Naruto's fate rests in the hands of those he loves. Now the team must find a way to uncover the truth or risk losing their leader - their friend - forever. Yet sometimes reality is far more frigh...
Chapter Four: Dark Dreams; Crimson Nightmares
She had grown to hate those sounds.
She could almost see through the skin around his eyes, for how pale he was. He had been breathing erratically until they had put him on the ventilator. During the trip home he had actually stopped breathing a few times. Tsunade had been forced to perform emergency resuscitation. That had not been easy from the back of an eighty foot toad with a serious attitude problem.
Naruto's pulse was a weak flutter beneath cool skin. Warmed blankets did nothing to help raise his body heat to normal and she had ordered heating pads to keep his temperature stable. His eyes were still closed, though she would pull open a lid once in a while to check.
Red. Always red, though she never could see anything but the bottom sliver of an iris. His eyes had remained rolled back into his head since the moment he had collapsed, which was not a good sign. She wished she could see if his pupils were responsive.
Naruto's chest expanded following the slight popping noise of the ventilator and his breath hissed through the tube softly.
She had no idea what was going on with him. Her medics had been sent with Shizune to pour over texts and case histories in the hopes that there was an answer to this, or even a clue. But Tsunade didn't hold out much hope. Not with the kyubi involved.
"Did you consider Tsukuyomi?" She looked behind her and saw Kakashi enter the room, hands shoved into his pockets.
"How the hell-"
"I don't do interrogations." He replied coolly. "And I'm not your traitor."
MY traitor, huh?
"So he told you." She didn't even bother to ask him how he had managed to leave the room where he had been sent for questioning. Or how he had escaped the ANBU, who had bent sent to pry every detail of their time in the forest from him. He was Hatake Kakashi. There were precious few in the village who could best him.
One of them was lying in the bed before her now.
"That same night," he revealed. "So, did you consider it?."
"Yeah, but Tsukuyomi requires eye contact from a Mangekyo Sharingan, as I'm sure you know perfectly well. And I never once saw or felt Itachi's presence. So... are you going to tell me, or should I start in on you the hard way?"
"There was nothing." Kakashi lowered himself to the foot of Naruto's bed. "No odd behavior from within the squad; no strange presences from without. One night he had a nightmare and then they just kept coming. He stopped sleeping for a couple of days, Hinata told me later."
"Why did you let him go?" Brown eyes fell on him with a raptor's intent. "Why didn't you try to talk some sense into him, or try to stop him?"
"Because I know him," the jounin was seemingly unfazed by her current attitude, "better than you do, if you can believe it. He may be your lineage, but he's my kid. Maybe not by blood or law, but he's as good as mine. Only Iruka could argue my claim, though he never would. The simple fact is that Naruto was going after Itachi and there was no stopping him. I wanted to be there, to watch his back."
"You did a shit job, Kakashi." She growled. A black eye rose to hers, clearly upset.
"You could have done better, Lady Hokage?" He spat the title out as though it were an insult. "Then do it now. Save him from what's after him. Bring him out of this and prove that I'm a failure; that he was better off here with you."
"Don't you tempt me..."
"Go on and beat the shit out of me, if that's what you're threatening." He sighed. Tsunade's ire waned, his apathy infecting her. "At least then I won't have to sit here and feel like I let him down." Naruto took two breaths in the time she sat and watching his sensei.
"That's probably the most cowardly thing I've ever heard from you." She said at last.
"Yeah, well, I'm feeling pretty cowardly right now." He admitted. Her mouth drew into a tight line and she turned back to her patient.
"If Itachi is in his head as it appears he is," she said slowly, "then I have reason to doubt there was a traitor on his team."
"You think Naruto was his own informant? Someone - Itachi - pulled the information of the sword from his memories?"
"It makes more sense than thinking one of them had anything to do with this." She waved a dismissive hand towards the hospital room door. "Especially now."
"Then maybe you should let them go," Kakashi said, "before one of them gets it in their head to try and take on a pair of ANBU operatives."
"Like you?" No answer. She rose from her stool. "Stay here, will you? I'll be back in a few."
