter, though. But alas, I have neither the death wish nor the free time jail would require, so I didn't use anything but my brain and my best guess at what a really bad acid trip would be like. ;)
I have a feeling I'm going to deserve a bit of constructive criticism on this chapter. It didn't flow like the others. But then again I wasn't really too excited about my LAST Chapter Three, either (Chapter 3 of the "Twelve" series). Hmmm. Maybe it's just that I don't like midpoints... Anyway, please let me know what you think, okay? Thanks!