"I'm not going anywhere." The masked face turned back to Naruto, a single dark eye that looked beyond exhausted watched as the teen's chest rose and fell mechanically. Ordinarily he'd be pulling out one of his sick little books, she knew. His way of killing time. But now he only sat there, watching the blonde helplessly. There was a defeated slump in his shoulders she had never seen in him before. Not even after Sasuke's death did the Copy-nin seem so lost.
Kakashi was right. Naruto was as good as his son. She'd try to keep that in mind when dealing with the pair from now on.
Tsunade pulled herself from the scene.
Naruto's team awaited.
Neji's face contorted, the Byakugan answering his silent call.
"You're not seriously thinking of trying that again." The man before him scolded, a white mask with red markings covering his face. Neji's battered arms testified that he had not sat quietly during his time in this stark little room, a broken table and chair in the corner also casualties of his defiance.
He hadn't seen anyone from the group since their return. The shinobi in white masks and black robes had pounced upon them almost imediately. ANBU; Tsunade's thugs. In a frenzy of grunts and scuffling feet Neji had watched as the special forces had immobilized and carried off his friends; with the exception of Kakashi; who had, for some reason, gone along quietly without so much as a relebious glance. Neji had not been quite so compliant.
"I've told you all that I know." The Hyuga growled. "Now let me out of here. I demand it."
"You seem to think your clan name gives you some sway here," another man to his right said, mocking. "Your little cousin isn't getting off that easily. What makes you think you should?"
Neji fumed. "If you bastards touch her-" Nostrils flared in barely suppressed rage "-I'll kill you." Neither operative took the threat seriously.
"Tell us what happened to your team leader and it won't have to come to that." The robed man replied. This was getting him nowhere, Neji realized.
"He started having nightmares." He said in an impatient rush. "Then one day he just snapped, like he was having a nightmare even though he was awake. After that he went unconscious."
"You said that already." Neji pounded a fist into the wall behind him, white plaster flaking off onto his fist.
"Well what else can I tell you? You don't listen when I say that's all I know!" An oddly cadenced knock interrupted his rant and the door opened; Tsunade standing in the portal.
"You're done here." She said. The two interrogators nodded and left, Tsunade quirked an eyebrow when the young man remained behind. "Coming?" The white eyed man exited the room in stony silence, Tenten throwing herself against him as soon as he emerged.
"You're okay!" She cried. "I could hear you shouting through the wall! Then there was a commotion. I thought they were torturing you!"
"I'm fine." He ran a hand down the back of her head, watching the hokage with cold calculation as she knocked on another door. Hinata approached and stood beside her cousin, her fists clutched against her chest.
Sakura stalked out of the newly opened door, her cheek scraped and her knuckles bruised.
So the cherry blossom let her inner self out, Tsunade surmised. Sakura's lips pulled back over her teeth in an expression reminiscent of her teammate as she suppressed the words she wanted to flay the older woman with.
"Where is Naruto?" The young kunoichi was finally able to safely say. "What did you do with him?"
"This wasn't because we left without permission," Shikamaru cut in from behind Neji, "was it? You wouldn't have sent us into interrogation if it was. You think one of us did something to him."
"Thought." Gondaime corrected. "Not anymore."
"What?!" The reaction poured from several people at once, indignant and angry.
"You believed we were responsible?" Lee's outrage radiated from him. "You believed his condition was our doing?"
"You have no right," Sakura hissed, "we've been his friends - his family - since before you even knew his name. There is no way we'd ever do anything to hurt him!"
"That's what he said." The blonde woman replied and walked away.
"Wait! He /said/?!" Ino threw herself in Tsunade's path. "You told him you thought one of us was trying to hurt him? When?"
"The night before you left. The night I told him about Itachi."
"So he's not awake..." Chouji's expression fell. He and Ino had obviously shared the same hope.
"No, he's not."
"None of this matters!" Hinata cried out. "Don't you get it? It's Itachi! It has to be! We've got to stop him!" Lee swung a hard gaze over to Tsunade.
"Will you attempt to stop us if we chose to go?"
"Where will you go? Hmm?" She asked. "It's been nearly two weeks. The bastard could be anywhere. But more importantly, he could be close by waiting for his chance to pounce. You go rushing off now and Naruto loses his best defense."
"First we're a threat and now we're his best defense?" Neji growled. "I think you-"
"I need to see him." Sakura said abruptly. "I need to talk to him. I can't think about this right now."
"He wouldn't hear you, Sakura." Tsunade was not completely without compassion, but she wouldn't lie to the pink haired woman, either.
"I don't care!" Tears sparkled in the young jounin's eyes. "The hospital, right? I'm going. If you try to stop me..." Tsunade took a step to the side, waiting for the others to pass, and Sakura took her cue.
The assembly filtered out after her, Neji pausing to turn a heated scowl on Tsunade. She waited for him to say something to her. Something cold. Maybe even something that would hurt her. The Hyuga boy had a talent for striking people's nerves, she knew. But he simply stared at her for a minute before turning to join his friends.
She decided against returning to her successor's room for a while. Right now she had the distinct feeling that she wouldn't be welcomed.
What the hell...
This was so bizarre. His mouth was slack around the white tube. There was no smirk; no grimace. No heated words telling Neji what a pompous ass he was. No graveled voice telling the Hyuga to shut up. No obnoxious laughter.
This was wrong...
His eyes were closed. Where was the glare he normally received? Where was that glow that came when the blonde laughed? Where was the impudence Naruto was so famous for? He was so peaceful. Naruto was never meant to be this way. He was a maelstrom of emotions and activity. But now he lay in hospital bed; motionless and completely dependant on machines to survive.
This wasn't the Naruto Neji knew at all.
Uzumaki Naruto laughed and screamed and shouted. He wasn't afraid to cry. He wasn't afraid to love. He wasn't afraid to be himself in front of others, no matter what those others said about him. He never held back; not anything.
He was strong. He was fearless.
Neji watched as Hinata sat at the bedside stool and held the blonde's hand, rubbing a thumb over tanned skin-turned white.
Naruto's room had not been without at least two of his friends since the team had arrived at the hosiptal earlier that day. Sakura now slept in a chair at the foot of the bed. Kakashi was slumped down against a wall, his head pillowed on arms draped over knees, his exposed eye had finally drifted shut. Tenten was curled up in a corner, Neji's vest covering her shoulders. She had been asleep for hours now.
The others were somewhere close by, he guessed. Probably passed out in the lobby or at the cafeteria getting their three hundredth cup of tea for the day. He doubted very much that any of them had gone home. He certainly had no plans on leaving anytime soon.
She had cried at first. Sakura. She had wept like a girl when they had first entered the room and found Naruto looking two seconds from death. A few tears had escaped the others as well but none as much as the pink haired woman.
Hinata had not spoken since entering her fiance's room. She hadn't cried, not even a tear. She had simply sat beside his bed, taken up his hand and then went completely silent. That worried her cousin greatly.
Neji had to admit, he'd rather see Naruto engulfed by the kyubi's rage than as he lay now.
It was well after midnight, hours after they had arrived, and the rooms had been dimmed. Not that Naruto needed the lights turned down. Tsunade had come by eventually. She hadn't tried to apologize - she obviously felt she had done nothing wrong - though she had tried to convince the others to go home and sleep.
"Yeah, we'll get right on that." Tenten had barked in sarcastic reply. His Tenten; telling off the hokage. He knew there was a reason he loved that woman.
He couldn't imagine what he'd do if it were her in that bed. He couldn't imagine what Hinata must be feeling right now. Kami help him, he didn't want to.
She just sat there, quietly, he observed of his cousin, watching Naruto as though he were about to fade away. She never released his hand. She never left that stool. She just sat there and watched him.
"You need to sleep, Hinata." He said at last. Her long black hair brushed against her back as she shook her head.
"I'm not tired."
"You look tired."
"Well I'm not." Alright then. You're not tired. There was a slight intake of breath from her direction. "Neji?" Her voice was softer now.
"Yeah?" Time passed and he thought she had given up on what she was about to say. But her voice returned, softer still.
"Do you... do you think... I'll make a good wife?"
She didn't want to hear that she'd be a good wife. She wanted to hear that she'd be a good wife to Naruto. She wanted someone to tell her they still had a future together. He wasn't stupid. Then again, neither was she.
"I think you two are going to make each other very happy." He said, deciding to give her what she wanted. She needed some hope to cling to; someone to share in her wish. He truly hoped he hadn't just lied to her. She was quiet for a moment and he thought that was the end of it.
"Thank you, Neji." She whispered finally. There was nothing more to say.
He went back to Tenten's side, thanking whatever divinity had been responsible for bringing her to him.
Ino waited for that fist, doubting very much she'd be fast enough to dodge it. But the blow never came. Tsunade's cold brown eyes watched her. Sakura stood beside her friend, trying to be supportive without interfering.
"I don't believe I heard you correctly." The hokage said slowly, which meant she had heard Ino and was simply giving the jounin a chance to take back her words.
"I said," Ino cursed her own stubbornness silently, "I'm going to do it, whether or not you approve." The elder woman barely nodded.
"Are you really so self-destructive?" Tsunade asked quietly, red tipped fingers curling in on themselves. "I could break you back down to genin for this. I've done it to others for less." Ino tried not to shudder.
"It's been four days, Gondaime." She said slowly, trying not to betray her nerves. How the hell does Naruto stand up to her without cringing? "No one has any idea what is going on. Your people are getting nothing from the records and Itachi hasn't shown his face yet. He may never show up; we don't know. I could get answers for us. I can do this!"
"You could end up in a coma, yourself. That thought never crossed your mind?"
"I am sick of waiting!" Ino balled her fists, holding back the obscenities that would normally be flying from her tongue. Offending the hokage wouldn't get her anywhere, she knew. Not that Gondaime was the type to be offended by words, or much anything else. "No one is doing anything to help him! I don't care if it's reckless. He's done plenty of reckless things to protect the ones he loves. It's time someone returned the favor! The others agree with me."
"You already told the others?" Ino raised her chin defiantly, trying not to cower under the hokage's watchful eyes.
"I did." She said. Sakura nodded.
"We're behind Ino all the way." She said. "I'd do it myself if I knew how. Any of us would."
Tsunade appraised the girls before her for a while. Though Ino's brows quivered and she shifted on her feet nervously she never once looked away. She was trying.
It's this or nothing, I guess.
"You'll be supervised." Gondaime finally said and Ino's eyes lit up. "Closely. This is strictly reconnaissance. You get in, you take a look around and you get out. Don't do anything, do you understand?" Tsunade took a deliberate step towards the girl. "I mean it, Yamanaka, if you try to be a hero while you're in there you could end up doing more harm than good. You could do permanent damage, for all we know. Just tell us what's going on inside his head and we'll move on from there."
"Understood." Ino nodded, pulling on her shinobi face as easily as she would a shirt. Orders were easy. She'd been taking them since she was old enough to perform jutsu. This was a mission; a mission for her friend's life. This was something she could handle. No sweat.
"When can she start?" Sakura asked. Tsunade glanced through the tiny window of Naruto's door, the still form in the bed just as it had been since arriving. Hinata was dozing by his side, her head pillowed on the edge of his bed.
After seeing him this way for so long Tsunade guessed it would only be a matter of time before she snapped and did something stupid. It'd been a while since she'd been stupid, anyway. Time for some catch-up.
"Go tell the others. I guess there's no time like the present."
No pressure, right? She sat cross-legged at the foot of his bed, trying not to take up too much space on the narrow mattress. She could feel their eyes on her. The room was crowded, people pressed up against one another, eager to see if Ino could help. Shikamaru stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, ready to support her weight once she began.
"Any messages to deliver?" Ino tried to be light, but her nerves were getting the best of her. She had no idea what she was going to find. She'd never performed the Shintenshin no Jutsu on a comatose person before. And the fact that the hokage was watching, making certain Ino didn't scramble her successor's brains, didn't help either.
"Tell him we're here," Sakura said, "and that we'll get him out of this." Ino nodded and took a deep breath. Her hands rose before her face and she peered at Naruto through her fingers.
"All aboard," she murmured and activated her jutsu. Her body felt light. Very light. She was floating, moving. The room darkened, turned black, but she wasn't worried. This always happened just before she entered someone's head.
When her body slumped against Shikamaru the assembly knew she had succeeded. Now all they had to do was wait.
"How will we know if she's in trouble?" Tenten's voice whispered softly from the doorway. The overwhelming need to be quiet seemed irrational. Ino didn't need quiet, and Naruto certainly wasn't going to mind if they spoke out loud.
"A couple minutes to get in, a few minutes to look around, and then a couple minutes to get back." Shikamaru knew his teammate well enough to speak with confidence. "Any more than ten minutes and we should start to worry."
Naruto's ventilator announced the coming of every breath. Neji had to fight against the urge to rip the thing from his friend's throat and force the man to breathe on his own again. Taking the tube out would do nothing to wake Naruto, he knew. He turned away finally, afraid that logic would lose to irrational anger.
Tsunade folded her arms and waited, watching the blonde girl closely. "You're being quite accommodating." Jiraiya observed beside her and she grunted.
"From what I can see, his eyes are red," she pointed out. "The kyubi is active, though I don't know why the aura isn't. But if someone is trying to pull the beast out of him I have to know." Silence again and the ten minute mark was nearly upon them. Shikamaru took a deep breath, hoping he was overreacting. Worries about Ino never waking up began to fill his head.
The minutes ticked by broken only by the clock and Naruto's forced breath.
Ino gasped, her body going rigid, her legs kicking out, pummeling the man in the bed before her. "Oh gods! Shit no-" she shrieked and Shikamaru jerked her from the bed, saving Naruto's prone body from the assault. She struggled against his arms, but he held onto her tightly.
"Ino!" He fought to keep his hold on her. "Ino, it's okay! Snap out of it already!" His friend wrenched against him, trembling and Tsunade was before her, polished fingers grasping her chin tightly.
"What did you see?" The hokage demanded. "Yamanaka, report!" Ino reached up and clasped the wrist before her, holding on for dear life.
"Sasuke!" She gasped and it seemed as though everyone in the room had stopped breathing.
"What about Sasuke?" Tsunade's cool authority gave the kunoichi an anchor and she clung to it desperately.
"Sasuke was there - in Naruto's head! Sasuke is there!" Her eyes darted to the unconscious man fearfully. Shikamaru tightened his hold around her.
"That was his dream, Ino," he said gently, "he dreamed about Sasuke. Remember? It was only a dream."
"No, no it wasn't! Naruto saw him, too!"
"You saw Naruto?" Tsunade gave the jounin's head a slight shake, forcing light eyes to meet hers. "You saw him?" Ino tried to nod through the grip.
"He's there! In a room with a cage. The kyubi!" She was rambling, but Tsunade was able to understand well enough; and so were the others, that much was clear. "In front of the cage! Sasuke! He won't let us close! He's guarding the cage. Keeping it closed! Naruto's so scared! He thinks he's dead, too!"
Hinata sobbed her lover's name and Tenten wrapped her arms around the Hyuga heir's shoulders. "I told him he's not!" Ino tried to shake her head desperately, though the hokage's grip prevented much movement. "I had to, Gondaime! I had to tell him! He's so scared! He's not dead, right?"
"No, Ino," she said, "he's not dead. You didn't lie."
"Sasuke... Sasuke's dead, right? We saw him die! We buried him! He's dead! So how is he there?" Ino trembled violently. Tsunade pulled a syringe from her belt. She had been betting on two situations; a coma or this. In all honesty she was grateful for the girl's panic. It could have been much worse.
"I'm going to give you something, Ino. It's going to calm you down. Shikamaru hold tight." The Nara did as he was told, whispering into Ino's ear while Tsunade administer the shot. Ino babbled on incoherently for a moment or two before finally sagging against her friend's chest.
"Sasuke... Sasuke's screaming..." She wept softly. "Screaming for help... for someone... Naruto... gotta stop Itachi..."
"Sasuke is calling for help?" Jiraiya asked. "Is that what you said?"
"Help him..." her voice was softer now, the drug taking effect, "help him, Kami, please... kyubi... red sky... stop the moon..."
"Red sky, and the moon..." The sennin watched the distraught girl's chin fall to her chest as she fell into a drugged sleep, feeling a distinct dread weaken his limbs.
"It seems you were right, Kakashi," Tsunade sighed wearily, "now we just have to find out how the hell he's doing it."
"Doing what?" Sakura's voice was broken, her eyes swollen. Ino's panic had her terrified for her best friend.
"Tsukuyomi." The Copy-nin whispered.
"I thought your little brother was no longer an obstacle." The soft voice held no accusation, only inquiry. Yet Itachi was irked by the statement nonetheless. He pushed himself up from the cot. He'd rested enough.
"The dead usual aren't." He replied simply. His partner regarded him from across the way with cold beady eyes. Though most would wither under that gaze Uchiha Itachi knew that his partner meant no disrespect with the glare. It was simply how the man appeared.
"How can you be so sure that it is him?" Kisami was not as alarmed as most in their position would be. He had witnessed stranger things, though the spirit of a dead boy haunting the mind of another was a new experience for him. "It seems more likely that he's a manifestation by the boy or the demon. Perhaps a defensive maneuver of some kind."
"That is always that possibility," Itachi replied amicably. "The presence is strong, though, and the boy is fighting it. And I strongly doubt the demon would have any objection to switching hosts. One prison is as good as any. Or as bad."
"So you believe it is him?" Kisami said. "Sasuke?"
"I cannot say for certain. But the fact remains that something resembling my brother is there now and has planted itself firmly in our way."
"You know your brother better than I do," the shark-like man said casually, "I'll leave it to your discretion." Itachi smiled.
"I'd appreciate that." He replied.
Tsunade threaded fingers behind her head, her face hanging over the papers littering her desk.
Ino's report had been troubling her. Not so much because of the terror the girl had experienced, but because of why the girl had been so frightened.
Tsunade dismissed the presence of the dead Uchiha in Naruto's mind. A dream, as the Nara boy had told Ino, and nothing more. The hokage focused instead on the larger issue. How had Itachi performed the Tsukuyomi without actually being present? What power had the Akatsuki member obtained to grant him such a reach? The questions had disturbed her, even frightened her a little. Akatsuki was growing as a threat, this was perfectly clear. She had pracically obsessed over this fact for the passed few hours.
Until she let the question of Sasuke's appearance niggle at her mind. If it was a dream, why had Naruto seen it that day in the forest - when he had been wide awake?
It could have been Tsukuyomi; an attack from Itachi.
And Ino had said Sasuke was keeping "us" from the cage. Sasuke's likeness had been aware of her presence. Though it was true Ino had become a part of Naruto's mind, Tsunade fretted over how Naruto's dream had managed to incorporate Ino into it so quickly. Could Itachi have brought her into the attack?
And that lead her to her third and most prominent worry. Sasuke was guarding the kyubi. Were Sasuke's image a work of Itachi, shouldn't it be trying to break the demon out rather than keep it locked within?
The more she thought on it the more nervous she became. It wasn't adding up. Her instincts were screaming at the wrongness of the situation, and Tsunade had learned the danger in ignoring her instincts.
She dove into texts and reports, her eye skimming over writing, looking for something that would trigger a memory, a thought, anything that would tell her why this was troubling her so much.
And at last she finally found something. A newer document she had previously cast aside, in favor of the reports she had mistakenly considered far more important.
A single sheet of paper sat atop the rest now, the focus of her gaze. She read the words over and over, trying not to panic. She tried to convince herself that this could save him from Itachi. But even if that were the case...
The lump still rose to her throat and she couldn't help but feel dread as she re-read those words until they no longer seemed like words at all. This was not what she had expected in the beginning. Yet now, it was begining to make sense. Her hands became icy, the blood rushing from her body.
Why? Why would he...
It explained Naruto's eyes, and his dreams, if not the reason he was comatose.
The kyubi wasn't active after all.
Those two words.
Okay, feeling better again. I was suffering from some serious writers block, in case you couldn't tell from the...er... quality... of my last chapter. I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn't freaking get it right! Man, if you've never written a story before let me tell you, writer's block SUCKS!
Thanks to Entilzah for the help with keeping the continuity of the story! Sometimes a girl just needs to hear when she's not on her 'A' game. (Even if it was said in a very nice way!)
Please let me know what you guys are thinking! That means review, please! OH! And if you can spare the points, I'd appreciate some ratings, too. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge Hehehee! Thanks everyone!